We spoke with Nury Vittachi, a Hong Kong-based journalist and author, on the future of Asia’s literary scene and why now is the best time to pursue creative ambitions. Vittachi is the founding editor of the Asia Literary Review and a co-founder of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.
This is a snippet from our conversation with Nury Vittachi on ‘Asia’s booming literary scene’. Read the rest of the interview in our upcoming print magazine out this Fall.
Paradigm Haus: Can you tell us about Asia’s creative scene?
Nury Vittachi: The creative scene in Hong Kong and Asia as a whole is a great topic. I mean, basically, there's a huge anomaly. Until recently, 99% of the creative material that books came from was from the West. But if you look at the population, more than 60% of the world is Asian – like 4 billion out of 7 billion is Asian. And 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. So the growth will be in Asia. And that's why all the publishers have offices here looking for the next great trends. It’s also why all the movies we watch today have Asian characters in them. There's always sort of an Asian female co-leader or Jet Lee or Michelle Yao in everything now.
So people are recognising this emerging market and the change has accelerated recently. In fact, a couple of weeks ago they published the box office figures and China's box office figures were off the chart basically because all the movies in the West are shut down. But there was a very interesting incident last year before COVID. There was a young Hong Kong starlet who appeared in a Mandarin-language movie and the international IP community was doing their normal surveys of what was doing best. I think at the time Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) was coming out and everyone assumed that would be like the top movie of the summer. But it came second, and the top movie was this smallish Chinese movie, a Rambo type of film, led by this Hong Kong girl and a mainland Chinese man. The Chinese movie market and the rest of the Asian movie market are so big now that it's overtaking. So now the publishers of the books are saying that is going to happen in books as well. So, we need to find the next Harry Potter, the next JK Rowling, who will likely be Asian so we need to find them!
PH: Do you think the medium has shifted from film to books or what is becoming more popular?
NV: They're all merging. There's a buzzword for it – transmedia. This is where you launch a product as a movie, book, comic book, lunchbox and all sorts of merchandise. The sneakiest thing of all is that they also do educational books. Disney has been doing this for years, but now the rest of us are catching up and Asian companies are catching up. So they'll do a product, which is a book and a movie at the same time. The top games in the world now are produced by Asian companies. The top movie box office is Asia. However, the ones that are lagging are books and music. Asians have not been doing cool music until recently – just a couple of years ago. Of course, Gangnam style overtook YouTube at one point. Similarly, BTS this year has overtaken in music.
Basically, it's a reverse trend. The West has provided entertainment for the East for the last century. Now, the East is providing entertainment for the West. And so, authors as well.
PH: How has the creative scene in Hong Kong changed?
NV: There have been a lot more poetry and reading groups, plus writers and readers clubs. Online magazines are cropping up too, like Asian Cha and Asian Literary Review, to name a few. There are lots of Facebook pages for young writers and meetup pages. There's a lot of creative stuff going on and also there’s been support from the Hong Kong government. They do put a lot of money into supporting the creativity scene here in Hong Kong. At one stage we did a survey and found that the Hong Kong government put more money into the arts than any comparable government in the world.
PH: How can aspiring creatives start their career in Hong Kong?
NV: Hong Kong is very open to pursuing creative ambitions. For example, if you wrote a book tomorrow, you could write to the Hong Kong government. They have a standard form to fill in and it gets processed by something called the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. And then they send all the proposals to professional writers. They basically say, does this sound good to you? Should we give them money? And then the professional writer either writes back saying it sounds great, or not. So there is some money available for writers of books or plays or movies and a lot of public funding available in Hong Kong.
PH: There is a lot of focus recently on the fine arts (for example the opening of M+ in West Kowloon Cultural District). How is the government helping to fund these art projects in Hong Kong?
NV: There’s certainly a lot of money and interest in the arts from the government. And I mean, one thing that never gets said and it should be said is that the film industry, for example, does lots of movies that are very critical of the Hong Kong government. You know, "life in Hong Kong will be destroyed by the Chinese" – and you know, who pays for those movies? The Hong Kong government pays the finances for these movies and the arts without ever doing any censorship. It [the Hong Kong Government] doesn't really get credit for that, but it does do that. There was a young Hong Kong designer who went to London and did a fashion show where all the models were sort of dressed in rags and had one shoe on, talking about their hatred for the government. Who paid for his tickets and who financed them out there? The Hong Kong Government. In that way, they are very supportive of the creative scene in Hong Kong, no matter the art.
PH: Do you think a lot of the funding for these artists are mostly mid-career or something like that? Or like early amateur artists?
NV: They [the Hong Kong Government] tend to finance young people alone. A lot of the money is actually cordoned off for fostering young artists. Pitching contests for screenplay writers can just go out there and there's no age limit, it can be younger, older. And you can just go in and say, I built this great movie idea. This is it. And they say, okay, we'll take this one, this one, this one. There was one guy, really nice guy, Lawrence Gray who won the competition one year. He went to the pitching contest and he says, I've got an idea about a movie called Fat Englishman. And I don't know how he managed to sell this idea and they loved it. Never got around to making the movie, but it’s just an example.
PH: How did you get into children’s books?
NV: Well I like history and culture and I thought I could do some good here because, you know, there's a bit of a China-America war going on. That's been going on for years. And if anybody says anything positive about China, it's sort of like you’re evil, you’re pro-China – it’s like, that's not really fair. That's a simplification. So, we started this series of books about kids who travel back in time. And we dig up ancient Asian, true stories and we did it for Scholastic, which is a really big, good publisher. And it worked a treat because the stories were good. The publisher was good, the distribution was good and people learned and thought, wow, some really cool stuff happened in China in the past.
And then we did a competition for Hong Kong – a young writers award. We gave them a topic and they had to research it and write about it. And it was nearly always Asian culture or Chinese culture. That was really successful – we received hundreds, thousands of entries. In that way we kind of presented the history of Asia and China in a way that was not political and doesn't annoy people. So we’re trying to get healing.
PH: How is the literary scene in Asia? Are people still reading books?
NV: It's really mind-blowing how people love books in this area. So I was invited to do a book signing for children's books at a library – but it made me wonder why, as normally I sign in book shops and things. So I said, okay, whatever the tradition is. So I go to the library, a seven or ten story building – it was huge. And there’s a queue outside it. I go in and there's a counter. And it says, you are the 16453rd person to enter today. There are literally thousands of people entering this place. And I go in and there's like multiple stories of books and people in there. And I go exploring. And, not only do they have books, but one level they have writers working. And there are cubicles with people working, you know, this is great. And I go in to do my signing and they have translators who speak Cantonese and Mandarin to translate for their audiences. Okay. Here's a culture that loves books. I'm home.
In Beijing, they have a seven story bookshop, which is always full. Same with Taipei. They have 24 hour book shops because people are still buying books. So China, Asia, um, is the place which still loves books. So, that's really encouraging.
PH: How is journalism evolving? For the better or for the worst?
NV: There is certainly a lot of rubbish spoken. I mean, for example: how many times have you seen that Winnie the Pooh is banned in China? I mean, Wikipedia actually says that Winnie the Pooh is banned in China. But if you go there, China involves Winnie the Pooh everywhere. He's everywhere. He's in every shop. His logo is officially pirated on every product we need in Disneyland in China. And you think, you know, there's a disconnect here. The Western world really doesn't understand what's happening and it not only doesn't understand, but it gets it factually backwards.
PH: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
NV: You know, the thing about writers, or any creative industry is that you've got to be very do-good and you've got to be cunning. You've gotta be pushy. You’ve got to claw your way in. So, use every method. One of the great anomalies is that often the best writers are quite shy. They're not sales bots unless they can be, you know, have that introverted thing to write a great book, but also be the salesman to actually claw your way into the publishing office and make them publish it. And you need both of those, one of those on its own won't do. So yeah, do the math, do the marketing. I do a lot of writers classes and I often tell them that the best way in is to separate the two processes. So don't think about publishing, just spend the next year, writing the best book possible. And then once that's finished, just put it aside and then a completely separate job, focus on selling that to a good publisher. And both those jobs need a hundred percent of your attention. And once you've done both of them, then you know, you're on the road.
PH: I know the business model in Western countries is to have agents for movie stars and stuff like that. How does it work in Asia?
NV: Agents are quite good when you're at a higher level, but when you're just getting into the markets, I recommend not using them really because an agent gets 20%, 30% of the cut, right? So an agent says you wrote a masterpiece this week or next week, right. 80% of it was to sell it to Penguin. So that 20% is a big chunk. And that's what's important to them. What's important to you is to get published. So if you send it directly just to normal publishers, they'll think, okay, I got a manuscript. She doesn't have an agent, so I can low blow her. I could just send her a few thousand bucks, you know, and a promise later, if it's a big it's, she can get compensated. And for a young writer, that's actually a good deal.
Get in, you get published, you get your book distributed, you're legitimate. And then you do another book and another book. And then, you know, once you're reasonably working or your medium famous, then the publisher calls back and says, okay, when's book three coming out. And then you say, speak to my agents. And then you put him through to the agent. The agent says yes, about her next book. Now we're looking for a rather large sum for the next book. So then it works when you're at a professional level.
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