Book fair symbol of soft power of Hong Kong

July 25, 2017 12:22
The event has attracted 670 exhibitors from 37 countries, with dozens of presentations and seminars involving different speakers.Photo: HKEJ

In one corner of the giant hall are publishers from Heilongjiang and Sichuan. Next to them are those from Hong Kong and Taiwan and, in the other corner, books from Israel, Nepal, the Philippines and Belgium.

Welcome to the 2017 Hong Kong Book Fair, the biggest annual event of the industry, at the Convention Centre in Wan Chai. In 2016, it attracted 1.2 million visitors, who spent an average of HK$902. The organisers expect a similar attendance this year. It opened on July 19 and closes on July 25.

In its 28th year, the event has attracted 670 exhibitors from 37 countries, with dozens of presentations and seminars involving speakers.

The fair is a symbol of the soft power of Hong Kong, a platform for a rich variety of books that is not available anywhere else in the Chinese world. In the mainland, censorship restricts production of Chinese-language books and what can be imported from outside, including Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The Taipei International Book Exhibition in February this year attracted 621 publishing houses and 580,000 visitors. But it was less accessible to mainland publishers and visitors because of a freeze in relations between Beijing and Taipei since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in May 2016.

“The HK fair is very important to us,” said Wang Min-qiang, from one of the Taiwan publishing companies. “It attracts double the number of the visitors to the fair in Taipei and we earn at least double the amount in sales.

“The freeze in relations has made going to mainland exhibitions more difficult but has not affected our participation here. Look at how many Taiwan publishers are here,” he said. “We bring all our books, except perhaps the most sensitive ones.”

The Wan Li Book Co. of Taiwan has a robot named Pepper who answered questions in Putonghua and Cantonese about its books.

Because of controls on tour groups imposed by Beijing and negative news in the media, the number of mainlanders visiting Taiwan has fallen since Tsai took office. In the first quarter of 2017, it was down 10 per cent to 2.54 million, according to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

But access to Hong Kong for mainlanders is easy. They account for an important proportion of the buyers at the Fair; it offers many things which they cannot buy at home. They can buy books and articles about Liu Xiaobo; news about him has been scrubbed from the mainland media.

An official of the Tian Yuan Bookshop of Hong Kong said that it had sold 100 copies of two books about Liu. A young couple from Shenzhen said they planned to buy three-four books about the Beijing protests of spring 1989; they said they did not know who Wang Dan was. Asked about Liu Xiaobo, they said the latest rumour in the mainland was that he had gone to the US; told that he died more than a week ago, they were shocked.

Pang Ji-ming, of Subculture Publishing Co., said that, in recent years, the political atmosphere in Hong Kong had become downcast, leaving people with no illusions and unwilling to deal with politics. “Fewer people are buying political books,” he said. “We expect fewer sales this year. Of our 15 new books this year, we printed an average of only 1,500 copies, down from 2,000 last year. The Trade Development Council (TDC) chose tourism as the main theme this year, with culture in second place.”

To match this theme, publishers offer a range of travel books, as well as titles about the history, culture and specialties of the cities and countries.

The fair is the most important marketing window of the year for publishing houses and authors in Hong Kong. This is a city of a thousand attractions – restaurants, clubs, entertainment, films in many forms and cheap and easy travel to many parts of the world.

The industry is also fighting the shift to electronic books and the preference of young people to read everything on line -- mobile devices and computers.

So the publishers seize the opportunity of the fair and the over one million visitors to launch new volumes and cut prices for existing titles, by 20 or 30 per cent. They give readers the opportunity to meet the authors and listen to them giving talks and seminars. They also offer prizes, coupons and cut-price offers for hotels, holidays and audio systems.

All these boost sales but may not lead to substantial profits.

The weather did not help. On Sunday, the hoisting of the No. 8 signal forced the fair to close for a brief period, before re-opening at 3:20 p.m. It is extending the hours on Monday and Tuesday to compensate.

The author of this article was one beneficiary of the fair, as he has been for the last four years. Last Thursday, he presented his latest book “Ireland’s Imperial Mandarin,” a biography of Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General of the Qing dynasty’s Imperial Maritime Customs from 1863 to 1911, with editions in English and Chinese.

Thanks to heavy promotion by TDC and the presence of Chip Tsao as moderator, the session attracted more than 100 people.

Like other authors, he is very grateful for this brief moment in the sunshine – before he returns to the darkness of his rabbit hole and working on the book for next year’s fair.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.