Hong Kong Reads: “City Between Worlds” by Leo Ou-fan Lee

A guidebook is a funny thing. As a genre, it is so often trite, clichéd and superficial. And yet a good guidebook can be a Trojan horse, with illuminating histories, thoughtful literary references and new ideas bundled into an unassuming package. Leo Ou-fan Lee’s 2008 work City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong is one of those books. Structured as a series of walks through Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories — Lee describes himself as a mix between a flâneur and an “archaeologue,” which is “archaeology but with a freer interpretation” — it serves as a useful potted history of Hong Kong as well as a more ambitious investigation into the city’s identity. 

The title is a hint at what Lee, a Henan-born Taiwanese-American literary scholar who taught for many years at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has to say about his adopted home. Hong Kong is a city caught between Chinese roots, a colonial British past and a multicultural, multifaceted history as a crossroads of the world, at once modern and remarkably traditional, global and yet surprisingly parochial. It is above all more than the sum of its parts: lively, syncretic, ever-evolving and complicated. 

Lee opens his book by ruminating on the ideas of literary scholar Ackbar Abbas architect and urban theorist Rem Koolhaas. Writing in the 1990s, Abbas described Hong Kong’s hyper-consumerist culture as a response to the city’s fundamental insecurity, a kind of wilful disengagement and forgetfulness. Koolhass, for his part, saw Hong Kong as an example of the “generic city,” a kind of globalised non-place that “perpetuates its own amnesia” and is spatially defined by its airport, hotels and shopping malls. “Working in the shadow of these two brilliant theoreticians, I find myself plowing away just to pick up some piece of empirical debris or the occasional relic – a few small cultural substances from Hong Kong’s streets and from the material world of its everyday people,” writes Lee. 

In the wake of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the 2019 protests and the political crackdown that followed, Abbas and Koolhaas’ ideas ring both true and false; such is the contradictory nature of Hong Kong. And this contradiction is what Lee is keen to explore. He writes about the uproar that greeted the demolition of the Central Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier in 2006 and 2007, which led to protests, a sit-in and a hunger strike by young activists. “Hong Kong might be on the verge of a cultural awakening,” he notes. Looking back, it really was, and it’s interesting to see how Lee anticipated the questions of local identity that would emerge in the decade following his book’s release. 

Even a city that erases its past leaves behind many traces for the flâneur or archaeologue to explore. In a chapter on Central, Lee examines the disconnect between the English and Chinese names of various streets, the latter named for various colonial officials or imperial British figures, the former reflecting the day-to-day realities or commercial aspirations of the early Chinese community. (Perhaps most famously, Lyndhurst Terrace, named in English for a British political with no connection to Hong Kong, is called baai2 faa1 gaai1 (擺花街) or “Floral Display Street” in Cantonese, a reference to the many brothels that once lined the road.) For Lee, this is a lesson in the true in-betweenness of Hong Kong: the real truth of the place is in the gap between differing realities. 

Wandering the streets of Hong Kong is an excuse to explore its history, and Lee’s account is brisk and entertaining. Arriving at City Hall, he describes its bright, breezy architecture as a symbol of the colonial government’s postwar ambition to create a real civic culture that would transcend the purely mercantile and highly stratified colonial society of the prewar era. In Sham Shui Po, he explores how mainland Chinese scholars Qian Mu, Tang Junyi and Zhang Pijie founded New Asia College in 1949 as a progressive Chinese alternative to the English-language University of Hong Kong. (In 1963, it merged with United College and Chung Chi College to become the Chinese University of Hong Kong.) A visit to the Peak is an excuse to examine colonial views of Hong Kong, which Lee finds wanting for their one-dimensionality – with the notable exception of influential linguist and translator James Legge, whose curiosity and mastery of the Chinese language gave him more insight than most of his compatriots.

Perhaps the book’s greatest shortcoming is the mysterious omission of the many non-British, non-Chinese groups of people in Hong Kong who left a profound imprint on the city and its culture. There is no mention of Eurasians, who with the Portuguese and Macanese were literal middlemen between the British and Chinese in the early colonial hierarchy. Not a word about Russian migrants who built the foundations of the “soy sauce Western” cuisine that is such a beloved part of Hong Kong’s identity (and cha chaan teng). Despite consciously trying to avoid colonial tropes, Lee sometimes falls victim to the notion that Hong Kong is defined primarily by the interplay between British and Chinese, East and West.

Of course, for that side of Hong Kong, we have Vaudine England’s work on the in-between communities that have shaped the city. And it doesn’t take away from the essence of Lee’s book, which remains a thoughtful and enthusiastic foray into the things that make Hong Kong unique. Most guidebooks show their age very quickly, but 15 years after its publication, City Between Worlds is still a world worth visiting.

City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong is published by Harvard University Press. 

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