Hong Kong’s Literary Follies

The old aphorism that fact turns out to be stranger than fiction is pretty shopworn, but the recent goings on within the small world of the Hong Kong literati certainly seem to bear out the truth of the cliché.

Earlier this year, local author Nury Vittachi was spectacularly ousted from the organizing team of the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which he helped found and which has struggled for years to carve out a name for itself in a town more famous for real estate deals and greed than high art.

After having been consigned to Stygian oblivion, Vittachi now appears to have ousted his arch-nemesis, bookseller Peter Gordon. Gordon, another of Hong Kong’s flickering literary lights, has resigned from the governing board and catapulted Vittachi back onto it. The concern is that the squabbling between the competing literary groups may well threaten backing by the prestigious Man Group, which co-sponsor the existing enterprise and funds the controversial new Man Asia Literary Prize, which is to give its first award in November.

Festival staff members have decamped from the offices of Gordon’s Paddyfield.com, an online bookseller, in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. Meanwhile, one of the festival’s biggest sponsors has joined the board.

Boardroom brawl

The boardroom battle at Asia’s biggest literary festival has been eagerly watched by Hong Kong’s relatively meager stable of English-language writers, publishers and literary festival organizers which is not surprising, since it was probably packed with more drama than most of the novels to come out of Hong Kong in recent history.

The melodrama so far: Vittachi last year persuaded the Man Group, the financial company that backs the famed Man Booker Prize, to stump up the cash for a sister award for emerging Asian authors the Man Asia Literary Prize. Gordon offered to do the paperwork. But, Vittachi says, after he switched the publishing and distribution of his own books away from Gordon’s imprint, Chameleon Press, he found himself written out of the prize administration and off the board. Vittachi complained bitterly at the time on his web site about the action. Gordon, in a previous interview with Asia Sentinel, said of the action: “The comments made about the board of the Hong Kong Literary Festival on Nury Vitachi’s website are totally untrue and the board categorically denies any allegations. The current composition and future direction of the board have been under discussion for some time. This is an ongoing process in any organization, especially any that has grown as fast as the festival.”

In any case Gordon, who controlled the paperwork, formed a new organization to manage the prize, with himself as chairman. The other two Hong Kong members of the prize “Administrative Committee" are Christopher Hutton of Hong Kong University’s English department, and David Parker, a professor of English at Chinese University of Hong Kong. When Vittachi alleged nasty boardroom politics and cultural insensitivity – there are no Asians on the prize board Gordon and the literary festival board, which Vittachi complained was stacked with Paddyfield loyalists, barred him from involvement in any projects.

But now Gordon has resigned from the literary festival board, ostensibly to spend more time on the Man Asia Literary Prize. However, board members said as early as last December that they had decided to ask him to resign. Furthermore, the decision to move literary festival staff out of the Paddyfield offices can hardly be interpreted as anything other than an attempt to distance the festival from Gordon.

There is no announcement of any of this on either the Man Asia Literary Prize website or that of the literary festival. The prize site did post on Friday the long list of contenders for the first prize.

The sponsors seem clearly dismayed by the boardroom shenanigans. Ilyas Khan, a banker who finances the Asia Literary Review (a journal edited by Vittachi) and the Creative Work Literary Agency, has joined the board of the literary festival. Khan, who is the Executive Director of the Crosby Group, an investment bank, is believed to be the festival’s second-largest cash sponsor.

One of the most unexpected twists is Vittachi’s unsacking” Literary festival spokeswoman Rosemary Sayer told the media earlier this year that Vittachi had been removed from the board, but that “legal reasons” prevented her from adding any details. But no writs were ever issued, no sub judice matters were disclosed and the highly unorthodox sacking was never formally ratified.

Now Vittachi has started receiving board communications as a full board member, although there are no general meetings planned for the summer. The 2007 festival was in March. He declined to be interviewed, and so far his gossipy web site is silent on the issue. The literary gossip on his Mister Jam website is mainly taken up with dull discussions of the new Harry Potter book and similar topics, and he himself studiously avoids any mention of anything remotely controversial.

Regional rumblings

In the meantime, fears expressed earlier about cultural insensitivity concerning the Man Asia Literary Prize appear prescient.

“Since the prize was announced, it’s been wracked with controversies about everything from the mandate and scope of the project to the committee of judges,” said Tehelka, the Indian news weekly, in a recent report. The publication identified Vittachi as “the initiator” of the prize and said that it was an issue that of the judges “none live in Asia”.

Silverfish Writers, a literary group based around a bookshop, a festival and an anthology series in Malaysia, echoed the Tehelka comments and condemned the prize for excluding parts of Asia (Mongolia and the Central Asian republics are among countries barred from entering). Gordon’s excuses were “fascinating doublespeak”, the group said.

Critics are dismayed by Gordon’s expatriate team of judges, , which includes Andre Aciman, a US-based novelist whose views on Islam make him, in some people’s eyes, an odd choice to judge an Asian prize. There has also been concern that the winning text is due to be published, not by an international publishing house, but by Gordon’s small Chameleon Press.

Prize surprise?

Will this two-part mystery story turn into a trilogy, and, if so, what will be in the final chapter? One of the most intriguing rumors is that Vittachi has been offered funds to set up a prize more akin to the original idea he sold to Man Group.

“If he sets up a prize with an Asian chairperson, an Asian spokeswoman and Asian judges, the press are going to be unable to resist comparing it with the ‘hijacked’ prize, which has an expat chairman, an expat spokeswoman and expat judges,” said a Hong Kong-based author who did not wish to be identified.

Meanwhile, uncharacteristically, the usually vociferous Vittachi is triumphantly not saying anything.

The plot thickens.

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