Jason Y. Ng is an author, a news columnist, a lawyer and an activist, and he is based in Hong Kong. Jason is the author of Hong Kong State of Mind, No City for Slow Men and his most recent book Umbrellas in Bloom – which is the first book published in the English language to document the protests that took place in Hong Kong in 2014, also known as the Umbrella Movement. His three books together form a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city’s post colonial development. In 2013, Hong Kong State of Mind was chosen as the book prize for the Harvard Book Award in Hong Kong; in the following year No City for Slow Men was chosen as the book prize for the same award for that year. Jason Y. Ng has contributed articles to The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, EJ Insight and Hong Kong Free Press. Between 2014 and 2016, Jason Y. Ng was a music critic for the Hong Kong edition of Time Out magazine, predominantly reviewing classical music and opera performances. On top of all of that, Jason Y. Ng is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong, where he teaches international securities law for the Master of Laws program. Jason’s work as an activist has seen him become an ambassador for Shark Savers Hong Kong, as well as an outspoken advocate for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, the freedom of expression, and the rights of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Please enjoy my interview with Jason Y. Ng…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
It depends who is asking the question (smile). But generally, I say “writer and news columnist”.
I’m reading Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan, his new book, the last instalment of the Singapore writer’s “rich Asian” trilogy. It is summertime and the book is the perfect poolside reading. I will likely moderate Kevin’s book talk when he visits Hong Kong, as I did when he launched China Rich Girlfriend last year. Kevin is the most down-to-earth and wickedly funny international bestselling author I know!
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
The “Wisely Series” by the Hong Kong novelist Ngai Hong. His books are a mix between The Adventures of Tintin and Sherlock Holmes, with a bit of sci-fi and Indiana Jones tossed in. I read all 79 volumes in the series over several summers during middle school. Since then, the series has grown to nearly 150 books and it remains enormously popular among Hong Kong readers even today.
Can you remember the first non-fiction book you loved?
I remember in tenth grade, I went to a bookstore and picked up a copy of An Introduction to Language by Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman. It was an unusual choice for a teenager but at the time I was going through a phase obsessing over languages and linguistics. It was years later that I realised it was actually a textbook and not meant for leisure reading.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Growing up I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be. The Hong Kong education system did not (and it still does not) encourage students to think about these big questions—it is very much exam-driven and children have their paths mapped out for them by their parents and teachers. It wasn’t until I left for boarding school in Italy when I really started thinking about possibilities and horizons. I believe I wanted to be a science teacher.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
My school aged self would be surprised and indeed quite confused. I never thought I would become a lawyer, law professor and writer because there simply weren’t many role models in those professions in Asia.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
It’s going to sound like a cliché but the first book that came to mind was Oh the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. I would like the me back then to know that life is full of possibilities waiting to be explored.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
At the start of each year, I identify twenty-four books I plan on reading—two per month. I post my reading list on Facebook so that I will feel somewhat compelled by peer pressure to meet my goal. Of course I don’t always finish the reading list and often time I change some of the book choices over the course of the year, but making a list gives me direction.
Can you talk us through your research process when preparing for a new book?
I am an extremely organised (read: obsessive-compulsive) person, which has served me well as a non-fiction writer. Each time before embarking on a new writing project, I put together a detailed document outlining the research I have to do, including the people I need to interview, the books I need to read and the places I need to visit. I have in the same document a draft table of contents, a word count estimate for each chapter and a detailed timetable to keep myself on schedule.
It is a difficult question, but I’ll have to say One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I love the multi-generational set-up and the magical realism peppered throughout the book. Márquez also taught me that in order to love one’s country or culture, I must first be its harshest critic.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
Patience and passion. Writing can be a lonely pursuit and you often don’t see the fruit of your labour until much much later.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. It was written during the Qing Dynasty in the 18th Century and is one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels”. Growing up we had an annotated copy (in two fat volumes) at home. My father and my elder brother Kelvin—my mentors and muses—know the work well and they would encourage me to read and study it.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I like world literature—books from cultures different from mine. I always recommend to friends and family Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Vendor of Sweets by R.K. Narayan, Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, and short stories by Jorge Luis Borges.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I prefer fiction, mostly because I enjoy writing short stories, but also because fiction takes me to places and people that I don’t visit or meet every day.
Do you think reading is important?
Books are our teacher, entertainer, healer and most trusted friend. The written word inspires us, opens our eyes and alters the way we look at the world. I can’t think of a more important pastime than reading.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Lost Japan by Alex Kerr. The book offers a delicious and digestible feast of Japanese culture, geography and history. It reminds me of The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth, which I read more than a decade ago while travelling in Japan.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
I prefer real books. I am an “active reader”, meaning that I write extensive notes on the margins on nearly every page. I can’t really do that on an e-reader. Also, I retain better when I read a physical book.
How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. It instils in the reader a sense of responsibility and respect toward authors and the books they write.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. It was the first American classic I read in depth and paid close attention to every symbol, theme and motif in it. I became a different reader after that.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
I plan to read Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, an epic crime novel by the contemporary Japanese author. The paperback is due to come out later this year and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Books on cultural identity. That happens to be the subject matter of my fourth book, due to be released by the end of 2018.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
A Frog in the Well.