Comic tales of sex and violence

Stephen Vines peruses the popular offerings at the Hong Kong book fair
Three weeks ago Hong Kong's Convention and Exhibition Centre was under a tight security cordon while it played host to the handover ceremonies. Yesterday it was under siege from hundreds of thousands of people attending a book fair.

It would not be accurate to say Hong Kong is overrun with earnest bibliophiles. In fact the scene around the stands of purveyors of mainstream books - those volumes with lots of words, few pictures and rather sober covers, was tranquil.

The same cannot be said for the stands enveloped in crash barriers holding back the hordes anxious to buy such best selling titles as Lost in Love Found in Dust. This offering from a company called Culturecom, part of the "Feel 100 per cent" series, is promoted with a cover picture of a muscular young man with blond flowing hair staring intently into the lurid Chinese characters which spell out the book's title.

Rather more to the point is a series aptly called "7 Trash", containing translations form Japanese novelettes. Again, the covers are adorned with cartoon pictures of both men and women displaying muscles of rather unlikely proportions.

Yes, Hong Kong is just like the rest of the world, where sex and violence move publications like nothing else. The masters of this genre in Hong Kong are Jade Dynasty Publications, who have pride of place at the fair with a massive Chinese-style pavilion and the sort of queues normally associated with a pop concert.

The company is controlled by Tony Wong, one of Hong Kong's most successful cartoonists, who made a fortune by creating mythical historical characters with martial arts prowess, an extraordinary ability to get pretty girls to tag along and some tall story lines. His story lines were so fantastic that they failed to persuade the high court judge who jailed him for two- and-half years on charges of conspiracy to defraud. Like one of his comic book characters he bounced back to found a new publishing empire on his release from jail.

The exhibition's organisers, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), expect about 300,000 people to visit by the time the fair closes at the end of the week - a fifth of the entire population.

Hong Kong popular culture freely mixes the depiction of grisly violence with a more prudish attitude to sex; it is a natural home for comics which allow the imagination to run riot. "Of course comics are quite popular," says HKTDC spokesman William Chung, but he stresses that "this is the largest collection of Chinese books in the world". So it is, but it is the comic and comic-derived books which are packing them in.

Worried about the impact of these publications on the young thronging around the stands, Hong Kong's government censors have established an on-site office and are busy patrolling the exhibition for signs of pornography which, according to the many prominently displayed warning signs, means instant expulsion from the exhibition.

But there is no fear of expulsion for comics which distort recent history. Jade Dynasty is offering pictures of a bloated-looking Chris Patten in full colonial regalia of plumed hat and white dress uniform, waving goodbye to Hong Kong. The former Governor was famous precisely for not ever having donned an outfit of this kind.