Dispatch from PEN Hong Kong: In Conversation with Jason Y. Ng

Hopelessness is not constructive—it plays into the hands of the oppressor.

PEN Hong Kong was officially re-launched on 13 November, as Asymptote noted recently. Originally established in the 1980s by expatriate writers in Hong Kong, the organisation later became inactive as key members left the city. A group of professionals working in the field of the written word revived the organisation in September in response to the increasingly hostile environment for free expression in Hong Kong.

Numerous incidents have indicated that freedom of speech in Hong Kong is declining after the handover. PEN America released two reports on the issue, in 2015 and 2016, to explore the deterioration of press freedoms and free expression in the city, as reflected in the increasing economic and political pressures targeted at pro-democracy mass media. The appalling abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers by Chinese authorities that was exposed earlier this year drew further attention to the issue. Self-censorship is also aggravating publishers, media, bookshops, and even academia. PEN Hong Kong’s members take up the mission of celebrating and promoting free, creative expression to guard against political suppression and censorship by uniting advocates who believe in the power of words in Hong Kong and China.

Asymptote’s Hong Kong Editor-at-Large recently interviewed PEN Hong Kong’s President, Jason Y. Ng, who tells us about the establishment of the organisation, its recent activities, future goals, and challenges.

Charlie Ng (CN): Defending freedom of speech in Hong Kong is definitely urgent and necessary in today’s political climate. Could you please introduce the current network of PEN Hong Kong members to us? What is your vision for developing that network in order to achieve the missions of the organisation?

Jason Y. Ng (JN): We’re very fortunate to have a number of prominent authors, academics, and journalists serving on our executive committee. They also represent a good balance between local Chinese writers and expatriates working and living in Hong Kong.

We encourage anyone interested in PEN Hong Kong to check out their bios at our website and to find out how to join us. An organization is only as good as its members, and we’re eager to recruit members of the literary community who are committed to promoting literature – in both Chinese and English – and defending free expression in Hong Kong.

CN: Would you like to tell us about PEN Hong Kong’s participation in the 82th PEN Congress?

JN: We sent three delegates – award-winning poet Nicholas Wong, seasoned journalist Kris Cheng, and human rights advocate Patrick Poon – to the Galicia Congress this past October. All three are founding members of PEN Hong Kong. They participated in several panel discussions, announcing the revival of our chapter and giving updates on the freedom of expression situation in Hong Kong. We were heartened to see that there was a lot of interest among the global audiences in the missing booksellers controversy and Beijing’s tightening grip on civil liberties in Hong Kong.

CN: How will PEN Hong Kong establish stronger connections with PEN International and other PEN centers?

JN: Our participation at the Galicia Congress went a long way to forge closer ties with PEN International as well as our sister centers. It is one thing to speak to our counterparts overseas by email and on the phone, but it is quite another to meet them face to face, and to share thoughts and brainstorm ideas in the same room. We’re excited about the next congress in Ukraine, which, like Hong Kong, has gone through popular uprisings in recent years and is still reeling from the fallout thereinafter.

Going forward, we’ll continue to strengthen our network within the PEN family by sharing programming ideas and co-sponsoring events. Earlier this month, we partnered with PEN America in its launch of a comprehensive report on the missing booksellers controversy at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong.

CN: What are the directions that PEN Hong Kong may undertake to connect Chinese, English, and bilingual writers and literary practitioners in Hong Kong?

JN: We’re committed to recruiting both Chinese- and English-speaking members of the literary community. We’ll do the same when selecting local advocacy and literary groups to host joint events.

Furthermore, we have worked to make sure that our website, press releases and other publicity materials are bilingual. Where possible, we’ll publish reports on freedom of expression issues in both languages. In fact, a good number of the non-Chinese expatriates on our executive committee speak and write fluent Chinese.

CN: Will PEN Hong Kong initiate its own publication projects?

JN: Report publication will be a big part of our programming. We intend to publish not only full-length reports on issues concerning literature and freedom of expression, but also “flash reports” (between 1,500 and 3,000 words) that are easier to digest for the mainstream reader and quicker to get out in order to respond to the fast-changing political landscape in Hong Kong.

CN: What are the most pressing challenges that PEN Hong Kong is facing now?

JN: We’re a non-profit organization and all of our executive committee members are volunteers. Each of us has a full-time job and we’re active in our respective fields. Time is therefore a precious commodity and we’ll do our best to ensure we deliver quality, meaningful programming to our members and supporters, and make a difference in civil society.

CN: How viable is the prospect of writing and free expression in Hong Kong?

JN: There’s a lot of pessimism and a pervasive sense of hopelessness in Hong Kong, especially when it comes to civil liberties. Incident after incident of rights abuses in recent years has reminded us that this pessimism is not unfounded.

But hopelessness is not constructive—it plays into the hands of the oppressor. That’s why we have to remain positive and active – and hence our effort to revive PEN Hong Kong to bring together people who are passionate about the written word and its ability to inspire and persuade. We believe there’s strength in numbers and in unity.

Jason Y. Ng is the bestselling author of HONG KONG State of Mind (2010) and No City for Slow Men (2013). His latest work, Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), is the first book in English to chronicle the Umbrella Movement and the last installment of a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city’s post-colonial development. As a columnist, Ng contributes to the Guardian, the South China Morning Post, Time Out (HK)EJ Insight, and Hong Kong Free Press. He is also a full-time lawyer and an adjunct associate professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong. In 2016, he was elected President of PEN Hong Kong, the local chapter of PEN International, which promotes literature and defends the freedom of expression around the world.

Charlie Ng is Asymptote’s Hong Kong editor-at-large. She obtained her B.A. in English and M.Phil in English (Literary Studies) from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2007 and 2009 respectively. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a PhD in English Literature. Her writings have appeared in Qiu Ying Poetry, Fleurs des Lettres, Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine, and CU Writing in English. She is currently a full-time translator and part-time lecturer.


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