Monday 7 July 2014


Dung Kai-cheung, 1997 [Dung Kai-cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall 2012]
(June 2014)

Hong Kong is a pretty special city. I’ve only been a couple of times, and at this stage of my life I imagine actually living there would fairly rapidly end up with my appearance in local newspaper stories with the word ‘rampage’ in the headline, but as a place to visit it’s really like nowhere else I’ve been. Even trying to begin to unpack the various interweaving narratives of globalization, (post)colonialism, trade, capital, and belonging that wrap around every stone of the city is a herculean task, and one I’m certainly not up to in a 700 word blog post.
Fortunately for us, then, Dung Kai-cheung has already got the ball rolling. Even more fortunately for me personally is that he’s done it in a book explicitly invoking the meaning and reality constructing potential of cartography, and you’ll know by now that I’ll react to anything about maps with the same desperate fervor as a toddler who’s just seen someone else being given sweets, or indeed anything else they don’t have (yet). It’s one of those books that is certainly very clever and often verges on too clever for its own good. It never quite gets there though, and there are a number of reasons for this.

First among these is the way it’s framed. Atlas is set up as an academic treatise written by a researcher in an indeterminate future. The first part is, as with all research papers, a literature review, which invokes Borges and Calvino and sets us up for the way maps do not merely represent reality, but in many ways construct it. It’s pretty dense stuff, as the unnamed narrator delves into the relations between the abstract and the concrete and the role of the former in realising the latter; how lines on a map do not merely depict the real world, but also, or even primarily, create it.

On the left, Haiti. On the right, the Dominican Republic

The later parts of the book move on to a series of short essays about the city of Victoria, which both is and is not Hong Kong as viewed through the distorting lens of time and slightly over-zealous semiotic analysis. And this is the second saving grace for Atlas, because as the book progresses the fantastical elements become ever more outlandish. They never quite push past the outer limits of plausibility, but instead skirt them often enough for you to realize that in amongst all the other stuff going on in this book there’s also a wry little dig at the academy’s penchant for po-faced over-interpretation of otherwise quite mundane objects and phenomena.

Atlas was originally published in Cantonese (the ‘dialect’ of Hong Kong and South China, as opposed to the prestige Mandarin ‘dialect’ of Beijing and the North) in 1997, just after the British handover, and this book is suffused with the transitory, liminal air of a state unanchored in both place and time. So in a way it’s a slight disappointment that knowing a bit about the city makes the jokes more real. While I am very far from an expert, I was able to nod along with the recognition to a couple of little gags at the expense of various chunks of architecture and city planning, and I imagine anyone with more extensive knowledge would find much much, more to recognize. This recognition can only act as an anchor, denying that very fluidity between the abstract and the real, the representation and the represented, and this seems to me to work slightly against the spirit of the book.

To be fair though, I’m probably not the intended audience and the way in which this obviously very local affair which simultaneously has an inextricably global dimension is one of the many fascinating aspect of Atlas. I would be lying if I said it contained a compelling narrative or sympathetic characters, for it has both none and many of either and both, but that’s not the point. The point is, well… the point is best demonstrated by the map below, which China released as I was reading this. It’s ‘vertical’ not ‘horizontal’ you see? And apparently the ten little red lines drifting in the ocean indisputably and irrevocably prove China’s claims to the South China Sea. The map is not the territory, but what is the territory without a map?


  1. Hong Kong is very much unlike anywhere else; whereas Singapore is much like anywhere else. That's an arguable précis, but it's my heuristic for the two overseas Chinese cities. I have to point out that I visited them some time ago: HK in '93 and Singapore in '96. I do not feel the need to go to either again, especially Singapore, as I could go to any Chinese mall north of Toronto for a similar experience. HK? Still fascinating, but the only way I'd go now is a season without filth blown in from the Mainland, and in hotels expensive enough not to have food from there either: not in my budget.

    I know the Borges story you refer to. Maps are fascinating. No geography grad but have studied thousands of maps since childhood and cannot register the cartographic illiteracy of much of the population, including my wife.

    1. I think you'd need a local guide or two to get the best out of a place like either of the two. Lord knows that with it's malls and moving walkways HK can feel a bit like a massive departure lounge at times, so the mall analogy is apt. In a bubble but so definitely not.

      On tangent, I figure we're as likely to get the Chinese dust in Japan as HK, sadly. You're well off out of it, my friend.

  2. Glad you finally read this! It's probably aimed more at you than at me, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I think the part about turning the city into a spaceship (or just an airship?) was my favorite.

    1. The airport bit? Yeah, I liked that, especially having visited the airport since it was built. This was written while the new place was still being planned, I think. I like the way this book really opens out towards the end and just gets progressively more outlandish. It's a slow burn, that's for sure.