Meet Me at the Fair

Today was an outing to warm a language teacher’s heart: a trip to the Hong Kong Book Fair.  Some book fairs, like Frankfurt’s 500-year-old event, have more prestige in the publishing world, but this one is remarkable for its amazing popularity with the general public. Over a million people visit during the fair’s seven days, more than to Disneyland at its most crowded. Before the school year ended, a couple of my students even reported their plans to attend, and no doubt others will attend without my knowing.

The Exhibition Centre, where the Fair takes place, is about half a kilometer from the Wan Chai subway stop, but when I emerged from the train level at 10:30 a.m., I found that a line already stretched from the Centre to the station. Some of the Vertical City’s neighborhoods are crowded enough that elevated walkways—express sidewalks, you might call them—extend above the streets to allow people to move briskly along. Wan Chai’s main elevated walkway was set up to handle the Book Fair’s line, about five or six deep, as it moved briskly along. (Hong Kong residents always move briskly along. Children move briskly along, and the elderly move briskly along. Dogs, cats, amoebae move briskly along. Locals using escalators stand to the right so people who care to may move briskly along the escalator on the left.[1]) Many Fair-goers came prepared with empty wheelie bags to use for hauling away their loot.

The reason the line moved so briskly, I found out, is that for those who did not get tickets on line, there were dozens of ticket windows. (Admission: HK$10 (US$1.30) before noon; HK$25 after noon.) Most Hong Kong residents carry a piece of plastic called an Octopus Card, which they use to pay subway & bus fares, buy drinks at vending machines, go grocery shopping, buy fast food, and gain admission to book fairs. The subway’s Island Line runs trains with 90-second headway during rush hours and 2 – 3-minute headway at other times, all of them today seemingly set up to bring visitors to the Fair. The Octopus Card allows ticket purchases to take 1 – 5 seconds each. Why impinge on briskness? Beyond the ticket windows, four escalators took visitors upstairs.

The Exhibition Centre was thronged with people in their thousands. The majority of visitors appeared to be young people; but all were actively looking and buying. I saw one boy gloating with his friend over a complete set of Percy Jackson books he had just bought. They were in English, the language of about 20% of the books on show, the rest being in Chinese. But even that 20% was a good selection.

The appeal to the local sense of value lies in the heavy discounting that the exhibitors typically engage in. Many books, even school books, were discounted. But most of the enthusiasm for the book fair seems to be because Hong Kong is a happily literate place. New technologies of literacy were on display and for sale, but at this fair the book is king.




[1] Two things in Hong Kong that do not move briskly along are the Ding Ding, the old line of partially wooden street cars that make their way slowly up and down the Island’s north shore; and the Star Ferry, whose lines include one from nearby the legendary Peninsula Hotel to the vicinity of the Exhibition Centre.

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