What are we talking about when we talk about Hong Kong literature?

What is Hong Kong literature? Poet and publisher Louise Law addresses this question in her text exploring the various literary tendencies in Hong Kong. This city, informed by linguistic and cultural diversity, is beginning to witness a more streamlined literature, not least due to the Chinese regime’s attempt to undermine Cantonese—the language that has shaped Hong Kong’s literary scene. She depicts some unsettling developments wherein Cantonese risks becoming extinct and Hong Kong’s literary landscape risks fundamental change.

June 13 2019 Text: Louise Law

What are we talking about when we talk about Hong Kong literature? Geographically speaking, it refers to the body of works that arises from a former British colony in the southern part of China, namely Hong Kong. However, when we take a closer look at the writers of this piece of peninsula, things get as complicated as the history of Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong literature comprises of different streams of literary history as told by those who happen to have a say in constructing said history. One stream of literary history sprouts from Chinese writers and intellectuals who came to Hong Kong during the two most turbulent periods in modern Chinese history. The first wave of migrants came in before and during the Second World War. Some of them taught in schools and institutions, which helped spread their literary aesthetics. Some of them worked for presses and publishing houses, which introduced the contemporary literary trends from the Western world and provided platforms for local writers. The second wave came during and after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. While being educators and authors, some of them, such as Liu Yi-chang, also have a significant body of literary works that influenced later generations of Hong Kong authors. Many of these authors and intellectuals from the North wanted to plant their cultural seeds in Hong Kong, but saw Hong Kong as a stepping stone, hoping to go back to China one day. Still, they have had significant impact on the history of Hong Kong literature. In the 70s, a group of local writers, including Leung Ping Kwan (Ye Si), wrote to question the identity of Hong Kong writers and what defines Hong Kong literature. This sparked the discussion of ‘localness’ in Hong Kong literature and is closer to the Hong Kong literature we talk about today. 

On the other hand, Hong Kong has been a city of immigrants and travellers, with people from all over the world coming and going. They have written memoirs, travelogues and sometimes fiction with Hong Kong as the background. These writings of expatriates have formed the major body of Hong Kong literature in English. Apart from that, since English has been the main language of instruction in the education system for many schools under the British rule, the number of locals who choose to write in English has increased over the years. Still, this facet of Hong Kong literature is quite separate from the Chinese one. 

This linguistic and cultural diversity in the writing of Hong Kong has often been undermined, even by local writers, let alone the governments. So what exactly is it about Hong Kong writing that the authorities are wary of? With the geographical proximity and frequent exchanges of people between borders, any upheaval in Hong Kong may stir up similar reactions in China. During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, a hundred people in China who openly expressed their support for Hong Kong dissidents were arrested and investigated. At least four of them were charged and jailed for showing support in social media. Needless to say, anything that strikes a nerve with the authorities, by threatening their utter sovereignty, will be clamped down on. Since Hong Kong is the freest city in China with a well-established network of international presses, it is also the most dangerous breeding ground for revolutionists and dissidents, whom the Chinese government have to guard against.

With ‘one country, two systems’ de jure in practiceand freedom of speech promised, there seems to be a much looser system of censorship in Hong Kong compared with that of China. It is still true that you can publish anything in Hong Kong. Getting a book’s ISBN is still comparatively easy. However, the mechanism of censorship becomes more intricate when it intertwines with the capital and operation of the book industry. Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has been very conscious about expanding its reach into the publishing industry. Currently, the Chinese state-owned three-in-one (distributor, publisher, wholesaler) book giant, Sino United Publishing, has held over 70% market share and is the largest publishing group in Hong Kong. They can flood their own bookshops with their own publications and choose what not to display. Not only does this greatly affect what Hong Kong people read, it also allows books on politically sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square protest, Tibetan identity and culture, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, as well as the Umbrella Movement to be banned from the shelves. Even though many independent bookshops can still display and sell these books, the reach is greatly reduced. Therefore, even without censoring a book before it is published, any books deemed undesirable by the authorities can be easily silenced in the logistic web before they reach their readers. 

In recent years, the problem of self censorship has been spreading to printers. For books with sensitive topics, it is getting more difficult to be printed in Hong Kong, let alone printers in China. Many printers with business ties in China or part of their production line located in China are very hesitant to publish books on controversial topics. Furthermore, printers in China are reluctant to take up projects by independent publishers in Hong Kong since they do not want to take the risk of crossing the baseline of the government, which would result in their whole business being clamped down on. While printing books in China used to be many publishers’ way of keeping printing costs down, this is no longer plausible and thus puts a large operational burden on publishers, which are already struggling in the current market.

What if publishers print books in Hong Kong and distribute them in China? Any books distributed in China have to be censored and registered in their system, thus creating obstacles for many Hong Kong publishers. Moreover, the leading and main delivery service for online shopping, SF Express, has already refused to deliver books from Hong Kong to China. This left a very undesirable labour-intensive option for publishers: to transport small amounts of books in their own personal luggage. 

Apart from creating obstacles in channels of printing, distributing and delivery, a new way of undermining Hong Kong voices is getting more prominent in the public discourse. Since 2003, the Chinese government has already proposed the establishment of an economic zone in Pearl River Delta which includes nine cities in the southern part of China and two special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macau. Now this zone is turning into the Greater Bay Area, which will be a financial and living hub comparable to the San Francisco Bay Area and other successful bay areas in the world. Recently the current cabinet of the Hong Kong government has been more keen in integrating Hong Kong to the Greater Bay Area than before. In the cultural and arts sector, more funding is given to encourage performance groups touring in the Greater Bay Area. Newly built major arts hubs such as the Xiqu Centre target tourists coming from the nine cities. 

However, integration with the Greater Bay Area is more than a financial and city-planning strategy for Hong Kong. In November 2017, the first forum on literature of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area was held by Shenzhen Municipal Committee Propaganda Department and Shenzhen Federation of Literary and Arts. Representatives from tertiary institutions and literary groups from Beijing, Shanghai, Macao and Hong Kong were invited to discuss the new creative possibilities under this new term. In April 2018, a literary workshop was launched by a group of writers to facilitate creative works and exchanges between writers in the Greater Bay Area. In January 2019, a publishing initiative started by Guangdong Higher Education Publishing House was launched to publish literary works from the Greater Bay Area. They aim to publish 10 works each year of writers under 45. While this seems to be good news for the struggling literary publishing industry, there is still uncertainty around who holds the power to change the narrative of Hong Kong literature and to exclude anything that rejects the new framework. More strategy of the same kind is expected to come in the next few years, until Hong Kong Literature has been fully ‘integrated’ as one segment of the literature of the Greater Bay Area.

So what are we talking about when we talk about the literature of the Greater Bay Area? This is in fact a more dangerous questions than it seems. It is suggesting that there is similarity between the literature of the nine cities of southern China as well as that of Macao and Hong Kong, which historically and culturally have more differences than similarities. It is also suggesting that all this literature should combine and develop as an organic whole, with more frequent exchanges. Anyone who discusses Hong Kong literature has to make an effort to differentiate it from the literature of the Greater Bay Area, let alone Chinese literature. Anyone who supports this framework will need to think carefully about what’s next for Hong Kong literature itself. 

So what is Hong Kong literature and what is its future? As a publisher who runs a literary magazine in traditional Chinese, I fear whether the next generation or the generation after that will be able to read and speak the same way as I do. 

From 2014 to 2018, the Hong Kong government has been encouraging primary and secondary schools to teach Chinese language in Mandarin instead of Hong Kong people’s mother tongue, Cantonese. Although this is just a pioneer testing period and some schools have been switching back to Cantonese in recent years, a number of schools have been keeping this practice, which will change the literary landscape of Hong Kong literature, due to the fact that Hong Kong authors’ written language has generally been influenced by Cantonese, which gives Hong Kong literature its uniqueness. Moreover, in 2016 the government put forward a consultation of whether Simplified Chinese should be used in teaching Chinese language. This has created concern among netizens, fearing that traditional Chinese, the core of our written system, will be erased in the future. It is foreseeable that the Hong Kong government will take bolder steps to change the teaching of Chinese language. This is going to affect the writing, readership, and eventually the outlook of Hong Kong literature in the future. 

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Louise Law graduated as a Philosophy major at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She received a master’s degree in English at the same school. In 2010 she joined Fleurs des lettres, one of the most acclaimed Hong Kong literary magazines and is now its director. She also occasionally contributes to local media such as City Magazine, Mingpao Weekly and Hong Kong Economic Times. She had her first poetry collection in Chinese last year, As If