Asia's Emerging Literary Scene from the eyes of Author and Journalist Nury Vittachi
Interview by Faye Bradley and Sarah Wei
Written by Faye Bradley
HONG KONG. For decades Western cinema – Hollywood – has dominated the international movie scene. Thanks to martial arts master Bruce Lee the 70s gave ‘the West’ its first peek into Asian culture, and recent years have seen an encouraging new wave of Asian cinema and Asian-inspired Western cinema coming into play from blockbusters like Pixar’s Turning Red, Marvel’s Shang Chi, and Crazy Rich Asians. But where is this cultural shift in film representation stemming from?
The answer is right in front of our eyes. As the largest population in the world, Asia will inevitably continue to make waves in different sectors with creativity and entrepreneurialism at the forefront. Some of the best filmmakers are based in Asia and with Parasite (Bong Joonho, Korea) and Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong) impressing the likes of big names like Quentin Tarantino, foreign directors are setting the stage.
Collaborations between Western and Eastern filmmakers will be one of the most prolific cinematic movements and the literary scene is taking note – writers and multi-disciplinary creatives are one of the most sought-after talents in Asia right now. Zooming out from the era of Asian cinema and tapping into this near future, Nury Vittachi a Hong Kong-based journalist, author, and founder of Asia Literary Review and Hong Kong International Literary Festival, speaks with us on Asia’s creative scene, and the books and films leading the wave.
Paradigm Haus: Can you tell us about Asia’s creative scene?
Nury Vittachi: Basically, there’s a huge anomaly. Until recently, most of the creative material in English books was from the West. What’s Asia’s contribution to culture in the terms of books, stories, and screenplays? Almost nothing.
Anomalies are quite good because they normally fix themselves, which will lead to growth in Asia. That’s why publishers have offices in Hong Kong looking for the next great trend. It’s also why all the movies we watch today have Asian characters in it including Jet Li and recently Michelle Yeoh. The market is recognizing this change and has accelerated. In fact, China retained the top spot at the box office with US$7.9 billion in 2021.
Chinese cinema and the rest of the Asian movie market is overtaking globally. So publishers are saying that is going to happen in books as well. We need to find the next Harry Potter and the next JK Rowling, who will likely be Asian!
PH: How has the Asian creative market entered the West so quickly and effectively?
NV: It’s partly numbers. The population is larger and we produce a lot – some good, some not so good. But if 1% of Asian material is fantastic, then it adds up. The market is on our side because most of the consumers in the world are Asian. Eventually getting fed up with the likes of Harry Potter – they want their own material. The other thing is that Asian culture has not been exploited in the way that Western culture has been exploited. For example, you’ve seen a million movies or books about witches and wizards – that’s classic Western culture. But have you seen a million movies and books about ancient Asian folklore? Do you think language is a barrier? Well, people are finding a way around it. All the big publishing companies now have scouts who look at Asian language publications – and these writers are making it on the Booker Prize List. A Hong Kong filmmaker recently made it on the Oscars list, Derek Tsang. Tsang was on the shortlist for foreign language movies, the first Hong Kong filmmaker on it for years.
The other change is that movies these days are made with less dialogue, and more visuals. For example, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne film has an entire dialogue of around 200 lines for the whole movie, and the average line was three words like “move” or “now.” With this style of tiny phrases, it’s easy to understand and not even necessary to translate.
PH: Which comes first – market then movie or movie then market?
NV: Big companies are very aware of trends. I remember about 15 to 20 years ago, I got a phone call from an agent in Hollywood, Miramax I think. She said, “I’m standing in a Hong Kong bookshop and it’s full of Harry Potter, but I’ve been sent here to look for Asian writers. You’re the only one I can find. What’s happened to the Asian writers?” That was 20 years ago and Hollywood was already becoming aware of the need for Asian representation. We need Asian movies.
Disney has been at the forefront sending out agents and feelers for years. They’ve tried to remake Asian books into Disney movies. They’ve tried to send money to China to make Asian-style movies. They’ve tried all sorts of things, with experiments using Asian-Americans, like the first Mulan, and then they tried using actual people born in Asia, then the second Mulan, which had mixed reactions. But they are trying at least.
There is still an opportunity for the next great Asian writer to hit the global stage. We’re counting on you, the next generation. I know one publisher who actively reads things like fan fiction and poetry and they are actually looking for Asian writers.
PH: How do you think the process has changed? Like the scouting process or the ability to be discovered?
NV: For the big Western companies, the process should be easier. But it’s not to be honest because movies are still dominated by the West and so they’re using the same stars. In Asia, however, it’s a bit more interesting because it is surprisingly quite creative. So Asia invented live streaming, for example – Asia invents a lot of stuff, but we don’t realize it. Like, I’ll give you an example between 2003 and 2006. The top stories in this part of the world, the biggest part of the world, were either on phones or on computers. They were texts based on technology and that was before the iPhone was invented and before the Kindle was invented. Right. So the best-selling stories in Asia were text-based stories before the keyboard, which not a lot of people know about. They would immediately assume Kindle invented eBooks. But no. They were never in print. They were always on your phone, always on your computer, always on, well now your iPad.
There was one called “the ghost blows out the candle”, using the typical Chinese story. People are hunting for some treasure and then somebody blows out the candle and you’re in the dark. Who blew out the candle? It’s none of us, so it must’ve been, you know, the ghost. It was a huge hit in China. Everybody had it on their phone and computer – it was like the first big e-book sensation and nobody in the Western world even knew about it. Eventually, the writer sold the story to a physical book publisher who tried to publish it. But the Chinese government had lots of weird rules at the time and one of the rules was that no occult stuff. So, they said, well, can you rewrite the book but without the ghost? So that was a bit problematic. Fortunately, in the last couple of years, the Chinese government has totally relaxed and the ghost blowing out the candle became a TV series.
PH: Which regions in Asia are becoming popular for creative writers?
NV: Well, not so much a region, but a whole region. The biggest potential market is books and stories for young people. There are 750 million young people in Asia. Now name an Asian children’s book writer. There aren’t any, right? So even when we were doing the literary festival here, we had to import children’s book writers from America, England, and Australia, all the Western countries with majority white writers. So there’s a huge opportunity for local writers, because Western books would begin with “Billy went out of his house to play baseball” and we think, okay, nobody is called Billy and nobody plays baseball [in Asia]. Not good.
We’ve been trying to cultivate local talent a lot. So we ran competitions to try and get the standard up. And it was really frustrating for the last seven or eight years, because what we found was great children’s book art but really bad stories – they just weren’t interesting. Like really bad folk tales, but in the past couple of years, the standard of stories has come up. So, I think within the next year or two, we’ll start to see more children’s books from Asia.
Have you heard of the Gruffalo? Are you the Gruffalo generation? Now here’s some interesting gossip from the industry that drives the Asian book industry mad. You know why? Because the story is taken from here. It’s an Asian story that the writer Julia Donaldson read and then rewrote and published it with a Western publisher. And now it’s the biggest selling children’s book of the last 10 years or something. Occasionally in interviews, she will say, by the way, I took it from an Asian quote – but usually, she doesn’t say that.
Another interesting one is Cinderella. There’s something weird about Cinderella compared to all the other Western folktales and traditional fairy tales. Typically, the woman marries the prince because she’s beautiful or clever or both. There’s no such fairy tale where a woman marries a prince because she has small feet. There’s only one place in the world where that makes sense – Asia. So Cinderella was written in China like thousands and thousands of years ago, and it made sense. It made sense to find that it was stolen. It was pirated by the French about 400 years ago or 300 years ago. And then it’s now everybody assumes, it’s a Walt Disney production with Walt Disney copyright. But in fact, it’s a story from this part of the world and only makes sense in this part of the world.
This article is from our Asia's Emerging Creative Scene feature available to read in print. Get your limited edition copy here.