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What Hong Kong’s young people are reading and how

By Astina Ng and Vivian Ng

 

If you look around on the train or the bus, or in cafés and restaurants, you are sure to see young people sitting and standing with their heads bent slightly forward, staring at their smartphones and tablets. It is less likely that you will see someone reading a printed book.

Hong Kong is often criticized for being a cultural and literary desert. Indeed, a survey of 800 people commissioned earlier this year by Sun Hung Kai Properties found that “reading” was ranked seventh out of nine leisure activities, behind shopping and listening to music and just ahead of sleeping.

Perhaps just as prevalent as the idea that Hong Kong’s reading culture is in a sorry state is the notion that Hong Kong’s young people belong to a generation that simply does not read.

Thanks to the growth of the internet, youngsters live in an age where information is readily available and for free online, accessed through computers, phones and other mobile devices. It seems obvious that young people no longer want to turn the pages of actual books.

But is the charge that the young do not read a fair one? Varsity set out to explore the reading culture of Hong Kong students, to find out their views about reading, what they are really reading and how. We conducted a survey (full results here) of 262 young people aged between 15 and 26, attending four local secondary schools and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The vast majority of respondents were aged under 23.

The poll found that 37 per cent of the respondents said they spend an average of between half an hour and one hour reading each day. While 25 per cent of respondents said they spent less than half an hour reading each day and an equal number said they spent between one and two hours reading per day.

Most of the respondents thought it was important for young people to read, 89 per cent chose four or five on a scale of one to five (where five meant “very important”). But only 10 per cent thought that young people were reading enough and 61 per cent of respondents thought they did not spend enough time reading. The most common reason given was the lack of time.

“It’s not like we don’t want to read, but we don’t even have enough time to study, let alone read [for leisure],” says Janice Wong, one of the respondents from a local secondary school. Janice says she would rather scan through posts and articles on online social media platforms than read a novel from start to finish. “Short articles shared on Facebook and forums provide an excellent platform for us to read. They are much easier to read and it’s simply more convenient,” she says.

 

Varsity’s survey found that 52 per cent of respondents said the materials they read most frequently were electronic or online materials, 26 per cent of which were articles shared on social media platforms.

Chong Hiu-yeung, the writer of the travel blog “I travel, I run therefore I am”, says Hong Kong’s youngsters still read, but their tastes in reading materials have changed. “With limited time but an explosive amount of information, they prefer to choose the simple, short and easy ones to read,” says Chong.

But while Chong believes online reading materials such as blogs can be inspiring, they only give the readers a brief idea of issues and events whereas printed books usually provide more detailed analyses. He urges readers to read books in order to further explore the ideas they obtain from online social media platforms.

Ah-yo’s book covers

Ah-yo, another popular blogger, says she understands society’s concerns about an apparent decline in reading among young people but she finds it meaningless to compare today with the past.

Ah-yo, who works as a flight attendant, started blogging in 2008, sharing her experiences of daily life and her views with readers. A combination of lively descriptions and interesting photos soon drew a group of teenage fans and her site recorded more than 1,000 hits a day. In 2009, Ah-yo published her first book containing excerpts from her blog, illustrated with cartoons. Ah-yo From Mars: Raid on Earth, immediately entered the bestseller lists and has been reprinted three times.

Despite becoming a best-selling author, Ah-yo does not believe printed books have an elevated status. “We need new ideas in reading. It doesn’t have to be a printed book to qualify as reading. What matters is the content. If you can get something out of it then it’s already a successful communication between the writer and readers,” she explains.

Unlike traditional printed books, online reading materials or pop literature such as blog articles and online novel series are usually written in a more casual language and style. On the one hand this can help readers absorb information more easily and quickly but on the other, it is blamed for contributing to teenagers’ deteriorating writing skills.

 

When reading is defined as the reading of printed books, Hong Kong’s reading culture is often compared unfavourably with that of the Mainland and Taiwan. Ah-yo believes this is partly because of Cantonese. “We speak Cantonese, so when we read we need to translate the written Chinese into the language we speak.” She believes this makes reading become a more serious matter to people in Hong Kong and that is why teenagers prefer online reading materials. They simply feel more comfortable reading them.

For Ah-yo, online reading is like pop music. Classical music lovers may claim that pop songs should not be considered “proper” music, but people may develop their interest in music from listening to pop songs. “From the simple to the complex,” she says, “it’s the same with reading.”

Ah-yo is one of a growing breed of local writers who have become popular through their online publishing. Maydreaming, a senior editor of a youth magazine, wrote the wildly popular online story, The Day I Attended a Funeral. He published the story in 10 installments between May and August this year on the popular discussion platform, Golden Forum.

The story, which deals with friendship and the contrast between dreams and reality, was widely shared. It got around 10,000 likes within two months of publication on Facebook in August this year. A production company has even approached Maydreaming to adapt the story into a short film.

Maydreaming believes that publishing articles on social media platforms is an effective way to help new writers to build up a solid reader base. He explains that people will be curious about things that have been repeatedly liked or shared by their friends and will want to take a look at it themselves. He says this helps to promote reading culture.

He also takes issue with the idea that teenagers in Hong Kong do not want to read long articles. “Regardless of the length of the article, people are still going to read it as long as they find the content attractive and inspiring,” he says.

While online reading may be increasing at the expense of traditional books, Varsity’s survey shows that electronic books are also making inroads among young readers – 60 per cent of respondents said they had read e-books.

Publishers admit the growing popularity of e-books will have an impact on sales of traditional books but Ella Mak, senior editor of the publishing house Culture Cross, says the trend also presents opportunities by opening up new markets. Mak says Culture Cross has developed smartphone apps to attract more e-book readers. She hopes the expansion of the e-books market will boost the reading culture in Hong Kong.

“We can still see the value of printed books. Many readers still prefer reading printed books,” says Mak who believes the promotion of e-books may even attract more people to buy printed books.

 

The ground-breaking “magazine” Blackpaper is proof that there is still space for new youth-oriented paper publications. Since publication in 2010, the one-dollar, two-page magazine saw sales increase from 160,000 in its founding year to 700,000 in 2011.

Roy Tsui of Black Paper

Roy Tsui, one of the founders of Blackpaper, believes today’s teenagers nowadays are not reading any less as a result of technology. Instead, he points out youngsters now have easy access to a much wider range of information than ever before. Although most of them prefer reading pop literature, Tsui insists the rise of such literature should not be blamed for a declining reading culture.

Instead, Tsui argues the fast-growing taste for pop literature proves young people are interested in reading. He believes this will, in turn, lead readers to further explore the issues that interest them. “I think those who keep criticizing the writing style of pop literature are pathetic. I suspect that they are not able to understand pop literature or simply can’t keep up with the trend.”

“Whatever gets to stay must have its own value” says Tsui, who admits he actually loves reading printed books. “The statement that young people don’t read is definitely wrong.”

Tsui says the definition of reading has changed over time and it is wrong to judge young people by the standards of yesteryear. He believes a healthy reading culture should encompass different forms of reading and that everyone should be able to freely choose what and how they read.

<Click to read-Excerpt from “A Survey on Reading Habits of Students in Hong Kong”>