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Karen Cheung’s ‘The Impossible City’ is a tribute to Hong Kong’s vanishing way of life

This is a love letter to Hong Kong, but it’s one that is free of romanticized illusion and frank about the city’s failings

Hong Kong at night. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg News)

There’s a terrific mix of youthfulness and gravitas to Karen Cheung’s poignant debut, “The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir.” Yes, this is a love letter to Hong Kong, but it’s one free of romanticized illusion. Cheung is acutely aware of the city’s abysmal failings: its hyper-capitalism, bureaucracy, corruption and limited voting rights.

Hong Kong, Cheung reports, is changing immeasurably under pressures of gentrification and China’s authoritarian crackdown on its freedom. The protests against these forces have been well documented, but, through a blend of memoir and reportage, Cheung asks readers to step back and consider what’s really at stake. “We protest because we want to ‘preserve our way of life,’ ” Cheung writes. “But what does the way of life look like? Why are we still trying to fight for it rather than choosing to flee?”

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Cheung’s search for answers leads her to create an archive of the city’s vanishing way of life through depictions of neighborhoods, cultural practices and people. She 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 rent.

But the heart of the narrative is the story of Cheung’s own coming of age. She was 4 years old in 1997 when the British handed the city over to China. Abandoned by her mother, she was raised by her elderly, tough-as-nails grandmother. “When I fall over,” Cheung recollects, “she buries a silver ring inside the yolk of a boiled egg, wraps a cloth around it, then rubs it over my bruises to help blood circulation.” Enthralling details like these give readers a window into a way of life rooted in ancient Chinese traditions.

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Growing up alienated and severely depressed, Cheung experienced political awakening during the Umbrella Movement of 2014 and channeled her rebellious nature into creative endeavors. A profound insight in the book is that resistance to injustice is an affirmation of life.

Cheung takes readers to offbeat “underground” places, such as smoke-filled rooms hidden deep within industrial buildings in the gritty Kowloon district. These are secret sites of unauthorized private gigs hosted by artists and musicians forging an alternative to government-funded art. She discovers springs of life in these joints: proactive resistance based on creativity rather than anger. We meet musicians like Tomii Chan, who pursues music rather than fulfill his family’s wish for him to secure a full-time day job. Cheung also reports on leftist bookstores, cafes, record shops and bars where journalists, artists and protesters congregate.

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Some readers may feel that Cheung’s portraits of people are often without psychological acuity or that the narrative tells about, rather than shows, Hong Kong’s free spirit. But this memoir is such a meticulous documentary of creativity in a pressure cooker city. And it is, perhaps, richest in small moments such as when, on hearing about a friend’s flag-waving enthusiasm for the Chinese motherland, the author wonders, “How do you love a mother you have never known?”

By 2020, Cheung writes, 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 is easy to succumb to defeatism, yet Cheung doesn’t. Her memoir conveys a delicate mix of hope and caution.

Sharmila Mukherjee lives in Seattle.

The Impossible City

A Hong Kong Memoir

By Karen Cheung

Random House. 352 pp. $28.99

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