On Tuesday 30 April 2019, I went to Wah Yan College, in Mongkok, to hold Cha reading workshop for a group of Junior Secondary students. Wah Yan is a Catholic boys school, which has two branches, one on the Hong Kong Island and the other in Kowloon. The one I went to is the Kowloon one—a very large building in Waterloo Road that opened in 1952 with charming architecture. It’s painted green and white, has very tall ceilings and modernist solutions for its long corridors, its squared staircases and iron fences, with a slightly quirky retro aesthetic that brings us back to the post-war architectural vernacular of Hong Kong. A time when sudden surges in population, due to the political situation on the Chinese mainland, required new homes and large new schools to accommodate masses of people.
As I walked in, I was tempted to get distracted by the buildings—but the workshop at hand meant a lot to me. The idea, which was offered by the College itself, was to find a way to encourage reading. I was led inside by Patricia De Leon, who works at Wah Yan, and on our way in she was telling me how much this has proved unsuccessful so far, and how keen the school is to find ways to improve the situation. Students in Hong Kong are under pressure from exams and a lot of homework, and the always accessible distraction of mobile devices, only feeds into the more generalised difficulty many people feel in approaching literary texts as a moment of pleasure and relaxation.
I really wanted to help. I have always been happy when reading: happy to learn and explore new topics, happy for happiness in books, happy to feel closer to very distant people and places through stories set far away from what I know, told by people from a very different background from mine. Happy to find solace from hardship and sadness in the welcoming pages of a book. Happy, always, to be either challenged or proven right. So I have always been a great propagandist for the necessity of reading: it has enriched my life more than I could ever describe, and it continues to do so every single time that I sit with a book in my hands. I make a point of gifting books, and I feel sorry for those who do not read, in the same way that I feel sorry for those who don’t have joy in their lives.
How to ignite this passion, though? Force people to read, and you will run the risk of turning them away from it. Leave it to fate, and again, most people may miss out.
So I went to Wah Yan simply armed with my own passion, hoping that it is true what they say about passion being contagious. I had selected a few books, after scratching my head over what the best compilation might be: I needed plot, I thought, to provoke a desire to know what happens next, and have people stick to the page. I needed plausibility and the possibility of identifying with the characters represented in the pages. But I also needed the wonderful trick of an everyday occurrence turned into something extraordinary, through the power of words and literature.
So I selected works which had kept me glued to the page. I picked up my copy of Graham
Greene’s Travels With My Aunt: funny, with a lot happening at every turn, and with that perfect arch of starting in a rather boring moment of the protagonist’s life, who then gets swept off his feet by an unlikely heroine—his grandaunt Augusta, in her 90s—who travels incessantly, and comes to a beautiful closure in which, even if things are outwardly the same, they have been profoundly modified by everything that happened. Perfect.
Then, I went for Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan: talk about a plot! I nearly missed a plane to read it: I had flipped through it wanting to check if it would be a suitable read for a long haul flight, and instead I fell in with both arms and legs. I didn’t even start packing until I had finished it, and found myself sitting on the plane with no idea of what I had put in my luggage. It’s a spy thriller that sets the Cold War under a very different light, its heroine is young and bookish, and it all revolves around love and literature. Perfect, again! Then, I thought that a group of Hong Kong teenagers wouldn’t necessarily be all that interested in somewhat canonical British writers, but since the point was to make them read in English, I wasn’t going to bring along a Chinese writer in translation. So I went for another beloved novel, by Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma, The Fishermen, again with a fast-paced plot, but even better: the protagonists are four boys, aged 9 to 15 (perfect!) Their adventures as rookie fishermen take place in a bend of the river their father has warned them to stay away from (rules are to be broken: perfect!) and all sorts of things, good, interesting, then tragic but always formative happen because of this transgression: perfect. The ending, too, is on a sort of upbeat note, so I couldn’t think of enough positive notes for this book. Then, for the extraordinary-in-the-everyday, I chose Sylvia Plath, her poem The Cut, in which the simple act of accidentally cutting one’s finger while slicing an onion becomes an amazing pretext for everything. Perfect?
At the beginning of the workshop I spoke for a while: the boys were very shy, and I wanted to put them at ease telling them about myself, and making them to tell me about themselves. “What do you like to read?” I asked. Most enjoyed science, some enjoyed history. Well, boys: let me tell you about the joys of fiction and poetry! So, I started reading. Initially with great confidence. As my voice modulated the words form the page, I realised that everything you read to a group of teenagers boys in a Catholic school has a lot more funerals and sex than it ever had seemed while I was doing the selection at home. Not that they were necessarily put off by the sexy bits, on the opposite, but I hadn’t necessarily wanted to go there. Travels With My Aunt seemed unlikely to put me in that uncomfortable spot, but after opening with a funeral (oh dear, it had sounded funnier when I read it by myself) the first encounter with Aunt Augusta has the grand eccentric lady talk about…. Why, sex, of course. While still at her sister’s funeral! I skipped a paragraph but was stuck with the funeral. I am not sure it was the best choice. No matter. When we got to Serena Frome, the heroine of Sweet Tooth, I cringed when she tells us at page three (three!) that she lost her virginity in college. This time, the reading was being done by one of the students, so there was no skipping I could improvise and I interrupted a couple of paragraphs later to ask: “So! What do you think?”
Two of them looked at me not too pleased with the interruption, and said: “it’s just the beginning!” So we read a bit more—yes, that was the intentionand—dived right into references to a number of boyfriends and got to the end of that passage with me feeling slightly awkward. The students seemed bemused at my discomfort.
On to Sylvia Plath, then. Her poem, one of the most accessible and witty, actually seemed pretty dark read in a school setting, in spite of my cheerful explanations.
Chigozie Obioma, turns out, was the best choice: I kept saying how one of the pleasures of reading is that it makes us feel close to people whose lives are in very different places and circumstances, and that’s exactly what happened. The novel opens with the four boys trying to understand what is happening between their parents, as they fight silently when the father announces that he is being moved to a different city by the bank he works for, but wants to go alone in order not to disrupt the boys’ schooling. Everyone around me clicked, and felt that this situation could have taken place in any Hong Kong home.
Should I have taken some Young Adults novels, instead? I thought not: I always believe that we give young people insufficient credit for their curiosity, their ability to understand and be attracted to situations that they know they may encounter later, so this I would again do in the same way.
Also, I based my approach on my own experience: I remember being absolutely taken by Katherine Mansfield when I was in my early teens. I would have mental conversations with her, read and reread her short stories, gift her to my friends and carry her books with me on holiday. I reread her not so long ago, and was taken aback by the amount of sexual innuendo there was in every scene. That part had gone completely over my head at the time of my love for Mansfield, and as an adult I couldn’t understand what had been so fascinating to my younger eyes without that major element of Mansfield’s fiction. All the battle of the sexes subtleties were lost to the teenager me, and yet I was mesmerised: young eyes can see what older eyes are obviously blind to.
What I did think, walking out of Wah Yan College after my workshop, however, was that reading workshops have a huge potential, but cannot happen as a one-off event. Boys can be shy, and it takes time for them to open to a stranger with a pile of books, telling them how great books are. And I now know their tastes a little better than I did before chatting and reading with them. If I were to see them again, I would leave Plath and Greene at home, and maybe tell them to read Sweet Tooth by themselves, while we read The Fishermen together. It too has some very dramatic moments, but I am sure they could handle them and feel compelled to know how things develop for the fictional boys so similar to boys everywhere.
I am more convinced than ever that reading can be taught, and must be taught. But it must have plenty of time, and be seen as a leisure activity: which requires a bit of adjustment from Hong Kong schools. As I prepared to leave, however, the students asked for Sweet Tooth and The Fishermen to be added to the school’s library, so I left with a huge sense of relief.
///// The Cha Writing Workshop Series: We plan to hold one to two writing/reading workshops every month, for local school children (all levels), as well as economically and socially disadvantaged groups. If you’d like to suggest an idea, please contact the organisers, Tammy Ho (firstname.lastname@example.org) and/or Eddie Tay (email@example.com). Click HERE to see a list of past and future workshops. And click HERE to read instructors’ reflections on the workshops. /////