The Impossible City: A Coming-of-Age Hong Kong Memoir
Karen Cheung’s first book charts the acceleration of a vanishing way of life in Hong Kong amid China’s creeping influence.
- All books are about vanishing ways of life. Why is that so? Because everything everywhere is so necessarily shaped by the time period and culture within which they are situated
- We had let ourselves imagine more for Hong Kong that we couldn’t go back to that type of “go to work, get married, buy a flat” life we were brought up to strive for.
- There is much concern in Hong Kong with what is happening in Ukraine right now, partly because they had already been keeping a close eye on the country for years.
- The problem is to overly identify with or believing you fully understand a political situation elsewhere, and you bring your own biases.
- At some stage, overstressing the parallels degrades to an act of virtue signaling. I always wonder, what, practically speaking, can one do to offer support.
- With the crackdown on media outlets in Hong Kong, even these records on the struggle for freedom and democracy, which are historical documents in the future, become even more inaccessible.
Q: Your book has been described as a “coming of age” story tied to a major turning point in Hong Kong’s history. True?
A: In the book, I try very hard not to be a voice for a demographic. I am generally opposed to any “totalizing” narratives. That is why I inserted disclaimers into the text about how this book is not representative.
In the preface, I talk about various versions of Hong Kong that exist.
In particular, I talk about how we were brought up to favor one reading of the city (uber-capitalist, opportunist, almost shallow) over all others.
I explore other perspectives and bring in conversations with others when I feel like my own experience can be limiting.
My generation really came “of age” with this particular version of Hong Kong that people say is dying and I want to focus on that.
Even so, I cannot escape the fact that the way I relate to the city is inevitably shaped by this sort of post-1990s, middle class “creative type” lens.
I want to portray the people of the city in a way that does not exorcize them or make them out to be these quaint characters. I hope that the book expands the kinds of stories we can tell about this place in the future.
Q: Your book has been described as an “archive of the city’s vanishing way of life.”
I wanted to write about the relevant historical moments as I remember them—the handover, 2003, 2014, and 2019, but in a way that isn’t just factual information.
Even now, in 2022, protests feel almost like an impossible prospect in the near future, but there were these moments of marching on the streets then that really defined what Hong Kong is as a place.
In a way, well beyond the confines of Hong Kong, all books are about vanishing ways of life. Because everything everywhere is so necessarily shaped by the time period and culture within which they are situated.
This is just accelerated in the case of Hong Kong.
Q: What about the economic dimension?
I look at our various neighborhoods. There is this joke I used to have with my friends about how if you leave Hong Kong for a year and you come back to a specific street, half of the shops would look different.
That has indeed been the case here for a while now, as hyper-capitalism forces out old shops and changes the way we remember places we grew up in. Not even the appearance of the place is stable.
Q: In the book, you describe your own political awakening sparked by the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, an experience shared with many Hongkongers especially in your age group. How do you look back on those events now?
I still do not know how to make sense of what has happened over these past ten years. Everything happened so fast.
There was a political consciousness that emerged at the time I was in my late teens and early twenties. And then, suddenly it was over.
The intensity of the political participation around 2014 – the Umbrella Revolution – and later 2019, became almost a sort of traumatic memory for so many Hong Kongers of my generation. The reason was a severe expectation-reality mismatch.
The difference between what had been hoped for and what actually happened in the end is just so tremendous.
We had let ourselves imagine more for this place that we could not go back to that type of “go to work, get married, buy a flat” life we were brought up to strive for.
But even with the political consequences that resulted from the turmoil, and our current set of circumstances, I cannot say that it is a shame we tried.
Q: You worked as a journalist for several years. How did that shape your book?
Local reporters have this incredible institutional memory of what happened in Hong Kong, and so do journalists who are not from here but have lived and reported on Hong Kong for a long time.
Their mind can sieve through the relevant details to give the right context, and it informs their writing. When I was a rookie reporter, it was like a crash course where I got to learn from some of these people, fill the gaps in my knowledge.
I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to be a local news reporter in that 2015-2018 period. It was just after Umbrella, but before the anti-extradition movement.
While there were not as many of these “big moments” to report on, it was all so exciting, to see all the neighborhood initiatives or the kind of challenging political discourse—whether you agreed with it or not—that came out of that period. It was a big deviation from the mainstream pro-democracy thought that came before it.
But even then, there was so much foreshadowing with what was going to happen—the jailings of Occupy leaders, the kidnapping of booksellers, disqualifications of elected legislators.
It does get incredibly exhausting sometimes to be a reporter, when you do not really get a break from the news. Obviously, it is only more taxing now on reporters—particularly for reporters for whom this place is home.
Q: “My family is watching the evening news broadcast over steamed fish. The Chinese army is getting ready to crawl into the city.” You often juxtapose the ‘banal’ and the political. That makes me think of Kundera.
And what about parallels between Hong Kong’s fight for independence and fights and the war in Ukraine?
I remember watching “Winter On Fire” —the 2015 documentary covering Ukraine’s civil rights moment —I think it could actually be in the midst of the 2019 protests—and being completely shaken by it. I know there have been different criticisms about the approach that the filmmaker took, but it was at least an entry point for a lot of people to at least care and begin to understand the political struggle in other places.
I know Hong Kong friends who have been deeply impacted by the film, and then became motivated to do the reading on Ukraine.
There is much concern in Hong Kong with what is happening in Ukraine right now, partly because they had already been keeping a close eye on the country for years.
But I have also seen similar shows of solidarity with, say, Myanmar in 2021.
Obviously, this is one way to build global solidarity—but I am always hesitant to draw too many parallels between places.
The problem is to overly identify with or believing you fully understand a political situation elsewhere, and bring your own biases, rather than engage with the nuances of that particular place. That can be dangerous.
I always wonder, what, practically speaking, can one do to offer support.
Otherwise, we may just be trying to transfer our political frustrations to a different country and believe we can import and replicate strategies without taking into account what that place itself needs.
Q: You write that “We protest because we want to preserve our way of life. But what does that way of life look like? Why are we still trying to fight for it — rather than choosing to flee?”
Even over the past year, my views on the question of leaving have changed drastically.
I do not have immediate plans to leave, but I am more open to it than I used to be.
That question I pose in the book now becomes one of—Why is it so hard for people to flee, still?
If you see this place as merely a proxy for a fight for democracy or however you want to frame it—then, of course, once that possibility is extinguished, you move on.
But for everyone who grew up here or made it home, it is so hard to leave because of the ties you have with your neighborhood, your community, your family and friends—and those aspects are often much more in the background of stories that are told about Hong Kong. I wanted to celebrate and mourn those parts of Hong Kong.
Q: You write that “the act of mythmaking, of creating an alternate history, is to assert sovereignty over your own story, when politically you’ve had no say over your own future at all.”
I had grown up with people who demanded obedience from me, who constantly made me question my memories or emotions.
A therapist once told me that there are people don’t initially respond well to processes like EMDR, because they worry that by allowing themselves to let go of their trauma, their versions of the story would get lost forever.
I very much wanted to assert sovereignty over my own story, on a personal level, with this book. But these comments about obedience, trauma, and gaslighting obviously also apply to the broader context of Hong Kong.
Q: Do you ever get depressed about the turn of events?
Yes, I sometimes get depressed thinking about how puny and insignificant we are against the course of history and the whims of the people who rule us. From 1984 until now, the demands of people in Hong Kong have always been ignored.
And now, with the crackdown on media outlets in Hong Kong, even these records on the struggle for freedom and democracy, which are historical documents in the future, become even more inaccessible.
I do want this book to be, in a very small and gentle way, my own attempt to subvert that power imbalance when it comes to the writing of histories.
Q: Creativity in high pressure Hong Kong is a big theme of yours, as is examining the role it can play in resistance movements. What is the key message to a global audience?
Making art is difficult everywhere, but in Hong Kong the lack of resources and constant crackdowns on underground scenes make the act of making art in itself a form of resistance.
My modus operandi used to be very much like, “Please pay attention to my friends! They are making such great art and if there’s any justice in the world, they should be just as successful as someone in London.”
These days, I just feel that this neglect is the personal loss of those who aren’t interested in looking at works from outside of their cities or hometowns.
Success does not have to be measured in the sense of whether they are getting recognition from “mainstream” places. Scenes can be special because of the specific context they arise from, and the small groups of people who deeply engage with and love your work.
Q: The story of political disappointment occurs as a repeat event in Hong Kong, as you point out. Where are your glimmers of hope for a place you obviously love very much?
Honestly, I don’t know. I have friends who are turning to, or refocusing on, other kinds of activism—queer rights, refugee rights, raising awareness of gender-based violence.
Those are areas where change is long overdue—but ultimately, any change is tied to politics. For when the government has no obligation to listen to you at all, change becomes even more difficult.
I guess the only uplifting thing I have to say is, as long as you are still alive, nobody can take the memory of this place and what it means to you, away from you. Stay alive.