Bookworm Literary Festival 2016 Review


Anyone who has spent a longer time in Beijing will probably have heard of the Bookworm Literary Festival. It has been running now for over a decade, providing insightful talks by authors and free thinkers in the English language. Thumbs up to the administration for allowing that such a talk take place especially considering the often sensitive issues that were touched upon spanning everything from Hong Kong to the One-Child Policy to LGBT rights. There was no shying away here as the panelists freely shared views both positive and negative of current Chinese and global issues. 

Now that the festival is over I would like to spend the next couple of days taking stock. I did go to eight events in total; big thanks at this point to Mr Li for one of my top two Valentine’s gifts ever! (It’s a tie between this and last year’s trip to Yangzhou).

It was a lot of talking on some very serious and important topics. Of course any review would be incomplete without a review system and so I have decided to give out aubergines instead of stars, simply because I can. And also because not having an Aubergine Award is a massive oversight of humanity. Each talk can get a maximum of five aubergines – that’s a lot of 地三鲜 (I’ll let you figure this one out for yourself).

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The Future of Hong Kong

I adore Hong Kong. My first trip took me to the glimmering, multi-cultural metropolis in 2010 and I have been back many times since. Even with my parents; and just like me, they thought it is one of the most stunning cities they have ever seen. That being said, the problems that are bubbling less and less under the surface and more and more like a volcano about to explode into angry fountains of lava are no secret.

Since the British handed the country to China almost 20 years ago, the situation has been progressively deteriorating as Cantonese-speaking locals feel their cultural identity and liberties are being threatened and curtailed. Countless incidents of people being identified as mainlanders behaving in a crude manner in public, often related to public urinating and defecating, have gone viral online as a method for some Hong Kongers to demonstrate how “uncivilized the mainlanders” are. The rift is only getting worse when mainland media have a field day with the bad, bad Hong Kongers who protest against and look down upon their “brothers and sisters” from across the border.

The situation is so bad, I literally had to drag Mr. Li to Hong Kong the first time around since he was convinced an army of angry Hong Kongers was going to lynch him and his mother and hang them out to roast like a Yong Kee goose. To his surprise and my utter relief, the trip was entirely uneventful and when I took him back to Hong Kong the second time round (for my long-awaited Disney trip), he had calmed down considerably.

That being said, recent events such as the Umbrella protests and the disappearing booksellers plus the revelation that the ¨free elections¨ promised to residents by 2017 are in fact not free at all give cause for worry. The talk on the future of HK, one of the first events during the Bookworm Literary Festival, did little to dispel those worries. It was however an absolutely fascinating talk.

I won´t quote the guest speakers, since it was made abundantly clear that they considered this a private event, but the overall atmosphere was rather of a doomsday nature, leaving one to conclude that the Matrix is a holiday at the beach compared to the possible future of the area. Especially the shock and realisation in light of the booksellers’ removal to the mainland (though there have been reports some of them have since returned home) that certain freedoms promised in the treaty of 97 were not being respected was a chilling wind amongst democratic thinkers in the city.

One interesting issue pointed out by an audience member was the increasing ¨politisation¨ of the academic environment. According to what they saw upon returning to Hg, the entire academia of the island has been swallowed up in the debate. They didn´t necessarily think this was a good thing but were shot down by the panelist at whom the question was directed. What I do find interesting though is the underlying question: if someone did not want to be involved in all these politics, they might find the academic environment taken over by political discourse to be a frustrating thing. Much like I remember a few acquaintances actually complaining about the Umbrella Movement on social media, deploring Joshua Wang to just stop bringing unrest to their society. It is a valid point I think in that the society has been divided – into those who fear the loss of human rights and democracy, those who support the Chinese government and those who just want to get the frick on with their lives and not be caught up in ¨politics¨. If you want no part of any anti-mainland movement, what do you do, if its everywhere you go? Especially when, if you ever dare voice any disagreement, you are so utterly shot down by both sides of the conflict.

 

I award this talk five out of five Aubergines.

Read for this event: Umbrellas in Bloom by Jasong Ng

Knocked-Up Abroad

The ¨Knocked-Up Abroad” talk was held as part of the Bookworm Literary Festival 2016 and came with an array of four fascinating panelists; three of which where married to locals just like myself. I actually dragged Mr. Li to the talk, making him one of a very few guys along a sea of women interesting in the experiences of reproducing and going through the Chinese medical system.

The women shared fascinating tales of cultural differences; the multi-talented author Ember Swift sharing excerpts from a new book to which she contributed and which was the namesake of the event, plus three more bloggers who have all been through bringing children into this world either in China or in their home countries.

There were at times entertaining, at times harrowing tales of cultural differences, of MILs tweaking nipples, of Chinese medical staff finding it difficult to deal with sorrow and, naturally, of split pants.

For me personally it was very inspiring to hear these women talk, a majority of which have similar cross-cultural relationships, in a way that it can prepare you – or maybe also scare you off entirely – for what it means to bring a child into a Chinese family.

I absolutely admire these women, even more so because two of them actually live in very remote Chinese locations, compared to which Hohhot would seem the height of internationalisation. I was saved from a grilling by Mr Li about why they can live in those places but I won’t agree to spend my life in glamorous Hohhot by the admission of one panelist that living in such a removed area did caused her to go into depression. That’s why, Mr. Li.

The final panelist presented a shocking story, which by now should have been posted online, about how she had to give birth to her dead twins in a Chinese hospital and the traumatic experience this was for her not only due to the tragic event but also due to the way medical professionals dealt with the situation.

I received some feedback from another audience member who was incidentally pregnant that she would have liked to be made aware of this content, as rather unsurprisingly, these are not the kind of stories an expecting mother really wants to hear, even less so if it is just sprung on her without prior warning. So, I guess a little feedback there for the Bookworm organizers to maybe check and make available any content that could be emotionally disturbing to listeners.

Overall though it was a very powerful event, that did exactly what it should in that it helped people gain an understanding of this most important of issues, carrying a child in a country that is not your own and how this affects the experience.

 

Knocked-Up Abroad gets 4 out of 5 Aubergines.

Read for this event: Knocked Up Abroad: Stories of Pregnancy, Birth, and Raising a Family in a Foreign Country

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