My Writing Career

It is Book Fair Week in Hong Kong again. Typically, publishers and writers would organize some public meetings for book sale and autographing and I found myself in one of them ostensibly organized to discuss how and what and why writers write. It was a good session and afterwards I found myself in a familiar mood of wanting to write.

I began writing letters and short pieces some 25 years ago when I started a Rotary club and was intent to communicate with my members through a weekly club newsletter. I actually had a volunteer to be the bulletin editor after I promised him a weekly President’s Column. He used Microsoft Publisher and was rather good at it. He produced a prototype issue which looked slick and professional, complete with catchy icons here and there and a flashy Bulletin title called Kingspark News. We decided to go live. The first issue was very well received by club members; and we had great plans to promote the beautiful bulletin.

Then the sky fell: the bulletin editor resigned after the first issue. His wife or partner left Hong Kong after the relationship suddenly went bad and he was going after her, literally in tears. It was panic time: the club was about to be chartered and I had agreed to be the Charter President of this club which promised a weekly bulletin. Overnight, I took over as editor, installed Microsoft Publisher on my computer, learnt how to use the software, wrote my President’s Column, the cover story which gave the highlights of what the speaker said at the weekly club meeting and filled up two pages of A4 with whatever I could lay my fingers on. I spent a lot of time producing the two pages, primarily because the software, while powerful, took time to be mastered, but I was pleased with the product, as were my club members.

After two or three issues, my mentor – Raymond Wong who had since passed away – asked me to send them round to other club presidents and district officials in hard copies, which I did. They went viral. I received so many calls for subscription and the district leaders were all supportive and encouraging. It was an instant success. I had to produce more copies and spend more on postages and stationery. Shortly afterwards, I came across the software Winfax which would send my weekly bulletin through fax to all subscribers automatically. It took me a while to learn it and to set up all the fax numbers. I remember having to set up a dedicated fax line or data line for that very purpose. Fax was becoming popular those days, and it was the equivalent of WhatsApp today 25 years ago. I would produce my bulletin during the weekends, finishing typically very late, and allow Winfax to work through the night so that most subscribers of Kingspark News would receive the latest issue on Monday mornings. There were problems though: some members did not operate a fax machine, others had them switched off at night, some had it installed bedside so that when the fax came in the ringtone would interrupt their sleep, and still others would complain having to receive long faxes when I sent out bonus issues every now and then.

I continued as bulletin editor for a few years until I became elected as Governor of our Rotary International District 3450, then comprising only of Hong Kong and Macao. The writing stopped, until the District began to set up its own website; and when as Governor Elect, I was asked to contribute a monthly column for the Monthly Governor’s Newsletter, which I gladly did. I found that it was a rather cost effective manner, and at no cost to myself too, to communicate with the principal stakeholders of the District so that my future team of presidents and District Officials would know what I was thinking if they so desired.

Then weeks before I was about to take office as Governor, Rosita had a relapse. I found myself in a panic mode once again. Her relapse meant not only that she would not be able to be physically with me in many of the club functions, it would also imply that I would need to cut down some of these activities so that I could spend more time with her. At one point, I asked myself whether I should take up the office at all. After consulting Rosita, I decided to pour out my thoughts in the first of my serial letters to my team of presidents, sharing with them the problems we were facing and preparing them that my wife won’t be with me at many of their club functions.

I began to write regularly, usually once a week, in addition to the Governor’s Monthly Newsletter which served slightly different purposes. It was the onset of the internet age. All my writings were uploaded on the District Website for everyone who wanted to see them. After my governorship, a Rotarian friend in the printing business helped me put all the letters I have written in the two years before into a book with the title “Letters from a Rotarian” which I distributed to anyone who wanted to have a copy, for whatever reason. Initially, I asked them to send a small donation to The Rotary Foundation, say, HK$100 for each copy they got. Later I gave up because of the logistics.

Shortly after the book was published, I met a local book distributor. It was July 2001 and he was reading books from a kindle and proudly showing me how the machine worked. I told him about my book and gave him a copy to look at with a view to having his advice on whether and how the book could be distributed beyond Rotarians. He politely took the copy and promised to come back shortly, which he did indeed. He called me up after two days and advised me that there was no market for such publications. I was dumbfounded but not exactly surprised. He did not elaborate further. I thanked him and he hung up. That was the beginning of the end of my career as a writer. I have never since published another book or attempted to write one.

That doesn’t stop me writing though. I have continued to write in my “Letters from John Wan” series and I started another series “My Chair Days” last year when I took up the unenviable office of chairman of Convocation of Hong Kong’s leading university. Every now and then, some friends would ask me to write a book or an autobiography, which I think adds a new definition of what a friend is. Nobody has commissioned me to write a book, and I suspect nobody would.

One of the questions asked at the forum I referred to in the opening related to the writers’ emotion, in particular on whether it helps writers to write when they feel angry. As can be expected, the panelists would not be specific in their replies except that they did not appear to agree in general that writers need to be angry in order to write, but they seem to agree that writers write when they are hungry. Maybe I have never been hungry enough.

On that note I would sign off and I hope to talk to you again soon.

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