What Was Hong Kong? Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas

If you travel from India to China by sea, you cross the Bay of Bengal, follow the Burmese coasts south, pierce the Strait of Malacca, leap from Vietnam to Hainan, and then head eastwards until you hit the first good harbour at the Pearl River delta. On one side sits Macau. On the other, Hong Kong.

These former European outposts are here partly because they’re the end of the voyage just described. In the nineteenth century, a powerful drug cartel known as the British Empire used a route like that to bring high-quality opium from India to what would come to be called China. They named the harbour they used as their distribution centre after their kingpin, Alexandrina “Queen” Victoria. Gradually this lair became a city.

Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City tells the story of this city. It is a book like no other, about a place like nowhere else. It is classified as a work of fiction, although several times Dung suggests that Hong Kong is the work of fiction and the book is just a documentary record of it. Hong Kong, he tells us in his preface, is “one of the marvelous inventions in human history [,] a work of fiction from its very beginning”.

The book has no explicit plot; rather, it is “a verbal collection of maps”, plotting out a city called Victoria. A standard literary analysis might call Victoria a fictional city “based on” Hong Kong, but again Dung would insist that Hong Kong is the fictional city. The identity between fiction and fact can be proven from the name itself: Victoria really is the name of the harbour, but the city is called Hong Kong, Hueng Gong, 香港 – “Fragrant Harbour”. So the harbour is the city and vice-versa. If Victoria is fictional, then so is Hong Kong. Dung uses the names interchangeably.

Of course this makes for confusing reading, but the confusion is the point. Brian Castro, in Shanghai Dancing, coins the magnificent term, “disorientalist”, which I think applies nicely to Dung’s project. If orientalising Europeans fabricated false monocultures for Asia, the proper antidote can’t be more false monocultures. We need, rather, an honest confusion in the face of all the historical strands we’ll never fully disentangle. Disorientalist – in the sense of de-orientalising as well as disorienting.

Dung’s book was written in 1997 – the year Hong Kong was handed over from the British to the People’s Republic of China, to become a Special Administrative Region. The official line is that it was returned to China – as if it were given back to the same entity it was taken from. But what sort of identity holds between the PRC that received Hong Kong in 1997 and the Qing Dynasty, itself an occupying power, which ceded it in stages beginning with the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing? Likewise there was never a continuing entity to be passed back and forth in treaty arrangements and leases. The city itself was constructed from these arrangements, and its history is inextricably intertwined with the series of legal fictions that wrangled over it.

Dung writes in defiance of the epithet commonly applied to Hong Kong before 1997 – “a borrowed place on borrowed time”. Dung replies: “we belong to the space-time that is ours. Nobody lends it to us and we don’t borrow it from anybody”.

The first section, “Theory”, lets fly a flock of paradoxical concepts that tear apart the geographical and legal manipulations by which cities are constructed – concepts like Counterplace, Misplace, and Antiplace. On the surface this section reads like abstract philosophy, but it isn’t hard to see the story of Hong Kong peeking through. The chapter on Transtopia, for instance, asks “how can a place be transferred?” and muses: “when for whatever reason you acquire or lose a map through an act of transfer, you may not be sure of what is being handed over, whether it is the place itself or its sovereignty, knowledge, fantasy, or memory”.

Another chapter is called Extraterritoriality – a term of obvious legal significance in Hong Kong and carrying a special poignancy after the 2019 protests.

The chapter on Boundary explains how what begins as a legal fiction ends up as a concrete reality. The boundary between San-on County and British Kowloon began its life existing as a mere scribble on a map, but it ended up in the world as Boundary Street. Now that there is no British Kowloon, is Boundary Street fact or fiction?

Hong Kong, Dung is arguing, is not made of buildings and streets. Nor is it made of land. In fact, even the land is a sort of fiction. Much of Hong Kong is built on reclaimed land: “a junkyard formed out of dumped waste material within just a hundred years”. Dung asks: “What kind of ‘roots’ could we hope to find beneath this ‘native soil’?”. But Hong Kong is not made even of fabricated land; it’s made of maps. We think of maps as charting out places that exist, but we have already seen in Boundary Street an example of how places can also imitate maps.

Yet different maps construct the same territory in different ways. Again with obvious poignant but unstated implications, Dung explains the effect of scale:

a 1:10,000 map of Hong Kong demonstrates, on the one hand, the inner unity of the city (including Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories and Outlying Islands), while on the other hand demarcating the independence of Hong Kong as a place that is not “the same as any other place” (for the moment leaving aside in which aspect this is the case). However, when we readjust the scale to 1:15,000,000, Hong Kong becomes a barely discernible dot on a map of the whole of China. Here, the change in scale deprives Hong Kong of its independence and enforces China’s unity.

Victoria, being a fictional concoction made from dozens of varying maps, is therefore a city in contradiction with itself. It can hardly even qualify as an abstract object. But we’ve already seen that Victoria and Hong Kong are the same. If Victoria is contradictory then so is Hong Kong.

The most moving moment in the book, for me, is the imaginary description by tourists of a recreation of Hong Kong, built in some vast desert on the blueprint of a 1997 tourist map. The tourists stay in the Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui and look over “Victoria Harbour (paved with sand)”. They ride across the harbour in a bus made to imitate the Star Ferry, to Cat Street in Central where they shop for

heritage objects from the city’s past: for example, broken plastic and metal toys, moldy faded martial arts novels with missing pages and pornographic magazines, nonfunctioning transistor radios, electric fans and typewrites, corroded copper kettles, tarnished silver ornaments, makeup cases made of rotten wood, out-of-date calendars, pocket watches that had stopped, and tattered and torn maps.

This fictional Hong Kong is also a real Hong Kong: the real Hong Kong that will never be visited again but exists as a sort of desert landscape in the memories of those who lived in it or visited it.

Dung’s book is part of a great tradition of Hong Kong authors and artists working to preserve some stage of the city. Xi Xi’s great novel is called simply My City. Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love was filmed in Bangkok, so that he could use streets lined with market stalls and tropical trees while avoiding the silhouettes of skyscrapers-yet-to-be, cinematically recreating the curved art-deco balconies and mint green and pastel blue facades of 1960s Hong Kong – my mother’s Hong Kong.

Yet, Dung would remind us, these fictions are also part of the real Hong Kong, since this nostalgic haunting is part of what makes the place what it is: its phantom architecture. Ackbar Abbas once proposed that Hong Kong culture is a ‘culture of disappearance’: a culture that emerges only at the moment of being threatened with erasure. Dung writes, however, of Transtopia: “a place with transit itself as its destination”.

My mother also has taken to writing down stories she remembers from her Hong Kong, full of figures like the Egg Lady carrying her baskets from door to door, or the Dairy Milk vendor shouting “Suut goh! Suut goh!” in the street, or the miraculous invisible mending of the seamstresses sitting on their stools in the lanes between the office buildings. These, like the unearthly neon glow of Nathan Road or the red-sailed junk boats anachronistic in the lights from the skyscrapers bouncing off the water, are gone yet still part of Hong Kong.

Of course the Hong Kong of the past was never a real thing. The Peninsula Hotel and the Peak Tram, like the Shanghai Bund, are projections of a Western delusion: European theme parks at the mouths of the Pearl and the Yangtzee. Much of what is charming here is the remnants of a facade of cosmopolitanism built over an ugly apparatus of exploitation and racial discrimination. But then the Shanghai of today doesn’t seem authentic either, growing out of what was meant to be a laboratory for a controlled simulation of capitalism.

Dung points out in his preface that Hong Kong as it is now wouldn’t exist if possession hadn’t been taken in 1841. “There is no need”, Dung adds, “for its present inhabitants to express gratitude for that.” But then what can decolonisation mean for it? Only now are we starting to see. The past was a fiction, and the story must end. But now another story begins. The silent deletion of memorials from the universities is the start of a new fiction, a new fantasy of a new great power.

But even if Hong Kong is always a fiction, still it is lived in, loved, hated, remembered, regretted, and longed for by millions of people. In her Hong Kong: An Elegy Xu Xi (no relation to Xi Xi) advises the city that “A little memory is a dangerous thing: forgetfulness can sometimes be sweeter”. Yet even Xi – an emigrant with a troubled relationship to her home city – finds it impossible to let go. Since the city is fictional, it lives in its people as much as they live in it.

I loved the Hong Kong I knew, and I wonder what will become of it. Proust ended the first volume of his Search: “houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years”. But where did the real Paris for which he felt nostalgic end, and the fictional Paris he built to console his nostalgia begin? The confusing but oddly comforting suggestion in Atlas is that the boundary between them is always both as real as Boundary Street and as fictional as the border of British Kowloon.

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