Skip to main content

The City that Doesn’t Read 不看書的城市

The Hong Kong Book Fair is the city’s biggest literary event, drawing millions of visitors every July. The operative word in the preceding sentence is “visitors,” for many of them aren’t exactly readers. A good number show up to tsau yit lau (湊熱鬧) or literally, to go where the noise is.

In recent years, the week-long event has taken on a theme park atmosphere. It is where bargain hunters fill up empty suitcases with discounted books, where young entrepreneurs wait all night for autographed copies only to resell them on eBay, and where barely legal – and barely dressed – teenage models promote their latest photo albums. And why not? Hong Kongers love a carnival. How many people visit a Chinese New Year flower market to actually buy flowers?

Hong Kong Book Fair 2015

If books are nourishment for the soul, then the soul of our city must have gone on a diet. In Hong Kong, not enough of us read and we don’t read enough. That makes us an “aliterate” people: able to read but not interested in reading. According to a study by Lingnan University, 42% of the local population does not read anything other than magazines and newspapers. 

The actual percentage is likely higher, considering that some respondents may feel embarrassed to admit they don’t read, while others may have counted flipping through a travel guide or looking up a word in the dictionary as reading. 

If you think I’m being cynical, ask 10 people you know and see how many of them can name the author of Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the four great classics in the Chinese canon. How many of them actually think Franz Kafka is a luxury watch brand?

So what went wrong?

Not conducive to having a library

The intuitive answer is stress. Life in Hong Kong sometimes feels like an never-ending daisy chain of deadlines and to-do lists, and the last thing we want to do after a 14-hour work day is to pick up an epic novel printed in eight point font. A common complaint I hear from my friends is that reading tires their eyes and puts them to sleep.

But the stress argument doesn’t pass muster. 

First of all, books are just like movies – they are a form of escapist entertainment. If Patton or Schindler’s List is too heavy, then go with a comedy or an anime. You don’t have to choose Shakespeare or Kierkegaard for bedtime reading. 

Second, we are hardly the only people under stress. The Japanese and the Koreans, for instance, have equally demanding lives and face an even more oppressive office culture. Subway trains in Tokyo and Seoul are packed with commuters whose noses are buried in paperback novels. 

By contrast, in Hong Kong we rarely find readers on any mode of public transport. It is always easy to pick out Hong Kong vacationers in beach resorts like Bali and Phuket – they are the only people carrying a tabloid magazine instead of a book.

If stress doesn’t explain our bibliophobia, then there must be something about our culture. 

More like a carnival

Reading, like brushing our teeth and eating vegetables, starts from an early age. The habit begins at home. Whereas it is common in the West for families to have a small library at home, very few families in Hong Kong see the need – or have the space – to do so. 

According to the same Lingnan University study, 14% of local homes do not have a single book other than textbooks. To many young children, reading for pleasure is considered a distraction from school work. Worse still, children who read books can be branded as antisocial and, in the age of the iPad and Xbox, rather uncool. 

The situation doesn’t get better with age, as constant internal assessments at school bear down on students and the threat of make-or-break public exams loom large. As a result, local students applying for university are invariably tripped up by one simple question on the application form: What was your favorite book read outside class in the past twelve months and why?

Out in the real world, reading seems even more irrelevant. Hong Kongers pride themselves on being fast thinkers and smart workers. We put in minimum effort and get maximum results. Who needs books when we have Wikipedia and Google? As more and more citizens get their news from online sources, even tabloid magazines and free newspapers – the literary staple of 42% of the population – are facing obsolescence. The cultural desert is getting dryer by the day.

While nearly half of Hong Kongers don’t read, everyone seems to appreciate the benefits of reading. Every weekend, bookstores across the city are packed with parents binge shopping for their kids, from pop-up books to world classics and biographies of scions and celebrities. When it comes to nourishing young minds, money is no object. 

In fact, children’s books now account for nearly 40% of book sales in Hong Kong. The rationale is simple: children need to appear well read to get into good schools. But that’s hardly the way to foster a reading environment at home. If mom and dad themselves do not read, then reading is simply one of those things that children are forced to do, like playing the violin or practicing karate. Very few end up keeping up with their childhood hobbies as they grow up.

Children are supposed to read, adults aren't

Turning to the 58% of the population that claims to be regular readers, the question becomes what they read. A survey by a local think tank indicates that less than half of the respondents are interested in fiction. The majority of readers go for the usual suspects: finance, self-help, travel, health and astrology. 

There are very few local novelists in Hong Kong, and the only fiction genres that sell well are martial arts and Danielle Steel-esque romance. Let’s face it, Hong Kong is a utilitarian society. Everything we do must serve a purpose and the purpose is usually rooted in money. Non-fiction is popular because it is considered more “useful.” Fiction, on the other hand, is often dismissed as a waste of time or a luxury for retirees. Never mind that research after research has shown that reading even short stories can improve our cognitive abilities and help us exercise better judgment.

I grew up in a family of readers. My father worked in the newspaper industry, which helped instil in all of us an appreciation for the written word. There were books all around the house and we could always pick one up and start reading. We did it not because it would make us smarter or more knowledgeable, but because the books were just there. Once we started the first chapter, we wouldn’t be able to put it down. This was especially true with fiction, which took us to different places and different times. My parents never had to force us to read – it just happened naturally.

If there is one thing I learned from my childhood, it is that access holds the key to cultivating a reading habit. Perhaps that’s what the Hong Kong Book Fair hopes to achieve: to increase access to books for millions of aliterate citizens. Anything that brings people closer to the printed word, even only for a week, cannot be a bad thing. 

So bring on the teenage models.

Teenage models promoting their riquè photo books
____________________

This essay also appeared in Jason Y. Ng's book No City for Slow Men.


Popular Posts

Seeing Joshua 探之鋒

“We are here to visit a friend,” I said to the guard at the entrance. 
Tiffany, Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s long-time girlfriend, trailed behind me. It was our first time visiting Joshua at Pik Uk Correctional Institution and neither of us quite knew what to expect.

“Has your friend been convicted?” asked the guard. We nodded in unison. There are different visiting hours and rules for suspects and convicts. Each month, convicts may receive up to two half-hour visits from friends and family, plus two additional visits from immediate family upon request.
The guard pointed to the left and told us to register at the reception office. “I saw your taxi pass by earlier,” he said while eyeing a pair of camera-wielding paparazzi on the prowl. “Next time you can tell the driver to pull up here to spare you the walk.”
At the reception counter, Officer Wong took our identity cards and checked them against the “List.” Each inmate is allowed to grant visitation rights to no more than 10 friends and fam…

About the Author 關於作者

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a globetrotter who spent his entire adult life in Italy, the United States and Canada before returning to his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a lawyer, published author, and contributor to The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press and EJInsight. His social commentary blog As I See It and restaurant/movie review site The Real Deal have attracted a cult following in Asia and beyond. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a music critic for Time Out (HK).

Jason is the bestselling author of Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), No City for Slow Men (2013) and HONG KONG State of Mind (2010). Together, the three books form a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city's post-colonial development. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies. In 2017, Jason co-edited and contributed to Hong Kong 20/20, an anthology that marks the 20th anniversary of the handover. In July 2017, he was appointed Advising Editor for the Los Angeles Revie…

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

The Hundredth Post 第一百篇

This month marks the third birthday of my blog As I See It, a social commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in Hong Kong. The occasion coincides with the 100th article I have written under the banner. Having reached a personal milestone, I decided to take the opportunity to reflect on my still-young writing career and wallow in, dare we say, self-congratulatory indulgence.

It all started in November 2008 on the heels of the last U.S. presidential election. I was getting ready to create a personal website as a platform to consolidate my interests and pursuits. To do that I needed content. That’s how my blog – or my “online op-ed column” as I prefer to call it – came into being. 
Before I knew it, I was banging it out in front of my iMac every night, going on and off the tangent and in and out of my stream of consciousness about the odd things I experienced in the city, the endless parade of pink elephants I saw everyday that no one seemed to bat an eyelid at. Though singi…

Media Attention + Upcoming Events 媒體關注 + 最新動向

Upcoming events and speaking engagements in 2018


Commencement of spring semester at Faculty of Law of University of Hong Kong, LLM program
Course: International Securities Law
Venue: Centennial Campus, Pokfulam
Dates: 26 January - 27 April

Book launch of HK24 (2017 anthology by Hong Kong Writers Circle)
Venue: Bookazine, Prince's Building
Date: 13 February
Time: 6:30 - 8:30pm


Speaker for Enrich HK's "Ask the Experts" series
Topic: TBD
Date: February

Talk at Kellett School
Topic: "Faith"
Venue: Wah Fu, Pokfulam
Date: February
Time: TBD

Moderator at screening of documentary "The Helper"
Venue: BNP Paribas, Two IFC
Date: 28 February
Time: 11:30am - 2:30pm

Speaker at Wimler Foundation legal workshop
Topic: "Understanding Hong Kong Culture"
Venue: Philippine Consulate General, Admiralty
Date: 18 March
Time: TBD

Book launch of 《香港二十: 反思回歸廿載》, Chinese translation of PEN Hong Kong anthology Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place
Venue: TBD
Da…

The Joshua I Know 我認識的之鋒

When I shook his hand for the first time, I thought he was the strangest seventeen-year-old I’d ever met.
It was 2014, and considering how much Hong Kong has changed in the last three year, it felt like a lifetime ago.
Joshua sat across from me at a table in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, with his iPhone in one hand and an iPad in the other. I ordered him a lemon iced tea with extra syrup.
He was eager to begin our conversation, not because he was excited about being interviewed for my article, but because he wanted to get it over with and get on with the rest of his jam-packed day.
During our 45-minute chat, he spoke in rapid-fire Cantonese, blinking every few seconds in the way robots are programmed to blink like humans. He was quick, precise and focused.

He was also curt.
When I asked him if he had a Twitter account, he snapped, “Nobody uses Twitter in Hong Kong. Next question.”
I wasn’t the least offended by his bluntness—I chalked it up to gumption and precocity. For a te…

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice.
The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin-starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants, serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds.

While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents and visitors alike. Whatever your budget and palate…

When Free Speech Isn't Free 當言論不再自由

The school year had barely begun when two incidents—both testing the limits of free speech on campus—unfolded at Chinese University and Education University and sent management scrambling for a response.
On Monday, at least three large banners bearing the words “Hong Kong independence” were spotted in various locations at Chinese University, including one that draped across the famous “Beacon” sculpture outside the school’s main library. Within hours, the banners were removed by the school authorities.
A few days later, a sign “congratulating” Education Undersecretary Choi Yuk-lin (蔡若蓮) on her son’s recent suicide appeared on Education University’s Democracy Wall, a public bulletin board for students to express opinions and exchange views. Likewise, the sign was taken down shortly thereafter.


That could have been the end of the controversies had university management not succumbed to the temptation to say a few choice words of their own. In the end, it was the reaction from the schoo…

Hunger Game 飢餓遊戲

Every Chinese New Year I buy myself a tangerine tree for good luck. Ripe fruits fallen to the ground will mould and turn white and green within 36 hours.
Every Thanksgiving I roast a turkey big enough to feed twelve. Leftovers taste better the next day but will spoil by the week’s end even when kept in the fridge.


The unifying theme of these two unrelated household anecdotes is that unprocessed food does not last. Spoilage is part of nature’s metabolism. So how is it possible that the Valencia oranges on my kitchen counter look exactly the same as they did five weeks ago at the store, or that the expiration date stamped on a can of luncheon meat reads “March 2018”? I can’t help but wonder what really is in our food.
Our appetite for things that taste better, look nicer, last longer and cost less, from breakfast cereal to meat products and fresh produce, is insatiable. Consumer demand has spurred the growing use of pesticides, flavorings, colorings and preservatives in the food indu…

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally prote…