Literary Mayhem in Hong Kong

It was a dark and stormy night. The crime novelist lay dead on the ground, stabbed to death with his own Montblanc. The detective stood over the body. “This looks like a story from one of his own novels,” he told his assistant, shaking his head.

The torrid scene is an allegory of events unfolding at the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, an organization in which reality is starting to look increasingly like fiction.

The founder of the festival, mystery and comedy writer Nury Vittachi, has been stabbed in the back (but only metaphorically) by the board members he brought in to help him run the event six years ago. The festival board has told him he will be sacked at its next meeting, on Monday, February 5th.

But what is the motive? He must have been guilty of something.

Since the news leaked out a few days ago, the literati of Asia have been abuzz with speculation. Vittachi’s self-serving blog (http://www.misterjam.com/) usually is a somewhat tedious read which normally gets no more than a handful of comments for each entry but it has 65 comments on the relevant posting at last count. The list of people adding their opinions includes many luminaries of the Asian literary scene, some of whom have used their real names and emails.

Jane Camens, an Australia-based writer who also helped start the festival, writes on Vittachi’s blog: “The festival's move to elbow you out is bad pr for the event, as you have been its face. As I have told some of the directors, at showtime you always prove your value many times over. Here in Australia, a few people in the literary world who have already heard about the move to sack you are appalled. You are well loved internationally on the festival circuit.”

What did he do? The board members aren’t talking, yet there are numerous stories floating around and several of them are good reads.

The Case of the Stolen Prize. In this version, the author takes his book publishing and distribution arrangements away from companies run by board members. Shortly afterwards, they cut him out of the project closest to his heart, the Man Asia Literary Prize. When he cries foul, they drop him from the main festival board.

The Case of the Missing Brown Authors. The board decides to limit the administration and judging panel of the Man Asia Literary Prize to people from North America and Australia. The author cries racism and upsets the board, who decide to oust him.

The Case of the Leaky Blog. In this tale, the author writes a blog and indiscreetly reveals a private conversation he had with board members. They take revenge by deleting him from the organization.

The Case of the Secret Tape. The author meets a board member in a coffee shop and moans about alleged racism on the board. She reveals that she has secretly taped the conversation with a device in her handbag.

Which is true? All or any of them? Could this be the beginning of a whole series of books devoted to the downfall of Nury as a festival lion? What this confused, tangled string of plotlines desperately needs is a good editor – and it could be argued that that is pretty much the same thing Vittachi’s many crime novels need.

Certainly, the board itself is unapologetic. “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,” Peter Gordon told the Asia Sentinel. “The current composition and future direction of the board have been under discusson for some time. This is an ongoing process in any organization, especially any that has grown as fast as the festival.”

What can be established without doubt is that Vittachi founded the festival in 2000 with two other writers, Camens and Shirley Geok-lin Lim, a Malaysian writer. Nor is it disputed that he played a key role in persuading the board of the Man Group, financer of the famous Man Booker Prize, to introduce a separate award for Asia, the Man Asia Literary Prize. From small beginnings, the festival grew quickly and became an impressive annual event, regularly featuring winners of top awards, such as the Man Booker Prize or the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The other aspect of the controversy that is widely acknowledged is that the festival board, the prize board and a segment of the local English publishing scene are tightly controlled by a very small group of people associated with two firms, Paddyfield.com and Chameleon Press. Without Vittachi, the festival board consists of Peter Gordon, his wife Elaine Leung, and two Chameleon Press authors, biographer Rosemary Sayer, and poet David McKirdy.

The board started to splinter in recent months with a tug-of-love over the Man Asia Literary Prize. Vittachi saw the prize as fundamentally his baby, while Gordon saw it as his. In fact, it was plainly obvious to everyone else in the publishing scene that the baby had needed both of them to take it to full term. Vittachi was the visionary who defined the concept (“a prize for works unpublished in English”) and spent years buttering up potential backers. Gordon was the manager who thought through the issues and outlined the structure.

This literary Lennon-and-McCartney fell out after Vittachi left Chameleon. Gordon announced that he alone would be chairman of the prize and Vittachi would not be allowed to play any role in it. In response, the author complained that commercial matters should be kept apart from festival ones.

Vittachi then made accusations of racism, based on Gordon’s proposed board, dominated by Caucasian males. It was later revised to its present line-up, with Gordon as chairman and judges from America, Canada and Australia. Canadian Adrienne Clarkson is ethnically Chinese and Australian Nicholas Jose has mixed parentage. The fourth judge, Andre Aciman, was born in Egypt and lives in New York. No authors from Asia are among the judges, local novelists lament.

Relationships deteriorated sharply, veering towards farce, with one board member apparently claiming to have secretly taped a coffee shop meeting she had with Vittachi using a recorder hidden in her bag. Vittachi was told on January 9th that the board objected to an entry on his blog and should resign or be sacked.

The web diary entry said: “December 4th: People can be so difficult. I sent one rather fractious group of friends a note wishing them a fine Christmas, and gently suggesting that it would be nice if all hatchets were buried, since it’s Christmas, and the end of an old year, and a new year would be a great time to start afresh. I didn’t get a reply. Anyway, tonight I met one of them who said she was disgusted by my Christmas note because it was ‘obviously disingenuous’. Can you believe that people can get themselves into such a twisted state that they interpret friendly Christmas wishes as an insult? What can you do with people like that?!”

The author’s friends have rushed to point out that this posting, which mentions no names of individuals or organizations, is too flimsy a pretext to be used as justification for a sacking. “You cannot sack a casual worker these days without sending him six warnings in writing,” one novelist said. Janet de Neefe, founder of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, said it was awful that the Hong Kong festival founder was being squeezed out and described him as “an inspiration to us all.”

On the other side, there have been criticisms. “I think you are doing all this because you resent the people on the board who are successful businessmen,” one writer sourly posted on the blog.

It’s clear that Vittachi, known for his occasionally absurd bouts of self-promotion, has finally found himself in a news story which is out of his control. Board members remain adamantly set on sacking him.

The crime writer appears about to discover that on this occasion, the final chapter of his story could be written by someone else.