Karen Cheung’s new book, The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir, about growing up and coming of age in a city she feels is like no other, is characterized by a narrative style both intimate and candid. It’s hard to avoid being swept up by her story from the beginning as she describes the day of the Handover in 1997 when she was four years old.
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.
Cheung covers the next twenty years or so as “that space when so much felt possible” and when, at least as she portrays it, young people were forging a new (post-colonial) identity. Cheung herself had a troubled childhood and adolescence, later salved by music and ultimately her writing—a story that is in many ways a unique consequence of Hong Kong’s particular situation, but nevertheless entirely relatable to young adults of other places and epochs that face such challenges as fitting in, dealing with mental health issues, political disappointment, and navigating dysfunctional families. Her story is a welcome counterpart to narratives that portray Hong Kong as either as exotic or, more recently, as dystopian. Although she writes about various protest movements going back to 2003, also a year that was plagued by the deaths of Hong Kong icons Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, she also, by merging memoir and observation, goes far beyond the issues that make international headlines.
It took Cheung a long time to feel like she belonged in Hong Kong. Cheung’s mother was from Wuhan and had moved to Shenzhen where she was working at a restaurant when she met Cheung’s Hong Kong father. Cheung herself was born across the border in Shenzhen, moved to Hong Kong as an infant and was raised mainly by her paternal grandmother. Cheung’s father had secured Singaporean passports for the family before the Handover; her mother and brother moved to Singapore while Cheung would stay back with her father and grandmother in To Kwa Wan, near what was then Kai Tak Airport, to attend school. This split hit her hard. “Neither of my parents wanted me. My mother chose the boy, and my father had no idea what to do with me.”
Her primary school years were spent at the Singapore International School on Hong Kong Island. Most of her classmates lived in luxury, while Cheung split her time between two flats in To Kwa Wan: her father’s flat and the family’s ancestral home.
There is another flat just five minutes away where my aunt lives, in a walk-up tong lau that smells of incense and is cloaked in a dampness that never leaves its dark staircases. It is the ancestral apartment that has been in my family for five decades. I am here every day during the time after school till before bed, because it is where my father is not.
Cheung’s relationship with her father was difficult. He had an angry streak and played music late into the night—often until 3am—which kept Cheung from getting adequate sleep before school. Some time later, her father’s finances suffered, so for high school she moved to the conservative Christian secondary school her father and aunt attended decades earlier in Kowloon Tong. The dress code was strict and the teachers also preached that queer students would go to hell.
Despite her love for her grandmother, she still didn’t know her mother or brother very well and had very little to do with her father. It was only when she moved out to attend the University of Hong Kong that she finally felt free, even though she would move many times over the next six years and live with twenty-two different roommates.
Nevertheless, depression set in and during her university years she felt the need for medical treatment for her depression; Cheung was suddenly swept into Hong Kong’s public mental health system.
I had imagined a mental health recovery space with comfortable rooms, open grounds, and wide windows, not an ill-lit ward with mumbling patients. It feels like I’m being punished, but for what I’m not sure.
Although the fees were very low, the normal wait to get an appointment was more than two years. Over 300,000 people are in Hong Kong’s public mental health system with only 400 psychiatrists in the territory.
Cheung worked as a journalist after she graduated with a degree in law and literature; she places the mental health system in Hong Kong into a larger perspective, noting that suicide among students skyrocketed starting in the early-2010s and that the stigma and lack of mental health support services in Hong Kong may play a greater role in these tragedies than people admit.
She eventually discovered the indie music scene which served her as a calming force; she ironically became a music lover thanks to her father. She describes the abandoned Kwun Tong industrial buildings where bands would perform, changing up as they were discovered and kicked out by the authorities, and the sense of community she gained from attending these gigs.
The melodies cut through my cloudy thoughts. I have cheered and cried and screamed at these shows, the only space that allowed for a full spectrum of my emotions. Standing in the second row and mouthing the lyrics to the song, I found out that if the music was loud enough, I wouldn’t be able to hear the noises in my own head. Nothing I tried later in life—meditating, drinking, praying—worked better than this.
Cheung explains at the start of her memoir that she never thought she would write a book about Hong Kong. Yet as she thought about her coming-of-age years and how they neatly coincided with Hong Kong’s first two decades after the handover, she worried she would one day forget. She changed her mind; it was a good choice.