Books · China · Hong Kong

Beijing’s international literary scene takes a hit

Back in Beijing, one of the events I really looked forward to were the annual literary festivals, specifically the Bookworm and Capital M. The Bookworm, located in a compound on a corner of the main intersection in Sanlitun, is regarded as an institution in the local literary scene, with sister branches in Suzhou and Chengdu. So it’s a little sad to read about how they had to suspend their literary festival for 2017 due to a lack of funds. Coupled with Capital M’s cancellation of its literary festival in 2015 and Shanghai M’s downsizing of its 2016 festival, things seem kind of bleak. These festivals brought in a lot of Western, Asian and Chinese writers and it was where I saw writers like Evan Osnos and Xiaolu Guo. As they would run for two weeks and hold events every day, you can imagine the variety and diversity of the programs.

In related developments, City Weekend Beijing recently announced it would stop publishing which is a blow to the city’s English-language expat magazine scene. I actually helped out and contributed a couple of articles to the magazine but that is not the reason I’m concerned (I readily admit That’s Beijing and TimeOut were always more interesting and fun to read). The most likely reason is financial because print publishing is certainly not a very profitable venture, especially when it caters to a small market like expats in China.

Obviously it affects Beijing expats, which some people might just dismiss as not a big deal, but it makes the city less vibrant and international. Losing major literary festivals and expat magazines makes the city less international in terms of the literary scene, not to mention the arts in general. Coupled with the crackdowns on clubs and concerts in Beijing, the increased climate of censorship and repression that has afflicted almost all of Chinese society has certainly hit the arts and cultural scene hard.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, which held its own literary festival a couple of weeks ago, the local chapter of PEN was re-launched on the final day of the festival. Led by local writer Jason Ng, who has been outspoken and written a lot about local politics including the Umbrella Movement, the PEN chapter will advocate for the right of writers and journalists to express themselves and resist censorship, specifically that brought on by the giant neighbor next door. At the panel, Ng and four other writers spoke about why PEN is needed and the increased censorship in China and Hong Kong. One of the panelists, a local poet and academic, spoke about the danger of self-censorship by telling a story of a friend warning her not to publish a Facebook photo which had a caption critical of a local university for refusing to let a student graduate because he carried a yellow umbrella to the grad ceremont. The panelist’s friend thought that someone could see that photo and use it to get her fired from her job (she didn’t take down the photo and she ended up getting her contract renewed).
Unlike its predecessor, it will also aim to become bilingual and trying to bridge the English and Chinese writing community. At a time like this in Hong Kong, this is a welcome development.

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