Karen Cheung on Her Book, “The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir”

Karen Cheung is a writer from Hong Kong. She is the author of The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir (Random House), which was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, and named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and The Economist. Her essays, reported features, and cultural criticism have been published in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, This American Life, New Statesman, The Rumpus, Evergreen Review, The Offing, and elsewhere. She was formerly a senior reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, and Associate Editor at Asia Art Archive.
Nadine Zahiruddin '24 interviewed Ms. Karen Cheung on March 13, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Ms. Karen Cheung.

In your book, you show a different side of Hong Kong to readers than the one that is usually portrayed in the media. You also talk about your own complicated relationship with the city. Why is Hong Kong an “Impossible City?”

The circumstances in Hong Kong under which a lot of people live seem impossible. There's no way to win. Despite knowing that, people are still trying to manage in their own ways. That's why I set the book up this way, to convey all of the difficulties and challenges. For instance, the book talks about the challenges of renting a house, finding a place where you can be anchored. It shows the challenges of trying to make music in a subculture or talking about mental health. I wanted the focus to be on the people who were trying to live or change their situation under those sets of circumstances. People in Hong Kong are still trying to get by, the way that a lot of people in cities are, especially when that is the only home they know. They have no other choice because, unless they are thinking about moving elsewhere, they just have to live with it all. They want to try and make their place as much of a home as possible. That's the genesis of that title.

Why is it important to represent Hong Kong in a different light, away from a colonial and romanticized representations shown in the media?

I have read a fair number of books written about Hong Kong, especially in the English language over the years. A lot of the people who are able to write about Hong Kong come from a very specific sort of socio-economic background. They would have access to foreign media and access to larger audiences because they would be, for instance, English writers during the colonial era. I see the value of all of that type of writing because I believe all kinds of documentation have an inherent value, especially in documenting and recording what was going on in the time period they were depicting. But for me, I wanted to show the stories of the people that I grew up with, the kind of struggles that they went through, and the historical markers that were a huge part of their lives. That’s why I picked 1997, 2003, 2014 and then 2019 as these time markers, because all of those things have had a very real impact on the way that they've shaped our upbringing and our subsequent worldviews. 

Stories that take place after the handover in 1997 are still a little rare. There aren’t many English books that have been published about those years in Hong Kong. So, I didn't want to focus too much on the pre- handover colonial era because I felt like enough has been written about that time. At the same time, a lot of the narrative about what Hong Kong is has been shaped by international media. While on the one hand, I'm very grateful for all of the coverage that has taken place during the protests, I really wanted to see or at least depict what goes on in between the protests that people will be drawn to writing about. For me, that was the decision for the topics, the time frame, and also the people that I chose to include in the book.

Thirty-four years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, recent vigil organizers were sentenced to jail. How does the memory of the violent Tiananmen Square crackdown still affect people in Hong Kong today? Is there any path for hope or healing, and if so, what must happen first?

One of my relatives, before he retired, was a Chinese history teacher in a local school in Hong Kong. He was somebody who was not necessarily very critical of the Hong Kong government, but he felt very strong connection with Chinese culture, just because he teaches Chinese culture and Chinese history. I remember growing up and seeing all these books about 1989 on the bookshelf. It was something that had really drastically changed and reshaped the form of the stories that they told themselves about what the connection is between Hong Kong and China. On the other hand, when I worked as a reporter, I had the privilege of meeting dissidents who had come over to Hong Kong and were based in Hong Kong for a very long time after the Tiananmen movement. They would continue to have these conversations and have a candlelight vigil every year. I observed the way that they interacted with each other and all of the trauma that they still carried with them after so many years.

It really struck me what an important geopolitical place Hong Kong was as well as a haven for these people. Part of the reason why the extradition bill triggered the 2019 protests and was such a devastating prospect for so many people was because Hong Kong had been the safe place for Chinese people who did not necessarily agree with the party. After 2019, a lot of people moved to other countries, one of them being the UK where I am now. Many people thought they didn’t know what was going to happen politically in Hong Kong, so better to move. This new immigration wave, and even just observing and noticing the different trends of people, has had a very real impact on just a discourse in terms of what Hong Kong would be politically.

I am not sure whether the impact of trauma on people's lives will ever dim. For those active in political and activist circles, that trauma may never ebb because they are still constantly in the midst of reporting or reading about it. They are still going to court every day and looking at the sentences of people who were an active part of certain movements or who have been convicted for rioting and for a myriad of other offenses. I really don't know how that healing is going to happen. I would like to think that it would take place, but at the same time, there's always that sense of the guilt of not knowing. Namely, if I feel a little bit better now, does that mean that I am forgetting or does that mean that I am not holding on to those memories as fervently as I used to? 

You write about remembrance – remembering a city that is slowly disappearing – as an act of resistance. In what other ways do the people of Hong Kong engage in subtle acts of resistance?

This is always tricky because remembrance is a thing that takes place but also sometimes feels passive. It's not necessarily the same thing as going out and doing things in a community. But I do think that in Hong Kong, a lot of people are still trying very hard to make the place a viable living environment for their peers. The book goes into the subcultures that are present in Hong Kong at some length. It looks at community spaces that exist for people, but are getting harder and harder to be able to maintain. This difficulty is partly because of capitalism and partly because of the closing space of freedoms that are afforded to people who run these spaces. Yet, there is value in being able to see people still writing about the place, still making art, still doing gigs, still organizing things, and trying to create these safe spaces for people to be able to talk about their emotions and their political trauma. All of that work is very important and it must go hand in hand with remembering. Purely remembering doesn’t offer a very concrete series of actions to keep the city going. 

President Xi recently stated that Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability are “inseparable” from the creation of a strong China. What are the broader implications of Xi’s statement and what might this mean for the future of Hong Kong?

President Xi has been in power now for just roughly over a decade and there have been very palpable changes that happened politically in Hong Kong. The Chinese government likes to say that Hong Kong and China’s destinies are so tied together that a prosperous China would also spell positive things for Hong Kong. But again, a huge part of the reason why a lot of businesses have been drawn to Hong Kong in the past is because of the relative freedoms that it enjoyed, as opposed to its Chinese counterpart. So, it's really hard to say whether those statements spell further trouble.

One important thing to remember is that the initial deadline that a lot of Hong Kong people have lived with, namely 2047, was the initial year that China was going to resume full sovereignty over Hong Kong. By now, people don't really talk about 2047 anymore because most of what was imagined then has already happened in the aftermath of 2019. So, it's really, really hard to say at this point what is going to happen in the next 10 years.

It's interesting to think about what comes next. We had lived for so long under the assumption that 2047 was going to be the end, and then the end came earlier. And now that the end has arrived, what is that going to look like? What do alternative struggles for maintaining sanity look like? That is something that this coming generation will wrestle with. I still want to believe that people, no matter what, will find an alternative way to stay and be in the city and make the most of it, even under these very difficult circumstances. 

Nadine Zahiruddin '24Student Journalist

Benh LIEU SONG (Flickr), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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