A House for Asia
Asia House holds the only literary festival in the UK dedicated to books about Asia. Its director Adrienne Loftus Parkins tells Clarissa Tan why such a festival is necessary, and relates Asia House’s journey from a basement to a smart townhouse in the centre of London.
Q: OK. What, exactly, is Asia House?
Adrienne: Asia House is a non-profit, non-political organization. Our main aim is to foster better cultural and business ties between Britain and Asia. With the growth of Asia, this has become increasingly important. We hold over 125 corporate and cultural events a year. For instance, in our Festival of Asian Literature, now in its second year, we try to promote both emerging authors and more established Asian authors.
Asia House is now in a smart London townhouse
Right. Who are you promoting this year?
A: Well, one of our bigger events this year is called “Expressing Identity in Interesting Times”. We’ve invited Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif to speak about the issues involved in expressing their own identities as Pakistanis living in Britain. Mohsin Hamid wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was short-listed for the Man Booker, and Mohammed Hanif is the author of the new novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Another big name we have is Michael Wood, who did the famous BBC series The Story of India and its companion book.
So as I gather, the festival is not only to showcase Asian authors, that is, authors based in Asia or of Asian ethnicity. It’s really about books on Asia.
A: That’s right. It’s dedicated to books written about Asia, its people and its cultures. To be honest though, funding plays a part. Obviously, we would love to invite more authors who are currently based in Asian countries. But it does cost a lot to fly them here, put them in a hotel in London, and so on. But as this festival gets bigger, our aim is to eventually be able to invite more and more writers based in Asia.
Do you think such a festival is necessary? I mean, is there a need to differentiate books about Asia from books about other things?
A: Firstly, I think I would have to answer that on a personal level. I really enjoy reading books about Asia, more so than books about Europe or North America. I’m a Canadian, but I left Canada about 16 years ago, to live in India. I found the culture there fascinating; there are so many layers of depth. People are more friendly, hospitable, accepting, more willing to share their culture with you. Secondly, I really do believe this is the Asian century. Asia is becoming a powerful force. It is important for Britain to foster ties with it, to have some kind of connection. Thirdly, Britain has a very large Asian population. It is essential that we understand the cultures of those living around us and I believe literature is the most accessible way to do this.
And you said that apart from the literary festival, there are over 125 other cultural events every year at Asia House?
A: That’s right. We have a vast range of programmes. Right now, in the main gallery of Asia House, we have an exhibition of modern Chinese art from the Khoan and Michael Sullivan collection. We hold lessons on Chinese brush painting, food demonstrations, films. We will have a lecture soon on Mughal decoration.
And how did it all start for Asia House? Who founded it?
A: It was started by a group of people. But the main figure was Sir Peter Wakefield, who had a long career with the foreign office in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. But he also had an interest in the arts, when he came back from his diplomatic service he worked as Head of the National Arts Collections Fund in London. He founded Asia House in 1997. For seven years, we occupied a small basement office in Piccadilly. But in 2005, we moved to a beautiful 18th century townhouse at New Cavendish Street in central London.
Wow. How did that happen?
A: Well, obviously we rely on funds from members, patrons and donors. We have three or four key stakeholders, who helped us purchase and renovate the property. Some of them are keen to strengthen business links between Britain and Asia. For instance, two of our biggest sponsors are banks with large Asian operations – HSBC and Standard Chartered.
And Sir Peter, what does he do now?
A: Oh my goodness. He’s in his 80s now, but he’s still active as our Life President, travelling all over the world, promoting Asia House and Asia-British ties.
The Asia House website is at www.asiahouse.org
Photos by Asia House