Saturday, 4 July 2009

When Reading Becomes a Luxury

What a pleasure it is to read the latest issue of Muse Magazine discussing the timelessness of Jin Yong novels, my favourite books since teenage.

While the variety of commentators interviewed and the breadth of their perspectives are rarely seen in any other interview published in Hong Kong, I couldn't help being disappointed with the interview's failure to discuss the popularity of Jin Yong novels, as a genre, in the context of social and cultural development of Hong Kong.

Let me provide my two-penny worth here: When and where reading becomes a luxury, no literary works would be timeless. Both Jin Yong novels and Dream of the Red Chamber and other titles that have survived centuries are no exceptions.

In the interview with Muse Magazine, television and film critic Chingyu was correct to point out that between 1976 and 2001, when most film and television adaptations were produced, Jin Yong novels enjoyed the height of popularity. Before discussing whether Jin Yong novels would be timeless, however timelessness is defined, we need to understand the social context under which Jin Yong novels have lost their magic to contemporary readers and the younger generations. Why are Jin Yong novels less popular than they were decades ago? What are the reasons or contributing factors? Unfortunately those interviewed by Muse Magazine, even professors of Chinese language and literature from local universities did not even bother to offer their perspectives. They just offered their observations that people nowadays are less sensitive to words and do not really care about language as much as their predecessors did. I do not disagree with their observations, which are by and large similar to mine. Yet I think the more important question is why it happens as it does.

In my opinion, the social context that enabled Jin Yong novels and their contemporary competitors to enjoy such overwhelming popularity simply no longer exists in Hong Kong.

For one thing, as many historians and sociologists have already written, the robust economic growth and lucrative gains from stock and property speculations over the past decades have groomed the prevalence of money or economic benefits as the ultimate value in Hong Kong. Anything that does not necessarily contribute to improving the economic conditions of the person is ruthlessly ignored or dispersed. Time and efforts are devoted, almost exclusively, to maximise monetary and other forms of benefits. Essentially, this extraordinary belief is penetrated into government policies to promote high land prices before 1997 and parents' frenzy to squeeze their children into business schools or any other fields of study that seem to secure handsomely paid jobs upon graduation. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that reading is reduced to a means of pursuing and maximising economic benefits. For many years, this has been confirmed by the non-fiction bestselling lists at local chain bookstores and the books recommended by the so-called prominent figures in Hong Kong.

For another, thanks to the rise of television and computer, generations bred on graphic-based communications have no appetite or patience for language. Their predominant exposure to immediate, straightforward sensual stimulus has deprived them of the pleasure of imagination cultivated by language. Literary works are often appreciated not in literary terms but the emotions, ambiences and overtones between the lines. However, those who are used to pictorial forms of communication might find it difficult to comprehend messages discreetly articulated. At a time when directness and simplicity are far more appreciated than abstraction and subtlety, the demise of language-based literary works seems inevitable. It is not a question of yes or no, but a question of time.

Even for those who are genuinely interested in reading, it has become increasingly difficult to allocate ample time for this satisfying hobby. Hectic lifestyle, busy schedules at work and the availability of mobile communication technologies such as mobile telephone and emails have deprived us of ample leisure time and a peace of mind. We are supposed to remain in standby mode 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are supposed to stay tuned and connected when we are on holidays. We are supposed to contribute at least 120 percent in order to stay in our jobs and make our ends meet. Against this background, reading for leisure has become nothing less than a luxury. How can we expect them to appreciate the thick volumes of Jin Yong novels, which can exceed a million words in a single title?

Another factor that may prevent Jin Yong novels from being timeless is their diminishing relevance to people's lives in Hong Kong. Although this was frequently cited in the Muse Magazine interview as a deterrent to Jin Yong novels' timelessness, the interviewees did not seem to go further and elaborate on their views of the reasons behind.

Again my interpretation is related to the money-comes-first mentality prevalent in Hong Kong. In a community where economic benefits are the ultimate value and the locomotive of all endeavours, including education, political agenda and participation, how can we expect patriotism, loyalty, integrity and friendship vigorously promoted by Jin Yong novels to be able to appeal to readers? When nothing appears more important than numbers on the books and human beings are reduced to salary slaves and profiteering tools, wouldn't it be counterproductive to keep reminding yourself as an individual of dignity, integrity and respectability? When young people are taught to calculate return of investment in whatever they do, how can the Jin Yong heroes who only achieve great martial arts skills after a long time of devotion and tireless practice?

This also explains why Wei Xiaobao in Duke of the Mount Deer remains the favourite Jin Yong hero in Hong Kong. His slyness, opportunist instincts and incredible luck that makes him a billionaire with seven beautiful wives provides the perfect example of the success story many here in Hong Kong have been looking for.

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