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The Diary of a Nottingham Man in Hong Kong

14 November 16 words: Ben Zabulis

Nottingham’s best travelled writer, Ben Zabulis, discovers a culture so obsessed with reading they queue up overnight for the Hong Kong Book Festival…

The only drawback of being a book lover is that, over the years, you accumulate a library’s worth of reading. This is great if you own property where the stacking of volumes against an outside wall works wonders for the U-value of crumbling masonry, but not so good if the urge to pack up and go should ever take hold. Even worse if moving abroad. Cue careful sorting, saving special editions while lugging the rest, weighed down and biceps bulging, off to Oxfam Market St.

A good call too, as it turned out, having become avid users of Hong Kong Public Libraries where those previously jettisoned works and a whole lot more lie in wait. The range of books here, even English ones, is quite extensive. And what’s more, libraries are all over the place; call me old-fashioned, fussy even, but I love them well stocked, well funded and, ahem, open for business. No volunteers, no crèche, no gym – a simple and quiet retreat from the city’s busy streets.

The main central library here is a case in point, a twelve-story tower dedicated to knowledge and the accumulation thereof. Not a big fan of the architecture – an unnecessary marriage of styles – but I love the airy central atrium and the Delifrance café; not fussed over the glass-walled elevators but, with a floor area five times that of the City Ground, well-staffed and well-used, what’s not to like? A good job too. Hongkongers have an insatiable appetite for books and information, anything less and I’m convinced they’d bay, rather unpleasantly, for a wok nestling the stir-fried head of our glorious leader – they do anyway, of course, but that’s another story.

In fact, this love of the printed word can lead to some disturbing habits precipitated, one wonders, by a full moon. This summer the 27th Hong Kong Book Fair, an event intended to promote reading culture, drew the eminent likes of Simon Winchester, Hannah Rothschild and Wilbur Smith. Not to mention a large gathering of local luminaries. Believe it or not, for the opening, folk queued overnight and, come daylight, the unbolting of doors signalled a human tsunami worthy of a Harrods New Year sale; even Usain would have lost out. Learned-but-looney is how we like to think of ourselves.

Amazingly, this week-long biblio-frenzy attracted 1.02 million visitors with an average spend of £90; an in-situ survey revealed that over the previous month, 99% of respondents had read a printed book with an average of 24 hours reading time, a good chunk probably spent in the queue. Nottingham may well be a City of Literature, but you have to admit these figures are impressive.

Talking of books and queues, we had an interesting month politically; uphill we trekked to our assigned polling station, a primary school, to cast our votes in the Legislative Council (Legco) General Election. Legco, a seventy-seat assembly, was set up as an advisory body to the governor in the time of Queen Vic. Post 97 and our glorious leader is now referred to as Chief Executive (CE) and a whole lot more besides, none of them particularly flattering. The CE is appointed by a select committee of 1200 under the auspices of Beijing, though oddly for a communist hierarchy, being very rich and very inept (sound familiar?) figure highly on the job description; you can almost hear the politburo’s belly laugh from here.

It’s surprising in a place like this quite how much politics there is. After 97, most of it existed between the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps, but now the emergence of Robin Hoodish, pro-independence localists challenge the status quo. Not that all our pro-Beijing lot are commie to the core – even if two prominent females possess an uncanny Rosa Klebb-type devotion, red stars in place of nipples, I shouldn’t wonder.

Anyway, to simplify, we plebs vote for the seventy Legco members – comprising geographical and functional constituencies – who basically pass or block new laws and monitor government spending. The information pack received a few weeks earlier was certainly comprehensive; our geographical set comprised not only a plain voting card, but a glossy 46-page colour booklet detailing 22 groups and 66 sweet and sour candidates, photographs of whom I imagine now grace the territory’s well-pricked dart boards. We, of course, became traitors or US running dogs by voting pro-dem which we like, better than the shameless, selling-out Hongkongers tag of our red-starred tits or the Hong Kong pigs too lazy to vote for this rubbish government, an apt pun on Legco.

A keen rudeness not apparent during Ashfield District Council elections, nonetheless our day passed peacefully and a respectable turnout of 58% resulted in lengthy queues not clearing until 2am. Obviously no problem for the book fair loonies but howzat for spirit and sheer bloody-mindedness? Well, a great job jobbed and a privilege to take part; pleasingly, enough pro-dems won to veto future Beijing bollocks, not that them up norf call it that.

Back on the book theme, and it’s now the Hong Kong International Literary Festival which celebrates creative writing in English and emphasises writing with an Asian connection. I’d love to tell you more about it but hang on, I must go. It’s already 3am, my batteries are low, and who the bleddy-hell are these loonies in the queue? It’s a nightmare!

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