An insider's account of Hong Kong--from its tenacious counterculture and robust underground music scene, to its unique history of youth-led protest--that explores what it means to survive in a city of broken promises.
Nothing survives in this city. But in a place that never allowed you to write your own history, even remembrance can be a radical act.
Hong Kong has long been known as a city of extremes: a former colony of the United Kingdom that today exists at the margins of an authoritarian, ascendant China; a city rocked by mass protests, where residents once rallied against threats to their democracy and freedoms. But it is also misunderstood and often romanticized, its history and politics simplified for Western headlines. Drawing richly from her own experience, as well as interviews with musicians, protesters, and writers who have made Hong Kong their home, journalist Karen Cheung gives us an insider’s view of this remarkable city at a critical moment in history—both for Hong Kong and democracies around the world.
Coming of age in the wake of Hong Kong’s reunification with China in 1997, Cheung traverses the multifold identities available to her in childhood and beyond, whether that was her experience at an English-speaking international school where her classmates would grow up to be “global citizens” struggling to fit in with the rest of Hong Kong, or within her deeply traditional, multilingual family. Along the way, Cheung gives a personal account of what it’s like to seek out affordable housing and mental healthcare in one of the world’s most expensive cities. She also takes us deep into Hong Kong’s vibrant indie music and literary scenes–youth-driven spaces of creative resistance. Inevitably, Cheung brings us with her to the protests, where her understanding of what it means to belong to Hong Kong finally crystallized.
Weaving together memoir, cultural criticism, and reportage, The Impossible City transcends borders to chart 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.
Karen Cheung is a writer and journalist from Hong Kong. Her essays, cultural criticism, and reported features have appeared on This American Life and in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and other publications. She was formerly a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, and once ran an indie magazine about culture and music in Hong Kong.
Cheung thinks she wrote a book about Hong Kong, but it seems to me that what she actually did was write a book about what it's like to be young. Hey, relax: I'm not one of these whiny old geezers who places no value on youth. Instead I'm an open-minded old geezer who is still not so old that I don't remember the delicious freedom of finally moving out of the house and realizing how interesting the world is.
Interesting, and unfair. And while the USA has been shameful about its treatment of the young, it is nothing compared to what the youth of Hong Kong have had to tolerate. Even before the Chinese government became heavy-handed, they were living in a place where a 300-square-foot apartment runs more than $1M US, and to land such a prize is a dream most of them will never know.
The aspects of this book that I enjoyed were those parts that reminded me of the head-rush feeling of awakening politically, of joining a cause, of leaving the family nest and finding a tribe. Less interesting (to me) were the long descriptions of the HK health care system, of the divide between normal folks and the International School kids (of which she was one, at least for a while). She is absolutely right that young folks should be indignant about a system so stacked in favor of the old and weathly; but perhaps another writer would have balanced this indignation with a bit more about the small rewards that make life worth living, even for someone like her.
I don't think I'd want her as a roommate, but I did learn more details about HK society and how their way of life has effectively been put to an end by an overreaching, tyrannical government that can't seem to conceive of any other way of doing things. Sad.
The Impossible City is an unflinching, deeply felt memoir from a writer making sense of a city on the brink. Cheung never claims to speak for all Hong Kongers, instead writing with clear-eyed yet affective specificity on what shaped her: her grandmother's love, underground gigs in warehouses, coming into her political agency as a citizen and journalist, and the strength of friendship and solidarity.
Tracing her childhood through to Hong Kong's current political dystopia, she vividly links her early confrontations with class and privilege to a reality where the city's housing crisis, lack of democracy and clamp down on media freedoms, and widening wealth gap effect everyone — that is, except those who choose to live "above" the fray of everyday suffering. She writes about the parallel universes in Hong Kong lucidly, while addressing her own social mobility and privileges.
Rather than leaning into cynicism and despair, especially given the fact that most writing about Hong Kong in English is orientalist and romanticised, she writes like someone with stakes. Someone whose tumultuous and complicated relationship with a city dosen't stop her from wanting to build and imagine new futures, whether it's through starting a literary magazine, engaging in dialogues about mental health, or the gestures of care that bond communities together.
This is a rich, deeply researched and heartbreaking book. Hong Kong as a city is often reduced by global media to a geopolitical question, but this book is decidedly poetic and razor-sharp, offering no explainers or rehashed arguments. She dares to write about things not from a distance, but issues in which her own complicity is implicated, asking uncomfortable questions, such as: What does it mean to write in English in a former British colony? What is the purpose of writing in political struggles, and how is it different from activism? And the knell ringing over Hong Konger's heads: how do I live in a city seeking to silence any dissent or conformity?
You'd be hard pressed to find another account of life in Hong Kong that's as generous and beautifully conjured as this. I felt alive reading this.
As the author points out, there seems to be a focus on the Asian diaspora that leaves out English-speaking Asian people who still live in Asia. She shares what it was like to grow up in Hong Kong, to continue to live there during graduate school and early adulthood, to try to write and find space to live, up through the multiple protests and the pandemic.
I'm not sure I would call this the most riveting read, just one person's normal life in a very specific place, but I learned a lot more about Hong Kong and what it's like to live there, so at least I can cross it off of my Around the World reading list!
And yes I know technically HK is part of China, but has a unique political history and deserves its own attention.
As a lifelong Hong Konger, I feel that Karen Cheung is the writer who most aptly captures the city in English. I often find myself coming back to the essay pieces she has written for other publications, and I patiently waited for the release of this book with bated breath.
Needless to say, it didn't disappoint. Cheung approaches many issues with a subtletly and grace that is nearly impossible to find in a sea of Orientalist literature that relies on tired stereotypes and tropes. There were many times where I would wonder if Cheung would touch upon a small aspect of HK society, only to find it discussed later on, with such nuance that it would often make me cry. It's often hard for me to put into words how I feel about certain aspects of HK society, especially in the absence of any hope for the future, yet Cheung articulates my feelings better than I could have on my own.
If you can only read a single book to understand Hong Kong, I would recommend this one without hesitation.
I would not pay heed to any reviews written by narcissistic Americans who are only interested in reading a book as it pertains to them. If the only parts of the book that interest you are those that you can personally relate to, there is no shortage of navel-gazing books by your fellow countrymen. The stark contrast in reviews by those who see this place as home and those who don't certainly reveals something, not about this book, but of the demand that 'othered' authors must always entertain a Western sensibility.
i have never felt so seen by a book. karen captures the collective heartache of slowly losing a place you love so well. also bravo for bringing an apologetically local lens on HK for english media!! anyway please read this book and see an english portrayal of hong kong that doesn’t paint us solely as some pawn piece in between US and china <3 but a real city with teal people <3
For the larger part of the past couple of years, I’ve stopped reading anything related to the city. How could anyone still read anything about it, when all that it rewarded you was a mixture of sorrow, a guilt for still being able to breathe, a constant ache in the chest, and a sense of defeat? I avoided the news when what’s left of it were reduced to announcements, propaganda, and statistics illustrating the laughable failure of administration. I refuse to mourn, to loll in the aftermath of the burnt, ashen ground, believing that “life will go on whether you like it or not”. But as the pandemic extended itself into an unbelievable third year, blending itself into the norm, daily death tolls on an unrelenting rise, I was caught in a paralysing fatigue and lethargy that refuses to lift itself.
Karen’s book, if anything, didn’t help to relieve any of that dread and depression. Her all-too-real and observant account of her relationship with the city was a reminder of how shitty it is to live in this place, but nevertheless your undeniable love for it. It gave a heartfelt account of how a race/breed of migrants who knew nothing about “home”, but slowly and unwittingly rooted themselves into this soil, and united by plight. It was keen, genuine, observant, and personal (at times a bit too personal, for certain paragraphs even if you just brush on the surface the words felt too painful to read).
Naturally the chapter I liked least was “the City of Purgatory”; when it felt like an obituary, too emotional, too overflown with melancholy. But as the author put it in the appendix, it was a mashup of writings circa 2019, and the sentiment could be relatable, and probably may appeal more to the foreign reader, when the protest was what sparked their interest to know about this city in the first place, and then picking up this book.
But her recounting of her childhood, adolescent and then young adulthood was very relatable to me, books that she read, whether it’s mandatory for public exams or leisure read like the correspondence between 龍應台 and her son 安德烈, the Kennedy Town neighbourhood, and of course, the underground music scene. I was particularly moved by the detailed account of the public mental health service, where I believe the quality of health care in a country is a measure of how they value their own people. “The Language Traitor” also put an issue I had pondered for years into perspective for me - the language that we use determines the way we think and relate to things, as well as the message and the audience that we wish to communicate with. And I do think the book can communicate to the local and the wider audience. Just as she had set out to do, the writing was legible and unpretentious, but without giving up the rhythmic and poetic quality of the text.
I generally think that it is rather pointless to read anything that you know is bouncing off the walls of an echo chamber; but in this instance it's a wrapping up of a narrative that is eloquently put together. In all I am thankful to have someone who have the literary prowess and keen eyes to write about this sicken place that we can do nothing but call home.
(Note: I received an advanced reader copy of this work courtesy of NetGalley)
Through her decision to use her own life as the narrative lens, plus her willingness to share her past with such raw and open honesty and introspection, Karen Cheung has created a work that seems to be the best intimate look into present day Hong Kong that any outsider like myself could possibly ask for. Whether she was describing the insecurities she experienced in school, or the hardship that she faced while trying to manage her own mental health, no matter what aspect of herself she was touching upon, she was able to put at least several of her city’s numerous contradictions and overlapping identities on clear and eye-opening display. It feels like the only way I could have gotten a better sense of the city was if I purchased a plane ticket and had Cheung personally guide me around. She does a magnificent job capturing Hong Kong in the last few decades as a city hopelessly caught in several simultaneous transitions, packed with stresses and uncertainties, and despite it all is still unambiguously and unmistakably home for her and millions of others.
A Hongkonger with a complicated relationship with the city she grew up in, documenting the post-handover version of said city not for outsiders, but for folks who already know parts of it, as it changes and shifts with the increasing influence of the CC. Cheung dissects nuances about HK that few outsiders even know exist: on class, language, culture, and its relationship with the rest of the world (as well as itself). It reads like both a celebration and a eulogy, and honestly just a person bearing witness to a city that may soon disappear, one that not many outsiders even know.
(i usually don't like rating non-fiction/memoirs! the rating is less of the content and more of my experience reading it) there were so many moments in this book where i saw glimpses of my reflection, resonating with the childhood experiences and nostalgic accounts told amidst present realities. this wasn't particularly an easy read in the sense that it was a read i sometimes dreaded because i knew it would strike a chord. i scarcely read anything set in hk because i sometimes disassociate if a book is expressing content that hits too close to home. non fiction continues to be a genre that i seesaw with, taking a bit longer to digest it.
It's difficult to rate a personal experience, especially one that is so eloquently written. You have to decide if the book is catering to you an artistic expression that you are suppose to soak up and enjoy, or a subjective persuasion that you are expected to respond critically. This piece of writing started as the first with the author's childhood experiences and observations of Hong Kong, and then morphed into the second with an introduction to suffering cause by the political environment of where she lived.
Her discourse is as unique as the environment she grew up in. While she berates the oppression of the China's control on Hong Kong's government, the consequential unequal distribution of land assets, and the lack of voice experienced by the non-English speaking creators, she herself does not offer any sort of solution to the problem.
I understood her way of thinking, and empathize with her unattainable desires for something better. As an observer, it's not a stretch to say that someone like her is a contributor to all the social problems she's mentioned: her dream was to own a flat and she wrote in English instead of Chinese.
At one point, it was sad to see that she started to gatekeep. You can feel the irritation when someone innocently asked her what the yellow ribbon is for when those 'international' student are not invested in a strong political stance like she is. It is even sader when I noticed that she even started to gatekeep herself, like when she questions if someone like her has the moral right to give a voice. She should be kinder to herself.
This is a raw and powerful book that gives voice to social and political issues that are plaguing modern cities from an 'outside' who grew up in Hong Kong. As a young person who does not have access to generational wealth, it is harder to make a living, to own a home, and to find a place where there is belonging. It is depressing and suffocating. This is what the author have successfully communicated in this book.
This is an unflinching look at growing up in Hong Kong's last couple decades and the influence of economic, political and cultural effects on family life, mental health, the art scenes, school and more for author Karen Cheung.
The chapters examining the mental health system were sobering. And I thought it took an exorbitant amount of time for me to get a referrals, diagnosis and subsequent prescriptions here in the U.S.!
I found the book well-rounded and very frank in its depictions of the city, from delicious food to the serious lack of space to gather and chill, to the prices. It was a quick book to cover so much, too. Cheung's narration was lovely.
I think one of the most valuable things about Karen’s writing, other than its apparent beauty and brevity, is her acute awareness of where she stands in telling a Hong Kong story. Throughout the entire book, you could feel her weighing her own advantages and disadvantages. She does not rule out her own privileges because privilege itself is a prerequisite to write a book like this--it opens doors for the author to facets in the city that would not have otherwise been available. But she also never overplays her own miseries, which are essential experiences that enabled her to have written so empathically about the many broken systems--medical, education, or cultural--in Hong Kong. This book is surely a candid and heartfelt presentation of one of the many sides of Hong Kong, but more importantly, the book represents Karen herself. It's simply Karen trying very hard, as far as humanly possible, to do justice to the people and things she loves, because she knows, better than most people, the right story opens up possibilities for so many other things, as well as other people who wish to tell more. It's just Karen telling her story, and it's no less stunning.
Well this hit close to home (literally). But *especially* the part about international school kids which I think every international school kid needs to read honestly.
Quotes I would like to slap onto my international school’s website:
“International school students make up only about 7 percent of the primary and secondary student population, with over forty thousand students in total in the 2020–21 school year. These schools were initially set up to offer schooling to the children of our colonizers; they still, to some degree, serve the expat and non-Chinese population in Hong Kong. In the postcolonial era, however, most cater to a nouveau riche and upper-middle-class Chinese population; a significant percentage of their students come from well-off Hong Kong families. ”
“For all their talk about global citizenship, international schools show little interest in engaging local communities except on superficial levels, usually in the form of volunteering excursions. But kids who are meant to one day go to expensive American universities don’t need to learn about Hong Kong. The physical cityscape of Hong Kong exists but for your amusement. You need to know only enough so that when you are an adult, you can make clever memes about which section of the minibus to sit in so that the driver can hear you when you need to alight, or what spice level of broth to get at our most beloved noodle joint.”
“I know that when they call me local, my ex-classmates don’t intend it as a synonym for Hong Konger. They are making a classist jab at anyone who doesn’t also study in an international school. Even though international and local school students coexist in the same city and hang out in the same streets and malls, they are separated by class, language, culture, sometimes race, and eventually politics. Many children in international schools have parents who will soon be posted elsewhere; Hong Kong is merely a transit stop and not a destination. The more curious breed of students are Hong Kongers who were born in Hong Kong to Hong Kong parents, have lived in Hong Kong all their lives, and have family that speak fluent Cantonese and are of ethnic Chinese origin—yet distinguish themselves from the locals as though they’re not also part of the local Hong Kong community.”
“When you can attend schools like these, even mediocre caterpillars emerge as monarchs. ”
“You know what grinds my gears?” James says. “People who say Home Kong.”
“And it’s always accompanied by a picture of the harbor and the peak,” I say.
“And yet they won’t even know who their district councillor is,” he adds. It’s these people that irk him most, the people who claim to love a place by posting photos of their hike in Sai Kung, but aren’t interested in becoming part of a community. “The international school experience is very much like the expat experience where you get the choice to care, but also you can live a life that’s entirely detached,” James says. “And it may not ever affect you, until it inconveniences you.
But James is sympathetic, because he remembers his own journey of finding his way back to Hong Kong. Being fluent in English has opened up doors for him, and he can now move in both spheres, but there’s a part of him that feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere. ”
I also really liked the writing style — it can be journalistic and lyrical and it’s all great. However since I’m not very into music journalism at all, the long chapter on the indie music scene took the steam out of the ending for me. I personally do not find the writer’s indie music friends as interesting as she does.
the amount of times i had to put this book down for a break, even just for a second because cheung's writing hit too close to home...
this book opened my eyes to the realities of living in hong kong both before and after 2019 and made me realise just how much i romanticised this city. my impression of hong kong is built solely upon annual summers spent within the comforts of my grandma's home without a care in the world and absolutely oblivious to the everyday struggles of hongkongers actually residing in this city. this entire book resonated so deeply with me, especially when cheung details her childhood. but it was also definitely difficult to get through... especially near the end, where the book almost seemed like a eulogy to the city that i know and love as it slowly slips through our fingers.
how do you read a book about a series of experiences that mirrors your own, in a different language that these experiences were made / experienced? although my english is better than my chinese by miles, i feel a distance between my hk self and my english speaking self when i talk about hk outside of hk (which is odd as these selves have never existed independent of each other), which is how i felt while reading this memoir. i felt seen and words in my disorganised unconscious finally found themselves manifested onto a physical page, yet so distant.
three years after the protests, i still don't know how to talk about home, and i figure it will be an lifelong journey. i know i probably sound twee asf (which this book also sounds like at times — got a dose of my own medicine ig), but this book stands out in how it articulates so much ~ n u a n c e ~ on taboo/niche themes in hk; abuse and mental health (really insightful altho it probably warrants a trigger warning), the struggle of new territories' residents in hk politics long before the events MNE + umbrella, the hypocrisy of ischool peeps vis a vis anything beyond SAT level involvement with hk (was super impressed by how she and her subjects were able to articulate their (our) blatant ignorance), indie music in hk (my one true love), the place (and responsibilities) of an anglophone writer in writing about hk. also, because karen is several years older than me + stayed in hk for uni, she articulates a hk i love and miss, a hk i didn't like and didn't try to understand, and she makes me mourn for a hk that i never got to know (e.g. the many indie bands + OG venues that didn't make it to 2020, the writing/journo scene in hk, living with roommates). i don't know how much more i can read about hk without going back :(
This is more memoir than history, and it comes drenched in furious grief for a city in the worst kind of transformation. Cheung, a twenty-something born just before the city's handover, writes of gigs and share flats, gentrification and street art, protests, study sessions and hangovers, and how one of the world's highest-density cities still contains communities with enormous distance from each other. Cheung's Hong Kong is inextricably tied to young adulthood, and while we all lose the world of our youth, she is losing her very city. The book pushed me to grapple with my reasons for seeking out books on Hong Kong. Like most Australians, I have people in my lives who migrated from Hong Kong after the handover. In the last few years, I have felt the tidal waves of their grief - and not just for remaining loved ones. It isn't like I don't know the reasons for it: I read the news: the laws, the protests, the disappearances (people, places and publications). But I have realised that I have no idea of the city itself. In practical terms, I was glad to have read Louisa Lim's Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong first - not only because my friends tend to be my age, and Cheung's dismissal of colonial Hong Kong would not be relatable I think, but also so I had some broader history under my belt. But this is such vivid, evocative, wry writing that it is impossible not to feel like you understand just a little bit about what this home might be like.
I’ve never read a memoir quite like this. It started slow for me and I almost abandoned it, but then it got so great and stayed great until the end. It’s a book about one person’s life in the context of a place, but the author emphatically avoids generalizations, and she rejects the idea that her experience is representative of other Hong Kongers’ experiences. She is very clear about that— that she’s not writing on behalf of anyone. She doesn’t want to tell “a Hong Kong story,” or any story, for that matter. It’s an exploration of complexities. And the writing just flows— so beautifully written! There is also a really phenomenal, mind-expanding chapter about the author’s goals and challenges as an English-language writer for Hong Kong audiences. That was my favorite section. I would especially recommend this book to other writers.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and thought it was particularly good on audio! Cheung does an amazing job of exploring issues that affect Hong Kong (mental health services, housing prices, protests against mainland China, etc.) through her own experiences, making it both personal and political commentary. She's vulnerable, honest, and passionate about everything in this book, and it just makes it completely engaging to read. I loved reading this and would definitely recommend it!
Content Warnings: colonialism, elitism, protest suppression, toxic family relationships, domestic/child abuse, depression, suicide attempts, (involuntary) commitment, illness, death of a family member
The learnings about Hong Kong and the emotional chord weaving the narrative were my favorite elements. This a book about grief and a cry for remembrance, written from the (broken) heart of the author… and that sob for a fading city and its vanishing culture is something I can empathize with. Less compelling were the mishmash of stories (the author’s personal tales interlaced with those of other Hong Kongers didn’t always make sense, the listing of artists and their achievements felt un-natural) and the writing style (with a mainly plaintiff tone, that tries to be at times poetic, nonchalant, or descriptive). The eternal question around audience and objective comes up throughout. What and who is this book for? Hong Kongers, the international community… or perhaps just the author herself?
Karen Cheung depicts her life in China, and the different beauties and struggles that Hong Kong possesses. With a broken family and a lack of acceptance, she tells the spectacular story of her growth. The story begins with her as a four year old girl, depicting the Hong Kong handover. The word choice throughout the book makes this story flow smoothly, creating almost a rhythm that the reader can immerse themselves in. Her story continues, leading into her teenage life, as she struggles with personal and societal acceptance. It grants an incredibly unique view, one that many teenagers and young adults can relate to. For me, I was caught by her beautiful language and the special perspective that is granted throughout her influential writing.
*I received an eARC via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.*
Part memoir, part protest reporting, and part cultural analysis, Karen Cheung weaves together a moving narrative about Hong Kong from the 1997 handover to 2021 through the lens of her own experiences. She talks about being a child during the handover and her lack of interest in politics growing up and the moment that interest shifted for her. And she talks about her family issues and her struggles with her mental health and her inability to fit in whether that be at the international primary school she attended or the "local" school where she finished her education and the lack of housing options and so much more.
Parts of the narrative felt disjointed. At the end, there is a note about how some of the pieces were adapted from essays she wrote for other publications and I'm not sure how successful the merge of those pieces was into a cohesive book.
That being said, I really liked enjoyed Cheung's writing. Whether she was writing about her personal struggles or the struggles of the city or the way she was trying to come to terms with her feelings on her home, the whole book was steeped in a sort of nostalgia that was very evocative.
This book is not only a memoir of Karen Cheung but also that of anyone who underwent the same colonial upbringing. It realistically depicts the mental state of being young at a particular time; from living under the shade of a conservative and superstitious family, the failing education and mental health system, to the influence of underground music. Cheung and I share enough of the same nostalgic memories in this disappearing city, including the youthful rebellion and depression. This recollection was powerful, and I had to recurrently put off my reading until I felt ready to pick it up again. The storytelling is fragmented and jumps around in time, Cheung deliberately ends the account with a series of momentous events in 2019 - 2021, which restates her purpose in writing this memoir.
Unlike most Hong Kong media outlets, where all English writings only target non-local audiences, Cheung intended to prioritize Hongkongese readers. She wrote this book as if talking to a local friend, and because of its authenticity, some messages conveyed might offer a fresh perspective to those who only consume English content. As a local, the narrative instantly resonated with me, but perhaps, international folks need a bit of cultural reference to grasp the underlying sentiment.
Overall I really enjoyed Karen Cheung's writing. A lot of what she wrote resonated with me. I did feel that some parts she wrote with a bit of disdain with, ironically, "local" culture. I think it's fantastic that she is immersed in the Hong Kong arts & culture, indie music scene, but I feel that by and large, it is fairly niche, and most HK-ers grew up to the sappy Cantopop tunes of Eason Chan and Joey Yung, or further back Sandy Lam, Faye Wong, Sammi Cheung, etc. In writing about her quest for these "unique" bits of Hong Kong, I felt like she sounded a bit disdainful of what a lot of people would identify as "Hong Kong," maybe unintentionally. That said, I thought this was a beautiful, honest piece of writing.