“The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir” by Karen Cheung book review


Hong Kong, Cheung reports, is changing immeasurably under the pressures of gentrification and China’s authoritarian crackdown on its freedom. Protests against these forces have been well documented, but, through a mix of memoirs and news reports, Cheung asks readers to step back and reflect on what is really at stake. our way of life,” writes Cheung. “But what is the lifestyle like? Why do we always try to fight for him instead of choosing to run away?

Cheung’s search for answers leads him to create an archive of the city’s vanishing way of life through depictions of neighborhoods, cultural practices and people. It introduces readers to an array of characters and tackles themes such as belonging, postcolonial identity, and the meaning of home in a nearly uninhabitable city of tiny apartments and stratospheric rents.

But the heart of the story is the story of Cheung’s own coming of age. She was 4 years old in 1997 when the British ceded the city to China. Abandoned by her mother, she was raised by her elderly and tough grandmother. “When I fell,” Cheung recalled, “she buried a silver ring in the yolk of a boiled egg, wrapped a cloth around it, then rubbed it over my bruises to help blood circulation.” Exciting details like these give readers a window into a way of life rooted in ancient Chinese traditions.

Growing up alienated and severely depressed, Cheung experienced a political awakening during the 2014 Umbrella Movement and channeled her rebellious nature into creative endeavours. A deep insight into the book is that resisting injustice is life-affirming.

Cheung takes readers to offbeat “underground” locations, such as smoky rooms hidden deep in industrial buildings in Kowloon’s gritty neighborhood. These are secret, unauthorized private concert sites hosted by artists and musicians forging an alternative to government-funded art. She discovers springs of life in these joints: a proactive resistance based on creativity rather than anger. We meet musicians like Tomii Chan, who pursues music rather than fulfilling his family’s wish for him to get a full-time job. Cheung also reports on left-wing bookstores, cafes, record stores and bars where journalists, artists and protesters congregate.

Some readers may think that Cheung’s portrayals of people often lack psychological acumen or that the narrative tells rather than shows Hong Kong‘s free spirit. But these memoirs are such a meticulous documentary about creativity in a pressure cooker city. And it is perhaps the richest in small moments like when, on hearing about a friend’s enthusiasm for the Chinese motherland, the author asks himself: “How do you love a mother you don’t have you ever known?

By 2020, writes Cheung, it was clear that China’s promise of universal suffrage for Hong Kong residents – a promise made at the time of the handover – was a lie. It’s easy to succumb to defeatism, but Cheung doesn’t. His memoirs convey a delicate blend of hope and caution.

Sharmila Mukherjee lives in Seattle.

Random house. 352 pages. $28.99


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