LIVING IN HONG KONG is a bit like inhabiting an airport terminal. That is, an airport’s anatomy encapsulates Hong Kong’s profusion of air-conditioned shopping malls, sky bridges, escalators, and other transport systems that shuffle the masses around with coordinated ease and cleanliness. Wedged between verdant hills and a harbor, Hong Kong’s skyline is dramatic, its modern towers clustered like matchsticks against the steep slope of undulating peaks. But inside the densely knitted folds of buildings, there is little public or outdoor space, never mind proper sidewalks, and you’ll soon find yourself abandoning the narrow lanes for the streamlined ease of atriums, elevators, and raised footpaths where you will be guided by public announcements reminding you to watch your step and hold the handrail.
But a transit terminal also speaks to the city’s in-betweenness. By in-between I don’t mean Hong Kong’s position as a meeting point between East and West or a "melting pot of cultures” — phrases repeatedly used in guidebooks — but rather its liminal place and its somewhat uncertain "both/and," "neither this nor that" sense of identity. In contrast to mainland Chinese cities, where the sense of place is palpable, pungent, inescapable as the morning smog, Hong Kong — however hectic and densely populated — is also characterized by a certain sense of vacancy.
This vague or undetermined identity has much to do with the particular colonial history of this small island territory, which was turned, over the course of a century, from a near uninhabited crag of rock into a great metropolis. Hong Kong ceded to the British Empire in 1842 following the First Opium War, and, remaining under its rule for more than a century, became home to large numbers of immigrants from the Chinese mainland and grew into first a major trading hub and later an economic powerhouse, complete with an important stock market and the Asian headquarters of leading banks.
In 1997, Britain handed Hong Kong back to China and the territory became a Special Administrative Region under Chinese rule. As such, Beijing currently grants the city a high degree of autonomy: it has its own currency, legal and tax systems, and broad civic freedoms. Hong Kong is China, and yet it is something else, too. In many ways it continues to occupy a political and cultural gray area, wedged in between allegiances and facing future uncertainties — Hong Kong will be governed as a Special Administrative Region until 2047, or 50 years from the time of the handover.
As a city subject to continual renegotiation, Hong Kong’s identity remains vague: Is Hong Kong’s Chineseness the foundation of its identity, or does its collective colonial memory of having not been quite Chinese play a stronger role? Arguably what made the British colony so dynamic and prone to rapid development was partly the lack of a rigidly defined identity, an identity that — above and beyond the favorable tax rates and pro-business environment — has yet to be written into being.
“Hong Kong has been a fiction from the beginning,” Dung Kai-Cheung writes in the preface to the newly translated edition of his book Atlas: An Archeology of an Imaginary City (Columbia University Press, 2012). Through an experimental, quasi-fictional look at Hong Kong’s history, Dung’s...read more