March 22, 2018
Drama at the International Literary Festival: Macau Edition
by Michael Barron
Macau, the Jersey City of China.
This former Portuguese colony, a mere ferry ride from the formerly British-administered Hong Kong, has not had the same global clout as its likewise colonial neighbor. (It’s governed under a “one country, two systems” policy, similar to the one China doesn’t respect in Hong Kong.) Macau’s complex history and location on an estuary of the Pearl River have colored everything from the Portuguese-inflected local language to a uniquely multi-ethnic literary heritage. It’s not surprising that such a place would host an annual literary festival — one that has, unfortunately, come under a bit of a scandal.
According to Karen Cheung of the Hong Kong Free Press, the opening eve of the Script Road Macau Literary Festival was greeted with news that three of its participating writers—Jung Chang, Suki Kim, and James Church—would not be in attendance. The decision came after local authorities informed the festival’s director and co-founder Hélder Beja that their entrance into the region could not be “guaranteed.” Beja’s decision to comply rather than negotiate has put this Lisbon transplant under scrutiny.
Cheung notes that Jung Chang is the author of a biography of Mao Zedong banned in China, and that Suki Kim (a journalist and novelist) and James Church (a former intelligence officer turned crime writer) have both written about North Korea. “This situation goes far beyond the scope of this festival,” Beja said in an interview with radio Macau, further stating that the organizers did not want to put these authors in a difficult situation with Macau’s immigration officials.
PEN Hong Kong released a statement condemning the “deplorable” decision: “We deem this to be a very worrying development, and one that infringes directly on the right to freedom of expression and on literary expression, which should be guaranteed in Macao as everywhere else. To ban authors solely on the base of the political acceptability of their writings, according to fuzzy standards that are not even publicly disclosed, is a very concerning development that cannot be defended.”
In a follow-up article for the HKFP, Cheung relayed the news that Beja, responding to the heightening criticism, has announced his resignation as the festival’s director. “After the events that came to light in the past few days, ending up with the cancellation of a number of authors from the festival line-up,” he said in a prepared email statement, “I consider I’m in no condition to continue on board under such scenario… I can’t say if freedom of expression is under threat in Macau, but I’m certainly not available to collaborate with any situation where freedom of expression is disregarded.”
Beja’s resignation takes effect Monday, as the festival winds down. He remains on the board till then.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.