A conversation with Karen Cheung about her memoir The Impossible City, the nascent Hong Kong literary tradition, and understanding a period of upheaval through art and cultural expression.
By Rosemarie Ho
A man sits on a bollard on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour, with a view of the Hong Kong Island skyline in the background, 2021. Photo by Anthony Wallace /AFP via Getty Images)
For about a year, international news headlines were dominated by mentions of Hong Kong and the massive protests that unfolded all across the city against a now-shelved extradition bill and for universal suffrage. Then the pandemic hit, and the Hong Kong government introduced a new set of national security laws that criminalized most forms of dissent, and the city all but disappeared from public consciousness. Karen Cheung, who is a veteran Hong Kong-based journalist, found herself not reporting on the movement, as such, but writing moving personal op-eds and essays for major international papers about what it was like to come out, consistently, day after day, to scream at a government you did not vote for, against policies you never wanted.
Parts of those essays surface in Cheung’s new book, The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir. In it she relates the story of her childhood in post-handover Hong Kong, her fraught adolescence and coming of age (narrated in a series of apartment moves), and how she came to care for a city that has decidedly not been hospitable to her or most other people. There are detours here and there, about the indie music scene, the mental health system, before moving toward the protests in 2019 and its devastating aftermath. Cheung writes with a brisk tenderness, narrating major historical shifts within the city with the same level of care and attention as she details interactions with old roommates.
In Hong Kong, whether or not your secondary school offers English literature as an elective for public exams is a surefire indicator of the class stratum you and your school occupy. Cheung and I have one thing in common—we both taught ourselves the subject outside of regular class time with the help of teachers who kindly didn’t charge us, because neither of our religious public schools was equipped to teach middle- or working-class high schoolers bits and pieces of Shakespeare, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and other such remnants of the British curriculum as would be likely to pop up on exams. That exceedingly rare opportunity afforded us the opportunity to cultivate our development as writers within a language that wasn’t technically our first. In that spirit, we discussed her book, the positionality of Anglophone writers within Hong Kong’s literary traditions, and her thoughts on covering the indie music scene.
ROSEMARIE HO: The Impossible City begins with a series of vignettes about the different versions of Hong Kong people inhabit that form a kind of map, before moving on to your childhood and the Hong Kong that you arrived at and learned to appreciate in your adulthood. Could you talk a little bit about how you structured the book?
KAREN CHEUNG: I didn’t really go into it with a plan. I started writing essays for international publications in 2019, and at the time, I started freaking out because things were changing so quickly. Between the time I started as a reporter to the time when the protests were happening, so much had changed ideologically, and also in terms of where the city was headed and what kind of future we were going to have. I wanted to write all of this down as these things were still happening so that I could remember them. The way I wanted to write the book, initially, I wanted to include very little contextual information. At the same time, I was made very aware of the fact that I do have to explain things to some unseen audience (at least unseen to me!), and in that way it becomes a Hong Kong book, whatever that means. And for a Hong Kong book, a book to be read by someone who’s outside of Hong Kong, there would have to be basics established.
Initially, that essay on [different maps of Hong Kong that begins the book] was like an idea I had about how spaces disappear or morph from tourism to gentrification to protests. I shifted the framing a little bit and made it into a kind of map. When you read books that are not Western-centric, they have maps of places, right? I was like, there’s no way I’m going to do that. How do I protest the format and also make it partly amenable to Western eyes at the same time? A lot of the chapters have this negotiation going on, at least in my head. And I don’t know how effective it was, but that was the process that came about.
RH: There’s a long chapter where you discuss the Hong Kong indie music scene, particularly the wave of math and post-rock bands and shoegaze projects that emerged in the early 2010s. You didn’t have to put in so much stuff about bands like My Little Airport or So Boring or 意色樓 (An Id Signal). Why bring music in?
KC: I think publishers or the world would have been happy with descriptions of me going partying in warehouses, because they can fetishize that and [in Cantonese] you’ve handed in your homework. That’ll be enough!
RH: Yeah, you tick that off the list—
KC: Yeah, youth culture! If someone’s going to read this book anyway, I might as well cram as many things that I like in there as I can, so that people might possibly find and listen to a little more music from Hong Kong.
The indie music scene used to be in Kowloon East [a former hub for manufacturing], so we’re talking about places like Ngau Tau Kwok and Kwun Tong. But [spaces like legendary music club Hidden Agenda] had to move because they couldn’t afford hosting shows in these abandoned factories when the area started getting gentrified. It’s interesting to me to watch how it has changed over the decades—the reason why there are a bunch of empty factories in the first place is a reflection of Hong Kong’s industrial past. Places that used to be part of everyone’s livelihoods are now the space for art simply because they haven’t been torn down yet, and there’s nowhere else you can have the space to be very loud and make art in Hong Kong. The indie music scene ended up in these vacant factories even though it’s obviously illegal. The reasons why it’s illegal [to host and play shows in these spaces] involve entertainment licenses, land use regulations, liquor licenses—all of which are stupid, administrative things, but it means they can continually get shut down. Lots of restaurants operate without these things, but the police never go after them. Why [the police] go after the underground music venues is that they’re too loud.
Band-jais [people who participate in the music scene] used to be basically apolitical, but now a fair number have become pretty politically active, sometimes even more on the “radical” side. For me, it’s an encapsulation of what it’s like to live in Hong Kong, it’s a metaphor: the band scene has always operated under a set of circumstances where they are not allowed to exist legally, really. This has extended to everything else—we have to maneuver ourselves within a situation where a lot of things are illegal. The fact that the underground music scene still exists, to still be able to go out and have that really cathartic release of emotions at a very angry gig is still one of the reasons why I’m not dead. That’s why all of it is in there.
RH: You cofounded the magazine Still/Loud, which focused on Anglophone cultural coverage in Hong Kong, with features about local bands and essays about the state of Hong Kong culture itself. Part of The Impossible City documents the hard work that went into making a small magazine, and in it you refer to this widely read piece, “Dear Xu Xi,” that Holmes Chan published in 2017. In it he writes: “I believe a Hong Kong writer’s true test is to write for the city, which is to say for its people. The central embarrassment of our literature in English is that much of it isn’t written for readers like me. They are meant for an unseen diaspora, or some international connoisseur, peering at Hong Kong with anthropological detachment.” You don’t really address this question of audience in the book, so I’ll ask you now—who are you writing for?
KC: What I’ve learned throughout the years of insisting on writing in English, even when it does not make sense, is that when people in your life care enough about you, they will actually sit through things that you produce. I think what Holmes is saying is that maybe they’re interested in the first place, but you also have to give them a reason to keep reading. And if you’re gonna throw them off very quickly, with very dense language—for him, it’s more like a question of approach, right? When I write, I’m always imagining I’m speaking to the 100 people who subscribe to my TinyLetter. There’s a mix of people on there: there’s my childhood best friend, there’s a lot of people who I’ve met over the past couple of years who are also journalists and writers, etc. There’s random strangers. But I tried to keep it in that intimate tone where I presume you would already know some things about Hong Kong, or else you wouldn’t be reading this in the first place. So I’m not going to hold your hand through the more complicated political background stuff, but at the same time, I don’t want you to be completely lost. That’s what I had in mind when I was writing.
I always say that I’m writing for my friends. But as I say in my book, how true is that? Because my friends read Chinese books. I know they will read the book for me, but do they want to, necessarily? I mean, do you write for Hong Kong people?
RH: If I want to write about Hong Kong, by necessity I definitely will think about people who are not from the city. You touched upon this in the book too. If I wanted to talk to someone from the city about an issue, say land supply in Hong Kong, I would write about that, and I would not be thinking about Hong Kong as an entity that needs to be explained. There’s a chapter in your book that explicitly engages with the question of Hong Kong Anglophone literature. What is it all for? Just representing Hong Kongers?
KC: The problem that English writing has always had in Hong Kong is that it’s never really a part of the discourse—it matters so little. I can’t really think of a massive book from Hong Kong that was published in English that made it a topic of discussion. Alice Poon’s book Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong was originally written in English, and then it got translated into Chinese, but that’s really it. [NB: Poon’s book popularized the concept of real estate hegemony, which shaped many protests from 2011 onward about land use policy in the city.] If it’s not contributing to the local discussion, then its only use is to represent Hong Kong. But then what does that even mean? I don’t know if it’s a cop-out to say this, but I don’t know who this reader is yet. Maybe they will exist one day.
RH: But wouldn’t you say the point of Still/Loud or the point of writing books like The Impossible City is to build up that tradition so that it then in turn produces the reader we hope might exist?
KC: That’s the hope. There’s also the problem of building bridges. How do you bring people in—for example, the diaspora—who want to read about Hong Kong, but they’ve been gone for a really long time. These books can build that bridge in a way that’s more accessible to these readers than Chinese-language books. We’ve been circling around the question of class as well. Maybe one day English will be less completely affixed to class, but the funny thing about writing in English is that people will always presume that you’re rich or from an affluent background, even when you’re not.
The reason why [Hong Kong Anglophone writing] isn’t reaching a global audience is that people are not getting a world-class English language education in most schools, and they’re not incentivized to read it. It remains forever in this little echo chamber of people who understand English, and we endlessly recycle content. If writing is about showing people new ways of seeing things that they have seen before, or showing them things that they have not seen, then what are you saying about Hong Kong that hasn’t been said before, if your engagement of the city remains on that one superficial level? This isn’t just a Hong Kong problem, but one that replicates itself across many postcolonial cities.
RH: But then, where do we go from here? How do we continue developing a literary tradition under these particular political and historical circumstances?
KC: This is the thing I think about a lot—what is next? For a while, the next step was to try to develop more homegrown publications. There is work to be done, obviously, to counter the lens that Western-centric media has on literature anywhere that’s not the UK, the US, or Europe. But I feel like the more meaningful work has to be done on the ground with the people around you, starting something on your own where you could actually control the editorial side of it—the voice, how the story is told. When we started out with Still/Loud, at least that was the idea. Now there’s not even a space for us to do that anymore because people won’t want to give you money to start a publication; they’re worried that what you’re going to publish might be potentially seditious.
For a while I also felt like it was going to be through translation because the quality of Chinese language writing has always been higher in Hong Kong, especially. I was recently talking to a translator friend who was saying there are actually very few translators of Hong Kong literature who are not white or from Hong Kong. So that’s also something we can still do a little bit more work on, you know, like develop or help the next generation of people who would want to translate Hong Kong literature.
I have not read writing on Hong Kong in English that I fell in love with when I was a kid. I think that’s most people’s experience. At the same time, over the past couple of years, I’ve known so many really good writers who either can’t afford to have a job where they’re writing in English full time, or they’re in reporting jobs, which necessarily entails unofficial rules about not being very personal in other writing because that would affect this myth of the objective reporter. I don’t know where anyone can pitch or how they might be able to keep writing. I have no solutions. It’s depressing.
RH: What are your literary inspirations or influences outside of this Hong Kong framing? What are some literary models you aspire to?
KC: This is going to sound cheesy, but I didn’t know what a memoir was, really. I thought you had to be a famous person, where you’d be like, I grew up in this neighborhood in Philadelphia, running around on skateboards with kids on my block. And when I first started writing in English, I had a lot of internalized notions about things that I wasn’t supposed to write about because they’re too girly, they’re too personal and frivolous, and they’re not of literary significance. But then I read, for example, Jenny Zhang’s work on Rookie. I still have my favorite bookmarked pieces. Memoirs like The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, T. Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. I fucking love The Undocumented Americans by Karla Conejo Villavicenio—her prose is electric. Reading Larissa Pham’s TinyLetter: I didn’t know I could have permission to write that way. Those were the writers who helped recalibrate my head to not have to write in a male, authoritative way. The new challenge for me is to combine criticism with personal writing; some people do autotheory, so Maggie Nelson. I really want to write something that weaves together my memories of very specific songs with criticism and its historical and cultural importance, or something like Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. I don’t want to write about Hong Kong forever.