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Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Dung Kai-Cheung

Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Dung Kai-Cheung sits at the intersection of three very small sets: the set of novels about Hong Kong, the set of internationally published fiction by Hong Kong writers and the set of contemporary literature about Hong Kong translated into English from a Chinese original. The last set is very small indeed; only one other comes immediately to mind: City of the Queen by Shih Shu-Ching.

Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Dung Kai-Cheung
Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, Dung Kai-Cheung, Dung (Translator) Kai-Cheung, Anders (Translator) Hansson (Columbia University Press, July 2012)

Atlas is, it must be said, rather a strange book. It is fiction, but isn’t really a novel at all, at least not in the way the word is normally meant. It is the reconstruction by future archaeologists of the city of Victoria, which has more than a passing resemblance to Hong Kong. But it isn’t Hong Kong, leaving Dung free to do as he likes. “Hong Kong,” writes Dung in his preface, “has been a work of fiction from its very beginning.”

There are some character vignettes, but there are no characters, except perhaps the sense of the narrator (the academic of the future) and the city itself. Nothing very much happens, and what does happen, doesn’t have much direction; Atlas has no plot. It is written as a series of essays, faux historical sketches and descriptions. Maps with slightly garbled place-names are prominent as are (again faux) anecdotes involving (at least sometimes) real people. The result is as if the history of Hong Kong were told after passing through a game of “Chinese whispers”.

 

Atlas will not, I think it is safe to say, be everyone’s cup of tea. Readers who prefer more traditional fare might find it the literary equivalent of atonal music. It is, however, very interesting and translator Bonnie S. McDougall has produced a work of elegant prose that is stylistically consistent, wry and ironic; she also contributes a lengthy and very informative introduction, which puts Atlas and the author in context.

One of the book’s larger points is to question how much we can ever really know about a place or time since information is always corrupt and incomplete to at least some extent. The recent overturning of any number of archaeological certainties from the origins of Indo-European to the nature of the Maya, is an illustration of the point Dung is making.

Atlas should arguably be on the reading list of anyone interested in Hong Kong literature (or who thinks the term an oxymoron), or, for that matter, post-colonial, Chinese or Asian literature.

 

But does it “work”? This is a more difficult question. Access to the book requires some considerable prior knowledge of Hong Kong, without which one may little idea what Dung is riffing on.

The book also contains considerable social and political commentary (the HSBC building and Japanese, for example, come in for particularly pointed barbs) for which, again, prior knowledge is required; indeed, I felt I caught only a fraction of the references. I am not sure the work travels, but—to be fair—that may not have been its original intention.

 

Atlas is, however, short, just 150 smaller-than-average pages. It’s not onerous and well worth the experiment. Columbia University Press (who also published City of the Queen, which is perhaps not entirely coincidental) deserves kudos for taking making this work available to English readers.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.