On an October afternoon, trees of Kowloon Park remained clothed in green but brisk breezes sent off long-awaited signs of the approaching autumn. Beneath the shade stood a group. Silence shrouded them like a sound baffle that blocked off traffic noise. Eyes fixed on papers, they were reading a poem about hibiscus trees.
It seemed a typical Sunday activity, except in a not-so-typical setting: they were standing right next to a hibiscus tree.
This event, which fuses reading and creative writing, was held by the Chinese-language literary magazine Fleurs des lettres. Since 2013, Fleurs des lettres has organised a series of workshops with site-specific themes: the abandoned mines in Ma On Shan, sounds in Sham Shui Po, and most recently, trees in Tsim Sha Tsui—a district better known for its shopping arcades and flocks of tourists than its forestry.
While rare, these events are part of the wave to transform Hong Kong’s creative writing scene. The city’s education system is often criticised for spoon-feeding students and suppressing creativity. In 2015, the City University of Hong Kong abruptly shut down its acclaimed Master of Fine Arts program in English creative writing, claiming that enrollment was low. 97 students and alumni signed a petition urging the university to re-open the program, but to no avail.
Similar incidents have left writers no choice but to seek new ways outside the system to cultivate a creative environment. Other than film screenings and author talks, outdoor events are slowly gaining popularity among literary groups.
Last December, The House of Hong Kong Literature hosted a camp at Tap Mun Island for participants to experience nature writing. In 2015, the Youth Literary Awards also invited people to gather in Tsim Sha Tsui promenade to write down their regrets on a board. Some of these events involved writing activities, while others featured spoken-word poetry, music performances, and guided walks.
“We give participants a different perspective—like a pair of glasses—to look at [the city] afresh. Afterwards, they can wear the same pair of glasses to see other things,” said Louise Law, Executive Director of Spicy Fish Cultural Production Ltd., the publisher of Fleurs des lettres.
A poet herself, Law is one of the four full-time staff members of the bi-monthly magazine, currently based in an industrial building in San Po Kong. Sitting in front of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled to the brim, Law said guided walks are better than classrooms in garnering public interest.
Leading the walk was the 26-year-old author Wong Yi. For her, the ability to notice these frequently overlooked details is what makes a writer. “I find it weird, too, that my observations grow like seeds inside my body into stories,” Wong said.
Wong started writing columns for the Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao at the young age of 17. Her first book was a compilation of columns inspired by current affairs, while the second was based on her experiences volunteering at an orphanage in Mainland China.
As the group left Kowloon Park for its next destination, Wong took from her bag a rose plush toy—a souvenir she got from Kew Gardens when she was studying in London for a master’s degree in English—and held it up high. This way, she said with a laugh, participants could spot her from afar.
When it comes to plant walks, Wong is an old hand. Her father is a landscape architect, and growing up she has learnt how to distinguish between types of trees. For Wong, this practical knowledge led to an appreciation of nature-themed literary works. Wong said she wanted to break the stereotype of literature being 離地—slang for social irrelevance and detachment from reality.
“Art is a byproduct of life,” she said. “It draws from your own personal experience, what inspires you, and there you find stories that are worth writing.”
This is evident from her choice of career: instead of working as a full-time writer, Wong is now a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong, focusing on end-of-life and elderly care. Her research has pushed her to consider people’s stories—especially their pain and suffering—from a wider perspective. Some people think disease is the end, while others think it’s a challenge from God; it’s all about stories you tell yourself.
The symphony of noises faded as the group trekked up to Signal Hill Garden. Like other walks organised by Fleurs des Lettres, the event would conclude with a writing session. This time, Wong asked participants to pick a tree, imagine it to be a character and write a short monologue.
One of the early proponents of creative writing education was fiction writer Dung Kai-cheung, who taught the subject for around ten years, and happened to give a class to Wong’s secondary school years ago. Borrowing an analogy from novelist Italo Calvino, Dung said creative writing is similar to the meeting of jam and bread. Creativity is like jam, but without spreading it on a piece of bread—knowledge and skills—it remains shapeless.
“When you talk to some students, they talk about really interesting ideas. But does that mean they can create literary works? Not necessarily,” Dung said. “They lack the skills, training and grasp of the language, or they have inadequate knowledge and understanding towards reality. As a result, [their thoughts] are nothing more than empty fantasies.”
However, Dung no longer gives classes. There was always a mismatch of expectations, he said, especially in a secondary school setting. Sometimes teachers ask high-achieving students to attend, but they would get bored because the classes don’t help with their exams. On the other hand, teachers sometimes arrange for students with weaker academic results to come, hoping that the classes would help improve their language skills. That, said Dung, was not his original intention either.
This is why Dung believes public workshops are good for attracting like-minded people who are interested in writing. “Even though not many people read nowadays—and I think no matter how many books you read—there’re still people who love writing. Young people have a desire to express themselves.”
While many are concerned about the demise of the arts in Hong Kong, hope is a sentiment echoed among young writers. For Wong, the city needs writing now more than ever.
“Other than for writers to express their personal emotions or to note down events that happened, writing has public value. It helps you record what is happening in Hong Kong at this moment in time,” she said. “You may not notice its importance in your lifetime. But for your next generation, and their next generation—they will read and understand what happened before.”
Knowing that hibiscus often grows near coastal areas, one participant wrote about the solitude and sadness of being by the harbour all the time. Behind the circle of writers, the sky had turned pomegranate pink. Trees were reading over their shoulders.
Holmes Chan contributed editing.