The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir - book cover
  • Publisher : Random House
  • Published : 15 Feb 2022
  • Pages : 352
  • ISBN-10 : 0593241436
  • ISBN-13 : 9780593241431
  • Language : English

The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir

A boldly rendered-and deeply intimate-account of Hong Kong today, from a resilient young woman whose stories explore what it means to survive in a city teeming with broken promises.

"Hums with the thrill of being lost in this massive, haunted, mythologized, neon city, yet finding oneself in the end."-Hua Hsu, author of A Floating Chinaman

Hong Kong is known as a place of extremes: a former colony of the United Kingdom that now exists at the margins of an ascendant China; a city rocked by mass protests, where residents rally-often in vain-against threats to their fundamental freedoms. But it is also misunderstood, and often romanticized. Drawing from her own experience reporting on the politics and culture of her hometown, as well as interviews with musicians, protesters, and writers who have watched their home transform, Karen Cheung gives us a rare insider's view of this remarkable city at a pivotal moment-for Hong Kong and, ultimately, for herself.

Born just before the handover to China in 1997, Cheung grew up questioning what version of Hong Kong she belonged to. Not quite at ease within the middle-class, cosmopolitan identity available to her at her English-speaking international school, she also resisted the conservative values of her deeply traditional, often dysfunctional family.

Through vivid and character-rich stories, Cheung braids a dual narrative of her own coming of age alongside that of her generation. With heartbreaking candor, she recounts her yearslong struggle to find reliable mental health care in a city reeling from the traumatic aftermath of recent protests. Cheung also captures moments of miraculous triumph, documenting Hong Kong's vibrant counterculture and taking us deep into its indie music and creative scenes. Inevitably, she brings us to the protests, where her understanding of what it means to belong to Hong Kong finally crystallized.

An exhilarating blend of memoir and reportage, The Impossible City charts the parallel journeys of both a young woman and a city as they navigate the various, sometimes contradictory paths of coming into one's own.

Editorial Reviews

"Karen Cheung is an amazingly good writer whose precise observations about Hong Kong puncture the gauzy clichés about mahjong and milk tea. In The Impossible City, she has produced an edgy, highly personal memoir about a generation living in cage-size apartments and confronting tear gas, electronic surveillance, cultural confusion, and depression as they witness the disappearance of the city they call home."-Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy and Eat the Buddha

"With her radiant prose and incisive reporting, Karen Cheung renders modern-day Hong Kong with evocative detail in The Impossible City. The word protest lingered in my head as I read Cheung's words about coming of age in her constantly shifting city under the precarious specter of authoritarianism. There is an unmissable passion and intelligence in this story as Cheung weaves together cultural criticism and memoir, insisting that Hong Kong-her Hong Kong-is worthy of our close attention and love."-Kat Chow, author of Seeing Ghosts

"In a book that should appeal to young protesters everywhere, the author eloquently demonstrates how ‘it takes work not to simply pass through a place but instead to become part of it.' Hong Kong is in dire straits, and Cheung brings us to the front lines to offer a clearer understanding of the circumstances. . . . A powerful memoir of love and anguish in a cold financial capital with an underbelly of vibrant, freedom-loving youth."-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Reflecting on the multivalenced reality of life in Hong Kong, journalist Cheung's debut leaps from one charged historical moment to the next to capture ‘the many ways a city can disappear, but also the many ways we, its people, survive.' . . . A riveting portrait of a place that's as captivating as it is confounding."-Publishers Weekly

Short Excerpt Teaser


Summers in Hong Kong always heave with rain, but on this first of July, the downpour feels deliberate, overdone. The water is charging down the steps, drenching our concrete pavements, dripping from the banyan trees. The observatory hoists the black rainstorm signal, to warn us of tumbling landslides. It is too neat a metaphor, but still we're pointing to the sky, mumbling to ourselves: It's crying.

I am four years old. After my parents' separation, my mother and little brother move to Singapore. They live in a property overlooking the East Coast beach, where I would later spend my summers rollerblading and sitting on the back of my mother's bike. They won't return, and neither will my father and I move there as he had promised. I'd grow up as if I were a single child. But I don't know that, not yet. My grandmother is seventy, and her post-­retirement project is me. When I'm running a fever late in the middle of the night, she places a damp cloth over my head, takes me to the doctor first thing in the morning, so you don't get brain damage, she says. When I fall over, 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.

Our days are quiet, uneventful. I attend a kindergarten near my family's tong lau home in To Kwa Wan, humming along to "Descendants of the Dragon" with the rest of my class, its Chinese nationalist sentiments lost on me: In the Ancient East there is a dragon, / her name is China / In the Ancient East there is a people, / they are all the heirs of the dragon. While I'm at school, my grandmother goes to the wet market at a municipal building with a red apple painted on its façade. The market stinks of chicken feathers and animal carcasses. She puts on the Cantonese opera song《鳳閣恩仇未了情》 and makes soy sauce chicken wings, steamed pork cakes, clear broths that have been boiling away all day: dinner for me and her four aging children. Then we make the trip back to Villa Athena in Ma On Shan, a ten-­tower upscale housing estate on a road lined with trees and overlooking the Tolo Harbour, where we live with my father.

My father drives us home in his silver BMW, a new car that mirrors the swagger of the young businessman he is then, the child of Chinese immigrants who came to Hong Kong with nothing. Above us, a slice of moon is impaled upon the dark trees, away from the city lights and skyscrapers. I fall asleep on the leathery seats I would later associate with the scent of money, or I am singing along to the Teresa Teng songs my father plays on the stereo system. Teresa Teng is the Taiwanese goddess of song. "If I hadn't met you, where would I be now?" she sings over the speakers in《我只在乎你》.

My father can't speak Mandarin properly even after decades of working in China, even after marrying a Chinese woman, but he knows the words to all of Teresa's songs. Her voice coos from our cassette players, on the radio in a cab, at the local grocer's in Hong Kong. Beijing called her songs "spiritual pollution" and banned her music in the 1980s, but despite this, people throughout Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan are smitten by her, united not in politics but at least by a love for Teresa Teng.

We crawl through the Tate's Cairn Tunnel's beige interior as the line of lights above us makes ghostly imprints on the windshield. For the few minutes it takes to cross, my heart races. I'm always scared that we'll be trapped there forever, that we won't emerge, or that the world will look different when we're finally at the other end.

Across Hong Kong, an anxious mood has punctured the smog. Near my grandmother's flat is the old Kai Tak Airport, which would be decommissioned in a year's time. We can see airplanes from my grandmother's window, taking Hong Kongers far away from here, to Canada, to the United States, to Australia. Every takeoff sends tremors that make the windows shiver, long piercing whistles like a kettle going off. They're leaving for a new life somewhere before the hand­over, before Communist China takes hold of the city. I'm oblivious to it all. My grandmother takes me to the waterfront park, where I play with grasshoppers and on slides. We have banana splits at the clubhouse at our apartment block, which is guarded by a statue of the goddess Athena herself. Gran buckles me onto the stallion on the merry-­go-­round inside the Ma On Shan mall, and her gaze follows me as I go up and down and around, become one with the constellation of bright lights.

It's June 29, 1997. On TVB, the anchor Keith Yuen announces solemnly: Thirty more hours till Hong Kong is handed back to China. The handover ceremony is taking place at midnight on July 1; Prince Charles and Tony Blair would be in attendance, as...