Hong Kong: haunting memoir of a fractured city and life on the edge

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The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir by Karen Cheung, pub. Penguin Random House

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Among the acknowledgements at the end of her first book, The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir, Karen Cheung thanks a banyan tree in Blake Garden. That’s in Sheung Wan’s Tai Ping Shan neighbourhood, ground zero of Hong Kong’s bubonic plague of 1894. She used to stare at it from her nearby window for hours while trying to write.

“This entire area is haunted probably,” she remarks one recent night, sitting in the garden, looking at the tree through shadows. The city, in the grip of another pandemic, feels impossibly quiet. “But it was there, kind of comforting. They’re so sturdy, they outlive political regimes and generations.”

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Her book is about trying to find some grasp of place during turbulent times. It has its ghosts, too. At one point, Cheung writes about her mental-health issues: “The condition trails me around like a cold, bleary poltergeist I can’t shake.” In 2015, after hospitalisation following a suicide attempt, she became an outpatient at the David Trench Rehabilitation Centre, a few minutes’ walk from Blake Garden.

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Blake Garden in Sheung Wan. Karen Cheung would stare at a particular tree there from her window as she tried to write, and says: “It was there, kind of comforting. They’re so sturdy.” Photo: SCMP

It used to be a colonial-era mental hospital and locals still call it “the High Street Haunted House”.

At the clinic, she longs to distance herself from other patients. (“I’m not like them – I only have depression.”) She fantasises about flashing her University of Hong Kong graduation certificates, in law and literature. But not being able to afford private mental-health care in the city is the great equaliser. Or it was.

Now, she writes, sometimes Hongkongers “pick from lists of trusted ‘yellow’ [i.e. pro-protest] psychiatrists”. These days, even troubled minds are colour-coded.

That 2019 fracture runs through a book in which city and woman mirror one another’s divisions. If that sounds a little pat – or formulaic – it is, emphatically, not. It’s a beautifully written, evocative and gripping account of uncertainty. You want to know more about this woman, born in 1993 to a mother from Wuhan, China (who was thrown into a river for being born a girl but was rescued by her grandmother) and a Hong Kong father – a couple who have already separated by the time she’s four.

Her mother, given the choice of one child, selects her younger brother and moves to Singapore. Cheung is brought up by her Hong Kong grandmother, with whom she sleeps every night until she is 18 and her grandmother is 88. She attends an international school.

I didn’t want to go for that juicy approach a lot of the stories about Hong Kong have in international media or book

Karen Cheung

One of the book’s many insights is that locals describe such pupils as “levitating off the ground” because their grasp of Hong Kong reality is so poor. When her father can’t afford the fees any more, she transfers to a government school. Her former school friends tell her she’s become “local” – a loaded comment about class, not geography.

The book is based on essays Cheung, a cultural journalist, has written in recent years, and includes interviews with other writers and musicians. The timeline between past and present is, occasionally, confusing but Cheung makes a literary virtue of it. “We are always so attuned to loss in this city,” she writes about its inhabitants. “We relegate them to memories before their time.”

She doesn’t present herself as likeable; there’s a scene when her beloved grandmother (who’s illiterate and speaks two words of English: “rainbow” and “castle”) and her paternal aunt arrive, by bus, at the international school’s awards ceremony. Cheung ignores them completely.

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The cover of Cheung’s book.

“I know that I am a selfish writer” – she states at one point – “and selfish writers write sentences into people’s mouths, smooth out creases in our history.” Yet the reader is nudged into recognising that she’s also reining herself in.

“My mother and my aunt are still alive and I don’t have a good relationship with either of them,” she says. “They’re probably never going to read this but […] I pared it back to a version that I felt would give them more of a nuanced portrait.”

Is that the action of a truly selfish writer? “It’s an unconscious sort of pushback, a little bit, at the type of American memoir that’s all dirty laundry,” she says, before adding: “I didn’t want to go for that juicy approach a lot of the stories about Hong Kong have in international media or books. This is still a community of people and I’m not trying to milk it and then go.” (One of her footnotes on “outsized representation of expats in English-language books” lists John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour [2002], Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times [2020] and Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates [2016].)

In fact, the villains appear to be Confucius and property developers. Cheung’s aunt leaves a voice message, hissing: “You’ll bear evil children if you’re unfilial.” Just before a suicide attempt, when she’s catatonic with depression, a Mong Kok doctor tells her: “Study hard and be good to your parents.” An eye-opening account of cramped, insanitary student accommodation is summed up as “five years, six residences, 22 flatmates”.

When she goes to Glasgow, Scotland, on an exchange semester for the autumn term of 2014, she thinks her life will bloom. “I had this very romantic idea that I was one of those nomadic people who would get on a plane and travel the world,” she says ruefully. But in a dark, cold, northern city, as she writes, “my mental health began to fail”.

The Occupy protests were taking place in Hong Kong. She yearned to be part of that shared history. “I spend the next five years overcompensating by showing up to every protest I can manage.”

Not having a sufficient mental-health system will leave the entire city in a state of paralysis

Karen Cheung

At one point she writes: “The state of mental health in the city becomes a ticking time bomb, one that erupts into a full-blown crisis during a protest movement.” Her book certainly makes you ask which came first, how much one fed into the other.

She married her long-term partner just over a year ago. Half the friends who attended the ceremony have already left the city. She delayed this interview by 10 days to spend time with someone close who’s now gone; she murmurs that he saved her from a suicide attempt.

Over the years, she’s developed her own coping mechanisms, which include sitting at Kennedy Town’s waterfront. (Western district, she writes at the beginning of the book, “was the first place that felt real to me”.) Amid the consoling glade of Blake Garden, she says: “Whether you’re dealing with mental health personally or whether it’s induced by political change, not having a sufficient mental-health system will leave the entire city in a state of paralysis.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.

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