Book excerpt: “The Impossible City” by Karen Cheung

In her memoir, “The Impossible City” (Random House), journalist and author Karen Cheung writes of her personal challenges happening simultaneously with the turmoil arising from the wrenching handover from Hong Kong to the power center in Beijing.

Read an exception below.


Random House


In university, before I found the universe I eventually wanted to belong to, I lived for a while in the “cosmopolitan city” version of Hong Kong, populated mostly by exchange students, international school graduates, and expats who moved to Asia to teach English or find themselves. I learned to see my hometown through their eyes, to become a tourist in my own city. Their paradise is Lan Kwai Fong, a bar-infested slope of drunk men and Jell-O shots. They spent weekends hiking up the Dragon’s Back or cannonballing into water from junk boats, and thought the city was so beautiful. Locals here still nursed colonial hangovers and were nice to them. They loved our dumplings and roast meat and noodles, and the fact that it takes only a short train or ferry ride to get out of the city and be surrounded by trees and reservoirs. Our public railway stops are clean and the trains are mostly on time. The good expats ate chicken feet, tried to learn Cantonese, and followed the news enough to make political jokes. It isn’t that the Hong Kong they lived in wasn’t real; it’s that they inhabited one universe in many that existed here, and they only ever wanted to get to know that one.

Through them, I understood why I had been ambivalent about this place as a child. It takes work not to simply pass through a place but instead to become part of it. I did not try to understand why the people hit the streets every year on July 1, the anniversary of the handover, because I never thought I would stay here. Instead, I ached over descriptions of young writers showing up at one another’s indie bookstore readings in New York, guitarists and photographers who shared pints together in Camden in London. I did not know enough about the place I grew up in, did not know these scenes exist here in their own form. That there are people here who can talk about jazz and no-wave cinema but also about the history of blues music in Hong Kong; communities I would want to be part of and give back to. I moved out of home at the age of eighteen, the first step in a gradual and inevitable process of estrangement from my family. Instead, the city slowly became my family. I found a place of many secrets that reveal themselves to you only when you are ready.


Excerpted from “The Impossible City” by Karen Cheung Copyright © 2022 by Karen Cheung. Excepted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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