Journalist Karen Cheung’s intimate memoir of Hong Kong explores what it means to live in and love a complicated city. In The Impossible City, Hong Kong frequently appears as a temperamental partner described in body horror-like terms: It’s a city that’s dying, a city “on the verge of mutilation,” a city ready to disappear. But Cheung’s Hong Kong is also vividly multifaceted, at once marked by the constructed “Hong Kong cool” glamorized in Wong Kar Wai films and yet full of people yearning for a more equitable future built through collective action and protest.
Though Cheung was ambivalent about Hong Kong as a child, an outsider in both the elite international school and public secondary school she attended, she eventually embraced her hometown as a second family after her beloved grandmother died and her father’s home became too abusive to remain in. Alongside her evolving personal relationship with Hong Kong, she narrates the city’s most significant and turbulent moments from her lifetime, including the Handover in 1997, when the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to China; Occupy Central in 2014, also known as the Umbrella Movement, when crowds occupied Hong Kong for 79 days to demand more transparent elections; and both the SARS and COVID-19 pandemics. In Cheung’s hands, the problems, charms and complexities that characterize the city are illuminated with grace and intelligence. She refuses to write from a distance or cater to a white audience, dismissing the bland both-sidesism of modern journalism.
Cheung explores gentrification not just through statistics and citations but through a summary of the six different residences and 22 different roommates she lived with in just five years. An ongoing and citywide mental health crisis is discussed through her own struggle to access reliable psychiatric care. Most powerfully, The Impossible City asks how we can belong to and believe in a city and world that are frequently disappointing, and how we can continue to care about a future we may never see.
Cheung’s luminous memoir will appeal to both those familiar with Hong Kong and armchair travelers hoping to better understand the roots of the city’s political movements. Beyond that, The Impossible City will resonate with anyone who has struggled to love their city of residence in a time characterized by political dissent, racial strife and pandemic.