5 days ago

How I Got Involved in the Hong Kong International Literary Festival

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When I flew to Hong Kong at the end of October, I knew it would be a vacation with three main goals: to catch up with family, to conduct some research for a book I’m working on, and to drop into the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

I arrived with an armload of titles whose safe passage was entrusted to me by hopeful potential authors for next year’s festival, and I was not about to disappoint them. Shortly after my arrival, I collected my temporary membership card for the prestigious Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Lower Albert Road. This is a place that’s been frequented by the most prominent names in journalistic history, and it became my watering hole for nearly two weeks. Next door is The Fringe Club, a Hong Kong arts institution where many of the HKILF events happen. It’s a cool, casual venue with a bohemian vibe.

This year’s roll-call of excellent guests included Markus Zuzak (best-selling author of The Book Thief and Bridge of Clay), interdisciplinary artist Matt Ottley, John Lanchester (Man Booker Prize longlisted The Wall), Helen Zia (Last Boat Out of Shanghai), graphic novelist and artist Renée Nault, Miriam Lancewood (Woman in the Wilderness), and Hong Kong military history expert Philip Cracknell (Battle For Hong Kong). In addition to public interviews and mixers, there were many interactive events and creative workshops. In spite of the recent social unrest that has grabbed headlines all over the world, the HKILF kept on carrying on with a healthy turnout.

The main draw for me was the Irish Stories event, which has hosted the best of Irish talent with the support of the Irish Consulate. This year’s line-up initially boasted Sinéad Gleeson and John Boyne as its attendees, but due to unforeseen circumstances, both writers had to bow out.

On my second full day in the city, organizer Fiona Chung and I met for coffee in Central. As we discussed the current who’s-who of Irish fiction, including Liz Nugent and Lisa Harding, I realised just how much more at home I felt in the place I lived for the first third of my life. It was a joy to share my knowledge of the Irish book scene and I wanted to do more. Without wanting to assume they’d have me involved in their wonderful festival, I gently advertised my services for future use. Chung went one better: she offered me the opportunity to step in and actually take part – this year – immediately, in fact. The Irish Stories event had taken a battering, but they wanted to pull together a panel, regardless. I always did like a challenge.

I came to Hong Kong as a former resident, a sister and aunt, and a travelling journalist. I didn’t imagine I’d be in the festival as a featured guest. I suppose stranger things have happened. A further twist in this little tale of mine is that they also recruited an old friend from University College Dublin. Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlainn is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies and American Studies, and a founding member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her recent books include Clive Barker: Dark Imaginer (2017) and Postmodern Vampires – Film, Fiction and Popular Culture (2019). We hadn’t seen each other in at least a decade but have stayed in touch on social media. We already knew we’d be in Hong Kong at the same time and had planned to meet for dinner. Now we would share a stage. Also in the billing was the charismatic Mark O’Neill, author of eight books and a veteran journalist with the South China Morning Post. English-born O’Neill has lived in Hong Kong since 1978 and has written extensively on Chinese history. We three were interviewed by the inimitable Joanna Lee, journalist and writer whose previous credits include the Financial Times.

I am one of four generations of Grenhams who have lived in Hong Kong, starting with my paternal grandparents, Olive and Jack Grenham. O’Neill is currently writing a book about the Irish in Hong Kong since 1840, commissioned by the Irish Consul General, David Costello, a man who has breathed new life into the Irish community in his 15 months in the position. They have asked me to contribute a story about Grenley’s, the crystal and china shop that my grandmother established in 1946.

On the night of the panel, we were treated to a jovial dinner with the speakers, committee, David Costello and his family in the FCC, before moving into the JC Studio Theatre at The Fringe Club next door. Joanna Lee’s infectious laugh and great warmth made the task we were presented with seem easy. Costello even managed to secure two great Irish sponsors which were of course booze related: O’Hara’s ale and Jameson. A couple of us lightly sampled the goods. Sure, it would be rude not to. 

The house was packed and there was much merriment. My fellow panellists and I held court with stories about Kiefer Sutherland, movie vampires and old Hong Kong. I shared my experience of the Irish book scene and what exactly makes authors tick. I even divulged a little bit about my own book, but I won’t say too much more about that for fear of jinxing the process. We even talked about the EU and Brexit and the various frustrations we hold from an Irish perspective.

I admit I was nervous as I took to the stage with the heat of the lights and rough content agenda, which was understandable given the rampant re-shuffle, but something about the experience felt like a rite of passage. I had a dear friend by my side as we recounted our student days spent in the smoking pit of UCD, into which Sorcha regularly whirled with anecdotes about movie stars and films – usually of the undead variety. She is now an expert in vampire fiction in a department she helped create. I am now in the thick of the Irish writing community, championing people I believe in. We are both precisely where we are supposed to be. Combine our chemistry with Mark O’Neill’s terrific oratory executed with the gravitas of a practised magician. Looking around the room as he spoke, it was plain to see that his audience was truly captive.

The Irish Stories show is one I hope to return to again and again, as relating our experiences, folklore and legends is in our blood. The Hong Kong crowd is quick-witted and kind, with a genuine affection for the Irish, not to mention a huge regard for our shared histories with at least two Irish former governors. Hong Kong has long been the destination of the best of talent from our shores and our relationship with the special administrative region only continues to grow. I already look forward to coming back next year.

Photographs by Eoin Rafferty

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