On Karen Cheung’s “The Impossible City”

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HOW TO BEGIN this essay on Hong Kong? I could start by describing for you what it’s like to stand on a rock overlooking Victoria Harbor at noon, feeling the very Hong Kong brand of awe that stirs when a skyscraper reflects a curve in a nearby hill. If it were summer, I could describe for you the impossible heat; if winter, the cold that felt frigid until the year I left for places north of the equator, where winter meant snow and dying phone batteries and calling home.

To do any of this, I would have to describe these scenes in English because this is the language in which I have best known Hong Kong. Now what kind of narrator would that make me? Unreliable, for my limited view of a city where most people speak Cantonese? Or necessary, even neutral, using the only words in which you would understand the story?

My credibility — which is determined by many more factors beyond language — might depend on who you ask. But if Karen Cheung, author of The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir, were to read such an introduction, she might ask: who is this essay for? Because to write the city in 2022 is not purely a reportorial act but also a political one, especially if done from afar. And although a migration away can now be fraught with betrayal or guilt, so can the fact of proximity when these distances are mediated in English, a language that both enables this essay and threatens to unravel it.

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The Impossible City dovetails the story of contemporary Hong Kong with its author’s own coming of age. It is the kind of book that weaves anecdotes from crowded apartments with explanations for how these apartments got so crowded — and ubiquitous — in the first place. But among the most salient talking points of Karen Cheung’s memoir is its engagement with Hong Kong’s languages: how being from the city entails embracing and questioning the way Chinese, indeed more than one Chinese language, and English coexist.

Although the most common language heard on the streets of Hong Kong is Cantonese, the city’s ubiquitous, black-bordered street signs feature English names below the Chinese script. According to Hong Kong’s 2016 census, approximately 97 percent of Hong Kongers at the time reported being able to speak Cantonese, while the number hovered closer to 52 percent for both English and Putonghua (Mandarin), the standardized Chinese spoken in mainland China.

From these numbers, some might conclude that Cantonese is the language truest to what a “local Hong Kong identity” represents. As Grant Hamilton and David Huddart wrote in an article about post-handover expatriate narratives in Hong Kong after 1997, “To write in English […] is to consciously announce that one is not writing as a local — or so it would seem.” It is in this gray zone that Cheung lays the foundation of her memoir, which is written in English. Born in Shenzhen but raised in Hong Kong since the age of one, she self-identifies as both local and nonlocal along the crossing, but not always interlinked, axes of language and national identity.

But what do these axes matter, really? Scholars like Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, Ackbar Abbas, and Douglas Kerr have all claimed that Hong Kong is a city that has always belonged to everyone and no one at once. According to Kerr, who now lives in Scotland after a long period of teaching in Hong Kong, the city was historically “a transit camp of the Chinese diaspora, a city of sojourners, economic migrants and refugees, and not a place to develop sentimental ties.” Leading up to 1997, Abbas, who is from, and was then still based in, Hong Kong but now teaches at UC Irvine, observed that the East-West dichotomy that forms the backbone of Hong Kong’s identity is “not stable” but rather “migrate[s], metastasize[s].” Ho, a Hong Kong native whose inspiring periodical Cha: An Asian Literary Journal has helped foster a global network of Anglophone Hong Kong writers, regularly invites people from across the world to write about the city. To express “Hong Kong experience and history,” she writes (and as Cheung quotes), is to create “a third space that is neither entirely English, nor entirely Chinese.”

Hong Kong’s growing diaspora now spills over borders of all kinds. To discuss which language is used to describe Hong Kong is also to consider whether there is “one way” of belonging to the city at all. Cheung admits in her preface that for many years she herself did not know how to answer the question of belonging. “Ambivalent” is the word she uses to describe her feelings for the city. “We defined ourselves in negatives — not Communist, no longer colonial subjects,” she writes of Hong Kongers’ self-issued identities. “The fact that we had rule of law, which exists in a great many other countries, became the basis for an entire collective identity.”

Even love for Hong Kong is ambivalent in the now famous slogan of “really fucking loving” the place, popularized by a banner draped across tram tracks the day after the national security law was enacted in 2020. At a May book talk in London, Cheung pointed out that when people talk about how they “really love” the city, it’s likely less about what they actually love than it is about what they hate to lose. For Cheung, the city’s poor mental health support and impossible housing market are realities she won’t miss. But the band performances in abandoned warehouses, the annual protests, the hundreds of thousands of people on the street forming unlikely families that dissolve as quickly as they form — those are the harder goodbyes.

Maybe what it means to love a place, Cheung suggests, is when “we recognize all of its imperfections, and still refuse to walk away.” For Cheung, Hong Kong is an unquestionable home. In her book’s dedication — “To my Hong Kong friends, wherever you are” — “Hong Kong” is not limited to those who chose to remain in the city with Cheung after 2020. Nor does it refer solely to those who are of Chinese descent, for there are many Hong Kongers who are not. Rather, it alludes to those who deem themselves “from Hong Kong” but are now in the “wherevers” of the world, including the English-speaking metropolises where many Hong Kongers have ended up since 1997. It alludes to those still inhabited by Hong Kong in the suburbs of Manchester, on New York’s Mott Street, in Vancouver, or in Seoul — as I am now, typing in a library near my parents’ apartment, five years after we left Hong Kong for good. And could we call that love?

Love, as the philosopher and writer Hélène Cixous would describe it, is the perennial making sense of another until they become an integral part of yourself. Within Hong Kong’s multilingual and multiethnic diaspora, the idea of living — and loving — Hong Kong from afar remains more vital and alive than ever. To mark the absence of civic protests in Hong Kong on June 4, the commemoration of the 1989 massacre in Beijing, Hong Kongers gathered in London, Taipei, and Sydney, among other cities, lighting candles, holding placards, and laying flowers. They had to. Because in Hong Kong, an elderly man was interrogated by police for holding a Tupperware of candles beside Victoria Park, the longtime site of a vigil held in memory of Tiananmen victims. Another man walked around with a box of parts for a Lego tank. Incidentally, and only incidentally, dozens of passersby that evening forgot to turn off the flashlights on their phones, which meant that, from a certain distance, they formed a sea of lights that resembled a flush of candles rising together in the dark.

Like all diasporic communities, Hong Kong’s informal ambassadors are not a monolith. They do not suffer from waves of rage or nostalgia for what Hong Kong was before 2020, 2019, 2014, or 1997. Several months after I moved to England for graduate school, I visited a Hong Kong restaurant that my high school classmate’s family started after they left the city last year. Over bowls of baked tomato rice and stir-fried spaghetti, she told me of conversations she overhears about Hong Kong: there are those who believe the pro-democracy movement has always held a noble purpose, others who believe that the protests have destroyed a Hong Kong they once knew.

Whichever it is, when remembering has been exported to Hong Kong’s diaspora, it appears in all sorts of places: a Manchester restaurant, a cinema in London’s Leicester Square, the mouths of the freshly and long-ago departed, the yellow and the blue. In Cantonese and in English. Cheung foregrounds the stakes of this last factor when she writes: “To be a language traitor is to live in a state where the language I hear around me every day and the voice I use to describe that reality are not one and the same.”

Language traitor. Cheung implies the betrayal is that of all English-language writers, and what we have done with the tools we have. “Whereas new works in Chinese and Cantonese add to the ever-growing canon of local stories about Hong Kong, writing in English is a constant negotiation with the question of what it means to ‘represent Hong Kong for a Western reader,’” Cheung explains. If Hong Kong needs to fight for a seat at the table of the bulbous and bloated world of English, crammed already with subjects waiting for a chance to speak, then the stories it tells risk being limited to a narrative that must fit with the rest. Hence protest stories, the death of democracy, the end of an era. Much in the way that Asian writers writing in English are often mistakenly classified as “Asian American,” a phenomenon Cheung writes about from personal experience, the betrayal of Hong Kong happens when we limit stories to what “the rest of the world” wants to hear. But this is where those who call themselves “Hong Kong writers” can step in, words in hand, and demand something different.

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Hong Kong is a paradox. It is described as “impossible” by Cheung in her book’s title and a similarly four-syllabled word by Louisa Lim in her Indelible City, another recent book on Hong Kong. Like Cheung’s book, Lim’s project effectively works the border between memoir, reportage, and analysis, and — in a familiar turn of phrase — is dedicated to “all those who fucking love Hong Kong.” Both authors believe the place is multiple and difficult to grasp, even for those who seemingly know it best. “[Y]ou could live your entire life here without ever pulling back the curtains on the other Hong Kongs,” Cheung admits.

Although I spent most of my life in Hong Kong, I have barely pulled back the curtains. My family moved there from South Korea when I was four years old. By the time we packed up our apartment in Taikoo Shing, I was studying at a liberal arts college in the United States where I introduced myself as “Hong Kong–raised,” as if I were the city’s prodigal child. But I had grown up in the heavily globalized — read: privileged — expatriate’s world, which has hardly changed since colonial days when the British set up international schools for children who never intended to stay.

To be honest, neither did I. At my international schools, my classmates and I learned Mandarin but not Cantonese. We gossiped in English while the likes of High School Musical served as cultural touchstones for our West-facing, English-speaking selves. Many of my classmates would go on to attend universities far away from Hong Kong, and only then could we grasp how alarmingly luxurious our schooling had been. Cheung similarly spent several years at a school where classmates considered Hong Kong “merely a transit stop and not a destination.” She points to rampant capitalism as a major factor that “makes it easy to live in a place and never engage with it.” But at stake is more than wealth and its barriers: it is a lack of attention; it is the moral failure to recognize that “[i]t takes work not to simply pass through a place but instead to become part of it.” And the irony lies in the way many international school kids, once abroad, are quick and inordinately proud to announce that they are “from Hong Kong.”

The importance of Cheung’s work is its demonstration of how our engagements with home can shift. It is one thing to lament one’s distance from, or lack of roots in, a place and remain mired in that loss. It is another to quit the self-satisfying lament and ignite whatever fuse nostalgia or rage or any other strong feeling enables. In an interview with Rosemarie Ho in The Nation, Cheung shares that writing in English was her way of writing for an audience hoping to find their ways back to Hong Kong: those “who want to read about Hong Kong,” but who have “been gone for a really long time.” The same might apply to those, like me, who failed to appreciate Hong Kong beyond a limited perspective before but now feel the urgency of bearing witness as the possibilities of the city’s future slowly dissolve.

Then there are those who have long been familiar with Hong Kong’s precarities and cultural idiosyncrasies but find solace in grappling with the city’s loss in English — like the reporters and writers, including Cheung, who comprise the brilliant Aftershock (2020), a collection of essays curated by writer Holmes Chan at the peak of the anti-extradition bill protests between 2019 and 2020 (that Gina Anne Tam reviewed in this publication). For that project, Chan gathered essays, in English, “that came with less armour or baggage, the kind that was willing to keep me company as I banged my head against the wall” — writing not meant to explain the political context behind Hong Kong’s turning inside-out, but simply to say what it was like to witness one’s home becoming an unrecognizable place. In the United Kingdom, poetry has become the steady medium for writing Hong Kong from afar. With unease, as in Eric Yip’s “Fricatives,” which won the 2021 National Poetry Competition in Britain: “You will have to leave this city, these dark furrows / stuffed full with ancestral bones.” With nostalgia, as in Jennifer Wong’s “From Beckenham to Tsim Sha Tsui”: “[M]y mind’s / a city of swordlike high-rises, flyovers, / buddhist temples and bauhinia trees.” And with solemn conviction, as in Sarah Howe’s “Crossing to Guangdong”: “Something sets us looking for a place. / Old stories tell that if we could only / get there, all distances would be erased.”

To think of Hong Kong from afar is to feel what Pauline Boss describes as “ambiguous loss,” or the baffling and painful instances where a loss offers no clean resolution. A beloved might be physically present but psychically absent (as in the case of an Alzheimer’s patient, Boss suggests); they could be pertinent in our memory but physically gone. Only in literature can the physical and psychic collide and offer us a way to find the loss less ambiguous, more holdable and answerable to what we need.

That is why literature is where this process of homecoming may begin for those who identify as part of the diaspora. Within the realm of Hong Kong writing, English adds an axis of the third dimension, providing the spatial range in which those twice alienated from the city can erase their respective distances in the way that makes the most sense to them.

But how might someone approach writing a multilingual city if they exclusively write in English? This is something I’ve asked myself many times, as has Cheung, who does not wax poetic about the untranslatable. On the contrary, her suggestions — drawn from personal observations and the wisdom of others — are remarkably practical.

The first and most obvious is not to pretend Hong Kong is a monolingual or languageless place, nor to perform an affected “if you know, you know” brand of multilingualism. Cheung uses Chinese in the book, but rarely without context, and only where the word needs to be in Chinese in order to mean what it means: her grandmother’s last words and favorite opera songs; quotes from books or song lyrics. In a chapter on gentrification, she refers to the Western District — the one place she would save if “all of Hong Kong were razed to the ground” — as “西環” on enough occasions, and with enough accompanying contextual cues (“my neighborhood,” “Western District”), that a non–Chinese-reading reader naturally becomes, by the chapter’s end, someone who recognizes the Chinese. In this way, she renders the local as universal. Yet when Cheung writes “家庭溫暖” — family warmth — to describe her friends’ support in her life without offering a direct translation of the phrase, she achieves the opposite effect, taking a universal feeling and extracting from it an intimate reference that belongs to Cheung’s world alone. “家醜不可外揚,” she quotes from her grandmother: “Shame within the family cannot be shared with outsiders.” Language is what retains the insularity of the family in-circle, making the universal not only the local but also the personal. I consider this form of multilingualism not as a creator of distance but rather as an elaborate metaphor for the moments we keep to ourselves and for those who know us best — whether out of loyalty, self-protection, or simply the longing to be most understood.

But whatever they may indicate to readers of differing origins, these words stand on their own without being propped up by English translations or, as is often the case in English-language publications, relegated to parentheses or footnotes. Taking poet Felix Chow as an example, Cheung exhorts writers to write in “Hong Kong English,” a language not fooled by the guise the colonial wears in Hong Kong as the masquerading universal. For example: Instead of writing the time-old colonial narrative of East meeting West, we could write about the distinctions between the Eastern and Western districts of Hong Kong Island instead. Kerr, who Cheung quotes in her memoir, argues that the process of “contextualizing” English in such a way can also be a form of resistance: by branching away from a “tumbleweed English” that is “intellectually weightless and bleached of history,” we could craft an English that helps its user to “pay critical attention to where they are.”

If mattering to local readers is an intention or priority, a writer writing about Hong Kong in English would also need to justify the existence of the English-language text to the local, non–English-reading reader, Cheung writes. If Cheung’s own justification isn’t too clear in her memoir, it appears as less of an oversight than an acknowledgment of how language — and the exigencies of the international publishing world — pulls English- and non–English-reading populations of multilingual places in different directions. The task is to make that distance less of a glass window in a zoo and more of a bridge between two separate and equally rich worlds. Importantly, the English-speaking emissaries to build that bridge must be transparent about where they stand along the spectrum of language and class, which, in postcolonial countries, is often premised on class privilege. But these factors aside, no writer, on any topic, can really consider their view a definitive one, and it is this humility that identifies the most credible storytellers among us: “Do not read this and believe that I am the one who can give you the story of Hong Kong,” Cheung herself admits. “Never trust anyone who holds themselves out as such.”

There is only one way to build that trust. To write Hong Kong, Cheung quotes Chan as saying, one must welcome anyone and everyone who wants to engage with the city, whether they speak the “right” languages or not. In the end, the political valence of language becomes less pertinent when it comes to the question of feeling close to understanding Hong Kong. If we consider closeness to be best felt within a community, Cheung’s memoir is a community project: the discourse on writing in English has long been underway, and her addition to the reading list is one of a multipart process of weaving these voices into a single braid.

Yes: To be a true Hong Kong writer in every sense of the term, one should know how to read, write, and translate Cantonese in addition to English. One should have an emotional investment in the city’s political transformations. But above all, the most powerful way to tell Hong Kong stories is to tell them with others, together, in the way we might sing a song, or hold candles to the sky. To do so with love, specifically of the kind whose loss, as Yangyang Cheng writes at the end of her review of both Cheung’s and Lim’s recent books, “renders us speechless,” demanding our need for “a new vocabulary to describe the present and imagine the future.”

Any shared language for love and for loss must exist in a place neither here nor there: not just with me, nor just with you; not just for now, but not just for later, either. It must be everywhere, always. And this language will be what sets us looking for the place that erases all the distances we’ve known, which for me, Cheung, and many others, I’m sure, becomes our native tongue when it encounters Hong Kong.

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Jimin Kang is a Seoul-born, Hong Kong–raised, and England-based writer now studying environmental theory at the University of Oxford. Her creative and journalistic work has been published in The New York Times, Asymptote Journal, and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, among other outlets. She is also an editor at The Oxonian Review.

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