It’s my first international Lattes with Ladies featuring the intrepid Jessie Ho! Jessie is a writer, aspiring creative, fashion fiend, media addict, would-be social entrepreneur, and my old roommate from university. In between catching up over Skype, we talked about our reading lives in a post-grad world and the challenges of finding books in Hong Kong when you can’t read Chinese.
HPL: I always start with the standard question: what are you reading right now?
JH: I am currently in the middle of reading — do you know the economist Larry Smith?
HPL: Yeah! Are you reading his book? I had someone recommend that to me a while ago.
JH: It’s funny because I won it at the alumni dinner [for the University of Waterloo] in Hong Kong. I wasn’t even going to go and then I won it! And my friends were like, “Of course, you were going to win the book. Of all things, of course.” So that’s what I’m getting through and the other thing I’m reading is, obviously, the magazine I’m working at which is Hong Kong Tatler.
HPL: You’ve been doing a lot of traveling in the past year. What are your thoughts on eBooks? Do you love them or tolerate them?
JH: Here’s the thing: I live in Hong Kong now right? And I love a physical book, I love flipping the pages, turning them. I love having a tangible feeling of a book in my hands but a) because I’m kind of an expat right now so it doesn’t make sense to have that much stuff and b) because Hong Kong living is tiny, I’ve kind of been forced to resort to eBooks. I would rather have a physical copy, like if I see the books that I really like but if I already have them in eBook form I still want them in my physical collection. If I was back in Canada I would definitely buy it because why not?
HPL: Have you been reading any books in other languages? For example, Chinese?
JH: I actually can’t read Chinese! Funny story, I wish I could. It would probably make the job search easier but I can only read English. English is my favourite language!
HPL: Are there a lot of English books in Hong Kong then?
JH: There are bunches of really big chains of English bookstores. Hong Kong is very— I wouldn’t say bilingual, but everyone who has a university level education knows how to speak English and studies in English as well. They also had a huge book fair a while back in the summer which had a substantial English book section, but obviously not as much as the Chinese books. There’s also a large expat community in Hong Kong.
HPL: Have you noticed any trends in reading in Hong Kong compared to Canada? Types of books, genre, that kind of thing.
JH: A lot of the bookstores are not just bookstores. They’re more lifestyle stores I would say.
HPL: Oh, kind of like Indigo?
JH: Yeah, but the thing with English books in Hong Kong is that they’re kind of a hipster thing. And you’ll find a lot of independent designers, they’ll showcase things in bookstores. They’ll combine local design or the artisan world with books, I find. Also, coffee table books are really popular here, which is strange because I don’t know that the normal Hong Kong household has a coffee table? Trends I don’t really know, there’s a lot of classics. You know how in Canada we get a lot of hip, new novels? Especially young adult fiction. Books like that are a lot smaller here and there’s a lot more emphasis on the classics; books that have been around for a while. And the ones that are more modern are the more famous ones. There’s also a large manga section in every bookstore I’ve noticed, but usually those are in Chinese.
HPL: What is the last book that you couldn’t read? You either picked up and couldn’t finish or someone recommended it you and you said absolutely not, you refused to read it.
JH: Let me think. Oh my god, this is so sad. The book I have the most book regret about is something I read ages ago. It’s Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, I just couldn’t get through it. I’m not sure if it was just at a bad time but I would always get through the first like five chapters and then put it down and then read something else or get lost. I think with the internet I’ve read a lot less because YouTube videos are so much more easily consumable…
HPL: Ugh, the internet has destroyed my attention span for reading.
HPL: Honestly, bless having a train ride and a small data plan because otherwise I might never find time to read. And now I’ve discovered podcasts so it’s still a struggle sometimes.
JH: I read Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and I really liked it. I just couldn’t get through the huge one, 1Q84, so maybe it wasn’t at the right time. That book is still in Canada sitting on a shelf somewhere, and it’s not that I have trouble getting through big books. I had a phase in high school and the beginning of university where I would read The Lord of the Rings every summer, all three books. That’s probably one of my favourite books: The Lord of the Rings. You know how some books just impress on you a certain mood right away? I just couldn’t get into it. Maybe it was the whole dystopian thing.
HPL: Yeah, I’m not really a fan of dystopia. It has to be handled in a certain way for me to read it.
JH: For me I’m kind of a romantic so I really like romantic stories. Things that have that taste of the whimsical, a little bit nostalgia. I don’t know why but I find that I really like war stories. Stories that are written in WWI or WWII, either one basically. I think I became more aware of it after [our American Literature] class.
HPL: Oh my god, The Things They Carried?
JH: Yes! I love that book and I feel like it wouldn’t have made such an emotional impact on me if not for the way our professor went on about it. That book started my whole fascination with different perspectives and how everyone’s perspective changes based on their opinion and everyone’s perspective shapes their opinion. So, that, for me, is a really good war story. The other one I want to mention is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I would list it as one of the life changing, or most favourite books I’ve read. It’s nostalgic, it has war and romance. I have the eBook version of it, and it’s one of those books that I’ve read back-to-back like three times since I’ve been in Hong Kong. It’s a story that ties a lot of people’s lives together in an intricate web that you don’t really realize until it’s over.
HPL: Speaking of romance and nostalgia, have you read Murakami’s Norwegian Wood?
JH: I feel like Japanese literature is really, I don’t know. There’s a certain mood and tone that comes with Japanese literature that I also really enjoy. I can’t use the word nostalgic again but it’s kind of in that way. It’s very wistful and kind of ethereal. Murakami’s work is in that way, it touches on things that are not quite there, things that are under the surface.
HPL: What book made you want to study English? Can you trace it to a specific book?
JH: Choosing to be an English major was a very natural path for me. I was just like, “Oh English is my favourite subject in school. I like it so I’m going to do it.” I can’t really pin it back to a very specific novel but I know there’s one book in high school that I read over and over — besides the Lord of the Rings because I mentioned that already. The other book that had a really big impression on me was The Book of Dreams by O. R. Melling. Melling came out with this series of fantasy books about faeries and things like that, so the Book of Dreams is the fourth and final book. I think what I liked about it was that it took place in Toronto, so it was merging the faerie world with the real world. But the fourth book covered the huge final battle sort of thing, and it left a very big impression on me because I was at a time in my life where I thought, “I want to write a book like that too.”
HPL: Any other recommendations?
JH: You know, since I’ve started working I’ve been reading a lot more career books. The Larry Smith book is obviously one of them. I’ve also been reading the Malcolm Gladwell books, I have three of them and bought them at the book fair. I have Outliers, The Tipping Point, and Blink. He’s an excellent storyteller but they’re also easy reads, which is usually not the case for career-related books. Those are really good, and also #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amarusso. Those are really the more pragmatic side of my reading.