Exploring Hong Kong identity and belonging: Karen Cheung’s memoir: The Impossible City

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“This city is no more than its mountaintop views, the quirky language with too many swear words, its nightlife and street food, if we do not make the place our own”.

In his review of “The Impossible City”, Angelo Wong interviews author Karen Cheung on her motivation for writing her memoir, discussing poignant moments of identity, belonging and the deep seated problems of Hong Kong both in the past and the future.

Karen Cheung was four years old when Hong Kong’s handover took place in 1997. The event, which marked the city’s reversion from British to Chinese rule, was the beginning of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement, which promised Hong Kongers a high degree of autonomy from Chinese political and legal systems. For Cheung, the moment symbolised the beginning of an era, one which promised possibilities for Hong Kongers to seek a new postcolonial identity.

Her new book released earlier this year, The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir explores how a young generation of Hong Kongers constructed their identity and their sense of belonging in the post-handover era. It records the voices of a generation who identify with the city because they see themselves as having grown up with it. It also captures their aspirations, disappointments, and struggles to get by in the place they call home.

A mix of memoir and journalism, Cheung’s book weaves together a candid narrative of her own life and interviews with young Hong Kongers. It gives us a glimpse of the precarious housing situation of students at one of the city’s most prestigious universities. It takes us on a patient’s tour of the strengths and the flaws of its mental healthcare system. And, through Cheung’s love for heavy metal, it traces the city’s underground music scene’s struggle to thrive in an environment unsupportive of independent music.

Running through the book is a sense of loss. One of the book’s central arguments is that Hong Kong is an “impossible city,” because the city that was promised with the handover turns out to have been no more than a myth. Writing of the arrests of journalists and jailing of political activists since the establishment of the national security law in 2020, Cheung remarks, “it is not Hong Kong that has died, but the imagination of the place we were promised in 1997.”

For this reason, her book is driven by urgency. Written halfway into the post-handover period, when the memory of the period has become increasingly politicised, Cheung attempts to preserve her own memory of the time. She calls her book a document of a time when her generation imagined different possibilities and sought out a local identity—a space “when so much felt possible.”

“This book is about the many ways a city can disappear, but also the many ways we, its people, survive,” she writes. “It is a portrait of life in a particular time and space. A story about how we uncovered a Hong Kong that had existed here all along—a place where we, against all odds, made a home.”

Bridging the divide between Hong Kong’s expat and local worlds

“I was always thinking about questions like what it means to be part of the city, what it means to be part of Hong Kong,” Cheung tells me at a small cafe in Chinatown; I had the opportunity to interview Cheung in New York, where she was promoting her book.

“I was always thinking about what your language ability says about your place in Hong Kong itself, as a sort of postcolonial, bilingual city, and so on.”

Cheung had been shuttled back and forth between public and private schools across her childhood, first attending a local Cantonese speaking preschool, then moving to an English international school for primary, and then back to a local school for secondary. At her international primary school, the students were the children of wealthy Hong Kongers or expats with flats in the upscale district of the Mid-Levels. At her local secondary school, she and her classmates sang Cantopop songs in karaoke and went ice-skating at Dragon Centre in working class Sham Shui Po. Her former international school classmates started calling her local, with unconscious—but unmistakeable—elitism.

Dragon Center. Image courtesy of WiNG (Wikimedia Commons)

“A lot of people have said that I had a very atypical educational background. A lot of people might go from a public to an international school; not a lot of people go the other way,” Cheung says. The experience was what made her think about the questions of belonging, language, and privilege.

“Even though international and local school students coexist in the same city and hang out in the same streets and malls, they are separated by class, language, culture, sometimes race, and eventually politics,” she writes in her book. In our interview, Cheung added that her schooling allowed her to befriend many different people from across various backgrounds.

“It occurred to me that I have a bit of access to things that usually exist in isolation from each other. So the book was initially pitched as me showing the reader many different worlds that exist in Hong Kong,” she told me.

Diving deep into social issues

A blogger since childhood and a former journalist, Cheung had always been active in exploring issues of language and belong through her personal pieces. However, her ideas only cohered into The Impossible City at the time of the 2019 protests. The unprecedented scale of both the protests and the government’s attempts to quell them, and the deep rifts they carved in Hong Kong society, gave a sense of fresh urgency to the questions she had been grappling with.

“If you exist in these different worlds, what does it look like when a major political crisis happens? How would that affect how you saw the world, or where you stood, or when you decided to leave? How would that seep into the level of care that you had in the public hospital system when you had PTSD?” she questioned.

Copies of the Impossible City. Image courtesy of Angelo Wong

The memoir form of The Invisible City was a deliberate choice. Cheung explained that it allowed her to make journalistic “deep dives” into social issues that, by themselves, might not hold the reader’s attention.

“A lot of the personal parts in the book are sort of a trick—I’m hoping that you’ll be nosy enough about my life to keep reading,” she laughs. “Non-fiction books without a narrative running through them can get very dry.”

For this reason, Cheung interweaves her memoir with research and interviews, transforming her personal story into a documentary record of how aspects of society, like Hong Kong’s deep-rooted land problems or the overworked mental health system, affect the lives and aspirations of Hong Kong’s youth.

Cheung explains that her research and interviews contextualised her perspective, giving balance to her book’s views. “There are a lot of different perspectives and interviews in the book. It’s really conversations. It’s really me wanting to find out more about an aspect of issues that I personally did not have [knowledge of], and having conversations with people and bringing their perspectives in. I feel like that made the book richer”.

Pushing back against a foreign gaze

A former senior reporter at Hong Kong Free Press and co-founding editor of now discontinued local indie music and culture magazine Still / Loud, Cheung is familiar with the paradox of writing about Hong Kong in English. Writing in English makes her work accessible to an international readership, giving her a voice in global discourse. At the same time, it also puts her in the difficult position of having to make Hong Kong’s realities legible through the filter of the international reader’s lack of knowledge—or interest.

With her book, Cheung takes on the challenge of pushing back against a foreign gaze, of writing for an international reader without pandering to them. Drawing on her reporting experience, she spends a chapter of her book unpacking how English-language writing on Hong Kong tends to overlook local concerns and interests in favour of narratives that appeal to an imagined white reader. Such narratives zero in on the differences between Hong Kongers and the presumed white reader, she argues, reducing Hong Kong’s people into one-dimensional stereotypes. “That’s why I have a line in my book saying that I want people to see us as human beings,” Cheung tells me.

Karen Cheung in New York. Image courtesy of Angelo Wong

Closely linked to Cheung’s refusal to pander is her desire to address her book to Hong Kongers. She tells me that she didn’t want her book to be “redundant,” her word for English-language books that, in accommodating a foreign readership, end up being little more than summaries of things that Hong Kongers already know.  “I wanted to bring in the possibility of a Hong Kong audience reading it as much as possible,” she says.

In speaking to both an international readership and for Hong Kongers, Cheung’s book strikes the intimate tone of an insider sharing secrets. Cheung tells me about a local podcast which reviewed her book in Cantonese. “It’s very touching to see the book sort of re-translated back into Cantonese,” she says.

She glosses over the implication of calling her book a re-translation into Cantonese, as if it were self-evident: that it was in the first place a kind of translation into English.

Exploring what it means to belong

Cheung is fiercely jealous of the right to claim belonging in Hong Kong. She tells me about her long-standing anger at international school students who, after moving overseas, would claim involvement in the protests to just impress people. In her words, these people were “using” Hong Kong.

“They weren’t part of the protest movement, they weren’t very politically aware, but it’s almost like social capital for them to present themselves to an unsuspecting American crowd as being involved,” she says.“I could tell you a bunch of names on Twitter and exactly which international school they went to. I was obsessed.”

Behind Cheung’s anger is a consciousness of the socioeconomic inequality separating international school and local school students. International school students have a global mobility that gives them the privilege to stay disengaged from Hong Kong politics. “Armed with foreign passports, they will always find it easier to flee in a time of political chaos,” she writes.

A chapter of her book spotlights the various ways in which international school students negotiate their sense of belonging in the city. One translated materials in the 2019 protests to feel more connected to the local community. One was conflicted about expressing support for the protests because they had friends on both political sides. Cheung says that the same issues of class and belonging can be seen among other groups of people.

“It’s the same story for a lot of expats, for instance, and it could be the same story for a lot of wealthy Hong Kongers who want to graduate and get a good job and not have to think about the protests, because they just want a comfortable middle class life. It’s sort of looking at how apolitical-ness is also a political choice.”

Cheung’s stance on international school students has softened since—she is more inclined to be sympathetic, to look at how they are trying to figure out their relationship to Hong Kong. Yet she remains adamant that belonging is a right to be earned.

“This city is no more than its mountaintop views, the quirky language with too many swear words, its nightlife and street food, if we do not make the place our own,” she writes.

Karen Cheung signing copies of The Impossible City. Image courtesy of Angelo Wong

Giving voice to a young perspective

There’s no getting around the fact that Cheung’s perspective is a personal one: even with its journalistic forays, it cannot claim to be a representative Hong Kong voice. Cheung contrasts her book with more journalistic or historically-minded books that have come out in the aftermath of the 2019 protests, like Antony Dapiran’s City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong and Louisa Lim’s Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong. “Mine is more personal. I go into scenes I really love,” she explains. “I wanted to write about what I felt was closer to the life of the people.”

Cheung acknowledges that her perspective is “young”—in other words, limited in critical perspective. She tells me an anecdote from a recent book reading:

At the end of the event, journalist Choy Yuk-ling, or “Bao Choy,” a reporter who covered the ‘721’ Yuen Long incident during the 2019 protests, was arrested and subsequently lost her job at RTHK, came up and told her that she might regret writing this book in a couple of years.

“I was like, ‘I already know I’m going to regret it,’” Cheung tells me, laughing

Yet, at least for now, Cheung is not embarrassed about her young perspective. She is confident that her book has value as a document of the immediate aftermath of the 2019 protests and the 2020 national security law.

“I think there is some value in documenting something while you’re that worked up about it, while you don’t have a lot of perspective, because it still feels like the end of the world. Those emotions aren’t any less real just because, in a few years, you have a different way of handling or thinking about it.”

Or, in other words, The Impossible City is not simply a document of the sights and sounds of the post-handover period so far. It is an attempt to capture the period’s zeitgeist. A document that could only have been written now, one that could capture this time more vividly and clearly than any retrospective history could.

The Impossible City was published on February 15, 2022. 320 pages, Random House.