Karen Cheung is the author of The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir, which was published by Random House on February 15, 2022. Her essay “Cities Without Cafes” was previously published in The Offing’s Enumerate department in 2018. Q&A conducted by Mimi Wong, Editor in Chief. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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Mimi Wong: My first question about the book is: what questions were you hoping to answer or explore when you set out to write it?
Karen Cheung: The kinds of Hong Kong writing that exist in English-language literature aren’t really that varied. I never grew up reading the kind of books that I wished would pave a path for me or help me understand the world around me a little bit more or just have any bit of resonance at all because lot of the times it was written by people from a different race or class background from me. In a colonial era, it has been dominated by British people. The genesis of the whole project was I wanted to write something that felt true to my experience of the city.
I wrote it pretty frantically. The big question for me was: what happens if in 10 years none of this, none of the memories that I hold dear, or the ways that so define the geography of this place for me, exists anymore? Or what if people will remember it differently? Or if officially there are different narratives surrounding what has happened during the time that I was growing up because of political reasons or because economically people are choosing to leave or shops close down? How do I document this? It’s a very basic question. I work in an archive, as well, and I don’t necessarily do the archival parts of the job, but it makes me really want to record everything.
A lot of the things that I wrote about in the book were difficult experiences—my mental health, my pretty fraught relationship with my family, me and people around me reacting to the political developments. It wasn’t like I wanted to just finish it and then put it aside and never think about it again. But now I do feel like I want to let go a little. I’ve been holding on to a lot for so long because I felt like the people in my life that were related to these mental health episodes or these traumatic experiences, I didn’t feel heard by them. I felt like I would have a little bit of closure at least if I was able to tell [them]: “This is my side of the story. You don’t have to agree with it. You can dispute what happened from your perspective. But I just need to get it out.” In a way, it was a release. But it was also really painful at the same time. Writing is not journaling. You have to figure out how to open these spaces for other people and readers to come in and get something out of it. So that was the big task.
MW: I admired that so much in your book, the fact that you were so open talking about mental health and especially talking about toxic family situations because I actually think that is not so uncommon. But within Chinese culture it does not get talked about. It’s even mentioned in the book, this idea of you’re not supposed to air out your dirty laundry or tell other people what’s happening. I really admired and connected with you writing about it so honestly. What was your approach to writing about these kinds of personal, intimate issues? Did you have to draw any boundaries for yourself?
KC: It was really difficult. The central traumatic figures in the book [are] a lot of my family members and also an ex-boyfriend, whom I tried to write around. I really tried to not reveal anything about this person. I was really concerned with: is this unfair? am I being unfair to anyone in my life? I didn’t want to do that thing where everything that they said or did was going to be out in the open. And so, I really struggled with trying to figure out what kind of omissions I could make—to make the story still be powerful and authentic.
[For] a lot of people who write in English, and whose parents aren’t fluent in English, you feel like they’re not going to read it. It’s okay. They’re never going to find out. But I tried to be more paranoid with myself. If one day for whatever reason they did read it, what kind of generosity do I want to show them? Sometimes I think that it sacrificed more powerful moments in the writing, but that was the approach that I wanted to take. I write about that in the book, as well. I have a line about how writers are selfish people.
I’ve seen a model of journalists flying into a place, and then using people for stories, and then detaching themselves from the community very quickly. But I’ve never written from a place that’s not completely embedded in either a community or a place, and also in some sense friend groups and people around me. And so because of that, I always had to have this negotiation in my head about what I was and was not comfortable sharing, both with myself and the people I know.
MW: I wanted to ask you more about that. You mentioned you come from a more journalistic background, or you felt more comfortable doing that. You told me the essay that you wrote for The Offing “Cities Without Cafes” is one of the first times you really explored creative nonfiction and this kind of fragmented writing. I’m curious to know more about that shift in terms of style or in terms of doing something a little bit more literary rather than reporting.
KC: I’ve always been envious of people who live in a city with a very strong literary journalism tradition. In the US, you have a lot of big magazine features. In Hong Kong, it’s limited. The places I worked for, or freelanced for, most of them were very straight news. It had two categories, basically, which [were] news and opinion. Opinion is just, you know, arguing something in an essay with a political point of view. But in terms of putting myself in a scene, that took a while for the newsroom that I was in to even be okay with. They were like, “You shouldn’t have an ‘I’ in in the piece at all.” It was very much newswire reporting. But I had so many feelings!
I think that’s collapsing now, that sort of like strict dichotomy. Some people [believe] if you work in a newsroom, you really shouldn’t be tweeting personal opinions about what is happening politically because there’s still that idea that you have to be unbiased and so on. I think that’s changing, that’s been changing in the past five years or decade. But that space is still very limited in Hong Kong.
When I was writing that piece for The Offing, I felt a lot of liberation and not feeling like I had to force the more personal side of me and the more like professional, reported, strict, clinical kind of writing to never meet. One of the events that I wrote about in that piece was a talk in a bookstore that was celebrating its 10th year anniversary. A young activist, who was part of the 2014 movement, made some comments that shook me about the situation of mental health and suicides and depression in general and young people politically. I went to that event because I was writing a piece about the bookstore, but it wasn’t an anecdote that I was going to include. It wasn’t something that would have made it into the piece, but I really wanted that moment to be in a piece of writing. I wanted to have that thread of what is a more personal approach because I can’t detach myself from my identity of being a young 20-something person in Hong Kong witnessing all of these things.
It’s a very long roundabout way of saying I’m still learning to be okay with the idea that in reporting you are allowed to be like: this is my impression of the person, this is how we met. It’s not a very revolutionary style of writing because The New Yorker does it all the time. It’s very common. Recently, I read a lot of E. Alex Jung profiles, and they’re always so good and so experimental. We’re not anywhere near that level, but it’s nice for me to try to figure out.
MW: I feel like you were finding such interesting ways to tell, and maybe retell, things that were in the news first, but you were primarily interested in this personal narrative. I saw that also in your essay “Cities Without Cafes”—this idea of space and lack of space. In the book, you have that chapter on all the different flats you ever lived in. I’m curious what else may have germinated in that writing that you carried over, whether consciously or subconsciously, into the memoir.
KC: A small part of that Offing essay carried over to one of the opening chapters. A lot of people living in cities, but especially in Hong Kong, we’re so hyper conscious of space and that’s because we never have enough of it. To me, what’s interesting is I’ve lived in all sorts of spaces. In that chapter, I detail the bunk beds. I basically slept on bunk beds all the way ‘til I was 24.
It’s this constant struggle of trying to figure out a place that I could be comfortable when the space that we are given to work with is so limited all the time. It’s something that has not changed. It’s very intricately linked with politics and policies. It’s something that’s been going on for a really long time and it’s not very unique to Hong Kong. It’s just that Hong Kong gets some of the worst situations in this problem of not having enough space. Even if we’ve changed governments—the colonial government to now—this problem has persisted. People have never had enough space. We’re just constantly vertically developing. It changes the whole way you understand the experience of living.
Because I’ve grown up here my entire life, I didn’t understand what it meant to have space. There was a very small section in the book about when I was in Turkey and living in a house for the first time with a bunch of other people. I couldn’t believe that there was a small backyard, where we would just eat sandwiches after work. There was a little roof, where we could look at the stars, and we would just sit on a beanbag and talk about life. That, to me, was completely bizarre because I’ve never grown up having that much room. I think that has fundamentally altered even the personalities of the people here. The stereotypical [mindset that] you have to be a go-getter, you have to win at the capitalist game—it’s not necessarily that people love money. For a lot of people here, the reason why they’re so obsessed with trying to make more money and getting into professional jobs, like lawyers and doctors, is because they know that they will dramatically improve their living condition. I wanted that to be central to the way people read the book and experienced the city along with me.
It is a huge part of why a lot of us are so frustrated and so tired all the time. We’ve never really had open area, open spaces. The second chapter about maps is really about public and private spaces outside of your flat, where you can feel relaxed or find community. All of those spaces, continuously the government wants to take it away from you, and that really fundamentally contributes to the depression in the city. I want people when they’re reading [the book] to be able to picture this is what this flat looks like, and this really small bookstore has books all the way up to the to the ceiling because they don’t have anywhere to store it—that’s how it looks. I wanted to put all those parts that make Hong Kong feel more real to them.
MW: Something else I noticed as I was reading that helped to recreate being in Hong Kong was how comfortable you are incorporating different languages. You write primarily in English, but you’re using Cantonese words. You have whole phrases written out in Chinese characters. How did you want language to be reflected in the writing?
KC: My friends and I, we used to run a music and culture magazine called Still Loud, where we did these small interview stories with musicians and poets and different creatives in the city. Something that we always did was to embrace the bilingual side of Hong Kong. My rule for it was always that I’m going to write in English, so if someone who isn’t from Hong Kong reads it, they will be able to understand the gist of the story. I wouldn’t [add Chinese or Cantonese words] it just because I wanted to have some foreign characters in there. For me, it was always when I feel like it was untranslatable, that was when I would put Chinese in it. Or when I feel I would be able to find some sort of translation for it, but it would be so unsatisfactory, the gap between the languages would be so obvious to me that I couldn’t really just do that. So I would leave the Chinese in. When it was untranslatable for me, I would put it in because that was my experience. I lived among these two languages, and that was always how my brain worked in terms of understanding the world. The people around me always spoke different languages. It wasn’t to be rebellious or anything.
I was reading Anna Karenina last year. It took me a very long time. It’s a very long book. Sometimes Tolstoy will [include] French because in high society Russian aristocrats, they would speak in French when they didn’t want people to overhear them or they wanted to express a certain sentiment. The translators of the versions I was reading, they kept the French in there. They translated all the Russian to English, but they kept the French. It’s because it had a function that reflected class and reflected the state of society at the time. That was how they spoke. That was how I wanted to approach [my book].
Even if you don’t understand it, you know the context around everything that’s happening around that sentence. You know what they’re saying and the reactions and the consequences following whatever that person was saying. As a person [for whom] English is more or less an adopted language, even though at a very young age I adopted it, it’s still a language where sometimes there’s a lot that culturally I cannot understand. The context just does not translate. A friend told me she was trying to read The White Album by Joan Didion. She’s also from Hong Kong, and she was just like, “I have completely no idea what’s going on in that book.” Because it’s so specifically about [the] 1960s in America. Reading has always been an alienating experience. I never expect to understand everything that’s happening because so much of it by nature is untranslatable, even when you understand every single word. I don’t buy into that myth I’m being inaccessible, or I’m being gratuitous with it. That is just the way I wanted to approach it.
MW: That also speaks to something at The Offing that we really believe in. We are writing for our own communities. We’re writing for readers who are ourselves. My last question for you is: what do you hope the memoir has to say to your community? What are you hoping to communicate?
KC: I actually had a conversation last month with someone who said, “I feel like this book will find audiences around the world who might be struggling in similar political situations.” There is a very specific time and place I wanted to present and write about. This person also made the case that for people who are in Hong Kong, it might just reopen certain wounds for them. I get that comment about my writing a lot. A lot of times when I write something about Hong Kong, a lot of people after reading it will tweet me and be like, “Oh my god, it made me cry.” I’m very moved by the fact that it was able to touch people. But at the same time, it gives me complicated feelings because after we’re done crying, what’s next? It’s something that frustrates me about the book that I just wrote. I know for a fact that I offer no answers whatsoever.
The experience of the book is about surviving and trying to find a community where you can last a day and then another day. When something bad happens, we meet up at someone’s place and get a beer and then get depressed about it together for a bit, and then we continue. Increasingly in the last year, a lot of journalists lost their jobs because media outlets kept closing down. That space is closing in. It’s just continuously [asking], “How do we survive? How do we get through this together?” And I have no idea. But if the book helps anyone here feel a little less alone, and gives them a tiny bit of hope in this place, then I feel like it would have fulfilled its role and its function.
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