What is Hong Kong? On the Archaeology of an Imaginary City

January 12, 2013   •   By Sophie Kalkreuth

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 work grapples with the city’s tenuous identity.

Born in Hong Kong in 1967, author and academic Dung Kai-Chung (who collaborated with Anders Hansson and Bonnie S. McDougall on this translation) wrote Atlas in 1997, the year Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region under the People’s Republic of China. It was a time of widespread anxiety about the future of the territory and these anxieties underwrite much of the book’s premise; Atlas approaches Hong Kong from the perspective of future archeologists who reconstruct the city using the fragments, relics, and maps of a forgotten past. 

The book’s English release seems equally timely, however, as Hong Kong continues to negotiate its relationship to its increasingly powerful northern neighbor and tensions are bubbling up — be it through subway spats with mainland tourists or widespread protests against the National Education Program. Earlier last year the Hong Kong government sparked local outrage when plans were announced for a compulsory Beijing-directed curriculum that includes lessons about appreciating the motherland. Many Hong Kong residents accused Beijing of trying to brainwash its students.

The mainland’s economic power has also become a source of tension. Not only are mainland Chinese buyers pricing out local residents through property purchases (mainland Chinese currently account for the majority of luxury property purchases in one of the world’s most expensive markets), weekend throngs of mainland tourists descend on Hong Kong’s shopping malls, crowding luxury boutiques to take advantage of the tax-free zone and behaving in ways many local residents complain is uncivilized. Hong Kong might not know exactly what Hong Kong is, but it seems quite certain about what it is not. 

As a meditation on place, Atlas focuses specifically on Hong Kong (re-imagined as a city called “Victoria,” an easy-to-see-through fictionalized name, since one of the city’s most famous landmarks is Victoria Peak), but it also reaches further to examine how we create, re-create, and represent place — and more importantly, what is lost through our acts of translation and interpretation.

The book’s 50 short chapters are divided into four sections: “Theory,” “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs,” each offering a different and ever-shifting view of Hong Kong. Readers looking for a suspenseful plot, or the kind of Hong Kong adventures that have become ripe in the cultural imagination (cue in Suzie Wong or Jackie Chang) may find the book’s unconventional style challenging. The chapters function much like micro-essays, each with its own internal set of arguments and anecdotes, and their ordering in the book works in a matter of accumulation rather than narrative progression; each piece speaks to the other, deepening and further complicating the book’s thematic premise.

In "Theory,” the narrator explores, through a mix of cartographic theory, mimesis, and wordplay — and his consistently sardonic tone — the various incongruities and fallacies of mapmaking and map-reading. The collection of chapters, with crafty titles like “Counterplace,” “Misplace,” and “Subtopia,” reveal places around Hong Kong as memory, fantasy, fiction, and duplication.

Here, Dung is clearly influenced by theories of discourse and representation, principally, it seems, those of Roland Barthes (Atlas makes reference to the late French theorist, known primarily for his work on semiotics and post-structuralism) and uses these to undercut the authority of maps, unraveling their utilitarian function and exposing them instead as “myths” and as limited “epistemological translation of our knowledge of the world.”

While the opening section, “Theory,” is dense, its playful style and short, varied chapters easily hold the reader’s interest. Rather than delivering an overarching argument, the section engages in continual destabilization of ideas and assumptions, moving into an ambiguous narrative zone somewhere between fact and fiction, past and present, theory and actuality — an ambiguity that Dung sustains throughout the remainder of the book.

In a later chapter called “The Curse of Tai Ping Shan,” the narrator tells of parrots that tell an oral history of a plague that once swept through the neighborhood. With the parrots repeatedly shrieking “Tai Ping! Tai Ping!” the reader is more likely to suspend disbelief at the book’s blurring of the “real” and the “imagined.” The plague and Tai Ping Shan (Peace Mountain) are verifiable; less so are the parrots that survived and multiplied in the nearby banyan trees and were later recorded by scholars researching the area’s history. But this hardly matters. Recording history through the inarticulate squawking of birds, the book implies, is as preposterous as searching for truth in the scribbled lines of a map. “The fantasies are an extension of the real,” Bonnie S. McDougall writes in her introduction, “and therefore endlessly intriguing.”

The following sections — “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs” — zoom in on the city, artfully weaving in urban fables and historical and fictional anecdotes, including some based on the memoirs of early governors, exposing disparities between official and local narratives, places, and meanings. In the chapter “The View from Government House,” two Hong Kong governors give near-identical descriptions of the harbor, even though a century divides their accounts. Their “official” stock stories clearly fail to capture the dynamics of a constantly evolving city. On street level, gaps between sign and referent appear. Canal Road East and Canal Road West are no longer divided by a canal, and expose how a city “deconstructs itself in its unceasing growth.” Elsewhere, colonial possession becomes demonic possession when a British officer falls in love with a local prostitute and drowns in the harbor — possessed, rumors have it, by the spirit of the woman’s late father. There is no connection, Dung tells us, between Victoria’s reality and its origin; rather it is a city where “a place, its name, and its meaning move inexorably toward dissolution.”

In a tongue-in-cheek history of Tung Choi (water spinach) Street and Sai Yeung Choi (watercress) Street, residents alternate between the two depending on the vegetable’s growing season. Eventually the tradition begins to die out, and this reveals the “dissolution of spatial-temporal differences, the breakdown of the winter/summer binary opposition, and the obliteration of the distinction between water spinach and watercress.” Throughout Atlas the narrator’s voice, while ironic, remains authoritative, allowing him to move seamlessly from theory to history to fiction. It’s at the expense, however, of emotional affect; the narrator’s distanced stance, verging on mechanical at times, is unable to carry off more personal, subtle moments in the narrative.

Some of the more memorable chapters, then, are those that are a bit less clever. In "Cedar Street,” a meditation on memory, the narrator bemoans the impossibility of ever returning to the same place: “How should I find the scent of cedar on the map, or hear the sound of the wind in its branches? And how should my fingers trace the tree trunks’ rough pattern on the map’s smooth surface?” And in another, darker chapter called “War Game,” the shape of Hong Kong Island appears as a sketch in a Japanese battle game — an imagined other. “From then on I knew,” the Japanese character writes, “that a fiction writer’s greatest nightmare is to discover that nonsense from his own imagination is actually true reality.” 

Hong Kong literature, as translator Bonnie S. McDougall points out in her introduction, is often overlooked by both Western and Mainland Chinese audiences. Atlas, native to Hong Kong both in principle and in reality, serves as a good introduction to the location and its literature — and partakes in building local identity. Dung Kai-Cheung notes in his preface that “fiction has always been a means of identity building,” and in Atlas he has shown just how true this can be in Hong Kong — a city where precise identity has long been a source of fascination. Dung’s experimental prose and philosophic language games will appeal to readers of Italo Calvino, Jorge Louis Borges, and Paul Auster, and will find camaraderie here.