From History to Fiction26 min read

Dung Kai-cheung on inventing Hong Kong stories


Editor’s note: Born in Hong Kong in 1967, Dung Kai-cheung is without doubt one of the most highly-regarded Chinese-language fiction writers of his generation. Recipient of a number of prestigious awards, including the Jury Prize of the Dream of Red Chamber Award (2006 and 2008), the Award for Best Artist (Literary Arts) conferred by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (2008), and the Author of the Year of the Hong Kong Book Fair (2014), Dung is the author of more than two dozen full-length novels and collections of short stories, among them Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City and Cantonese Love Stories. Ever the astute and disciplined observer of his native city in particular and the human condition in general, in this speech (originally delivered on April 4, 2018, at the University of British Columbia) Dung Kai-cheung makes a convincing case that “Hong Kong” is, ultimately, an invention – not a falsehood of course, but a fabrication nevertheless. Along the way, he not only explains why one should maintain a safe distance from easy collective identities but also shows what it means to be a fiction writer from Hong Kong at this historic juncture. – Leo K. Shin, Convenor of the UBC Hong Kong Studies Initiative


I will begin my talk with reflections on the topic “From History to Fiction: Inventing Hong Kong Stories”, relating it to the writing of my book Atlas: the Archaeology of an Imaginary City, which was published 21 years ago in 1997. Then I will go from that point of the big divide back into the past, talking a little about the history of Hong Kong literature, and move forward into the future, which means arriving at the present, making some general remarks on my personal experience as a Hong Kong writer.

I hope it won’t be too immodest for me to talk about history in front of my old classmate Prof. Shin who is an eminent historian. There is a Chinese saying called 班門弄斧,which means literally “wielding the axe at the door of Master Builder Lo Pan.” That’s what I am doing right now.

I would also like to make an important point at the beginning. History is not fiction, nor fiction history. The two are not the same thing, or else we do not need two different words, two different notions. It is dangerous to confuse them. Yet, history and fiction are closely related.

In a narrow sense, where facts are verifiable, we have to defend history from fiction. The Holocaust and the Nanking Massacre are two of the most obvious cases. But in a broader sense, things don’t seem so clear-cut. Historians do their best to verify the facts, but nearly always facts do not exist by themselves. What we have instead are documentation and testimonies, which are seldom without inadequacies or biases. Then comes the necessary step of interpretation, the area where historians excel at contending with one another, individually or as representatives of political or ideological perspectives. In principle, the line between facts, documentation and interpretation may still be drawn to a certain extent, but in fact the gradation is often blurred or the division has become hardly discernible. As the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm has repeatedly argued, national histories are invariably inventions of traditions. The result is that we simply take the interpretation or inventions as the facts themselves. It is in this sense that we may call history fiction.

No matter if we call it fiction, myth-making or inventions, it is not meant to be understood as simply false, and thus easily avoidable. While the more obvious cases of historical and political myths need debunking, in most situations it is hard to distill the truth from the cocktail of bare facts and concealed fabrications. In the end we have to put up with the imperfections of historical inquiries and acknowledge that the “truth” that we seek may not be the “reality” or what had happened, but instead a correct “understanding” of what must have happened. By “correct” we mean simply what we believe to be right, for example human freedom, equality or democracy. But unfortunately, it may also mean other not so desirable things.

The inevitable intrusion of value judgments into history brings it closer to fiction. By fiction here we don’t mean telling lies or inventing something non-existent. We mean a process of “making” or “fabricating”. History is a putting together of facts and organizing them via narration, which is very little different from telling stories. History books are in essence story books, even though we take those stories to be true. As with story books, the way of telling is as important as what is told. Sometimes, with the same facts, the telling makes all the difference. This can be most clearly seen in the historical accounts of the Opium War, in which the British and the Chinese sides draw very different pictures and conclusions. For the former, the war and subsequent occupation of Chinese territories was a historical necessity, for the latter it was imperialistic invasion, clear and simple. It is amid such ambivalence that the city called Hong Kong was born.

I guess most historians make “what-if” analyses, supposing that history made alternative turns at critical moments. It was only by mere chance that Hong Kong came into being. The decision to seize the nearly uninhabited island was made by Charles Elliot, the Plenipotentiary and Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China. On 25 January 1841, British marines landed on the northern coast of the island, at the place later called Possession Point. During the war, the British government back in the UK had wanted to cede the already well-established port Zhoushan much further to the north of the coast of China. Nobody in the parliament knew where Hong Kong was, what strategic value it had, nor its potential for economic development. Yet, because the occupation of Hong Kong had already become a fait accompli, in the end it was formally endorsed, but with its disobedient acquirer Charles Elliot removed from office. He was replaced by Henry Pottinger, who became the first Governor of Hong Kong. Elliot, the actual “father” of Hong Kong, had no chance to leave a trace of himself in the official history of the colony. In British accounts, Elliot has been described by historians as a modest, lenient and reasonable person, caring more for the Chinese than for British interests. In Chinese accounts, meanwhile, he cannot be anything other than an aggressive and greedy imperialist.

Even the name “Hong Kong” is an invention. Prior to the 1840’s, the island didn’t have an official name. But “Hong Kong” was not even among the few commonly used names among the locals. It was called “Hung Heng Lou” (The Red Incense Burner) or “Kwan Dai Lou” (The Road of Dress and Belt), but nearly never “Hong Kong” (The Fragrant Harbor). According to legend, some British sailors landed at the bay of “Hong Kong Chai”(literally “little Hong Kong”, later called Aberdeen in English by the colonizers)to look for fresh water and learnt from the fishermen there that the place was called “Hong Kong”. If the British sailors had spoken Cantonese, it probably would have been clear that they were referring to the bay rather than to the whole island.

The maps that I referred to in Atlas are mostly from this collection called Mapping Hong Kong: A Historical Atlas, compiled by Hal Empson, who was an ex-Senior Cartographer serving under the Hong Kong Government. It was published in 1992 by the Government printer. A few years ago, I learnt that there were still a few copies at the bookstore of Government publication. It is a very professional, high-quality compilation, highly worth collecting, and surprisingly cheap for its quality.

We can look at two old Chinese maps to prove my point, and also give you a taste of how geographical facts were visualized in those times. These maps were done not in a scientific manner, but in impressionistic, landscape drawing style. They are interesting to look at, but their practicality is doubtful. The one on top is the Navigation Map of Admiral Cheng He, the famous navigator who commanded a fleet of several hundred ships and a crew of over 20,000 people and travelled to the southern seas for seven times, going as far as Madagascar in East Africa. That was the Ming Dynasty, and the map was dated around 1425:

Another map was made in 1553 by Ying Jia 應檟 (1494–1554) and others, showing the coastal areas of Guangdong (全廣海圖):

Notice that neither of these maps  mentions Hong Kong, nor any name close to it.

It isn’t until  the Coastal Map of Kwang Tung (廣東沿海圖) by Kwok Fei (郭棐) in late 16th century, also in the Ming Dynasty, that we see the first and the only instance of the words “Hong Kong” appearing:

But around the island so named, we also find Wong Nai Chung, Chek Chu, Shau Kei Wan, all of which are actually different locations on the same island. It seems that the island had multiple existences before they were unified into one under the name Hong Kong. This map is the only evidence I have seen the name “Hong Kong” was used in a Chinese document before 1842. Obviously, it was far from common usage. So by naming their colony “Hong Kong”, the British created the city from scratch.

The next one is also a very important document. It is a map of the district attached to the San On County Directory (新安縣志) compiled in 1819:

At that time, the island was within the boundary of the San On County. We can see that as late as 1819, just twenty years from the First Opium War, the name “Hong Kong” had not yet been adopted officially by the Chinese local government. The name used instead was “Hung Heung Lou”, indicating the small island to the southwest of Kowloon peninsula.

The first scientifically produced map of Hong Kong, however, was by Captain Belcher, the commander of the warship Nemesis. It was a nautical chart made in 1841 during the first Opium War:

One look at its accuracy in comparison to the arbitrary imaginations of contemporary Chinese maps will tell you why the British navy was invincible and the Chinese navy doomed. This map is of utmost historical significance. It is the first time in history that we see the geographical image of Hong Kong as it is, a frog-like island lying on the southern Chinese coast. It is as if the island was created from the tip of the pen of an artist, giving it shape and form, and life as well. It is also an example of  technology creating history.

Another piece of evidence that shows the city was (literally) “created from scratch” is the coastline. You can see from the following maps the changes in the coastline of the City of Victoria, the old name for the urban center of the island. When the British first occupied Hong Kong, there was hardly any inhabitable flat land on its northern shore where it faced the harbor. The oldest part of the waterfront runs along what is today Queen’s Road. On the southern side of the road, the slope was even steeper. The only way of building a city in such an inhospitable landscape was land reclamation, which started as soon as the city was founded.

The first one is called “Pottinger’s Map”, which is the earliest map of Victoria. It shows the coastline of Central as in 1842:

The second one is called “Gordon’s Map”, drawn in 1843:

The third one is “Plan of Victoria” in 1856:

Then, we have this plan of the same city in 1889:

Now let us jump to Google maps, showing the same area today:

As you can see after more than a century of reclamation, more than half of the city area in Central, Wai Chai and Sheung Wan was created from thin air. It was a Venus born out of the sea. The act was not just audacious but bordering on the miraculous. A little historical speculation is enough to appreciate the improbability of the city – without the arrival of the British, it is almost certain that a city like Hong Kong would not exist today, either in name nor in actual fact, and we would not be here. (I, and those of you whose parents or grandparents came from Hong Kong.) I am not saying this to show gratitude to the British. It is just a fact, no matter you like it or not. But this is also where fact and fiction meet.

In 1997, the year when Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony and its sovereignty returned to the People’s Republic of China, I published my novel Atlas: the Archaeology of an Imaginary City. Its origin sprang from my interest in the history of the city and in particular my reading of old maps on the territory. While modern maps are more practical, ancient maps are far more aesthetically satisfying. By that I don’t mean that older maps are all works of art, though they obviously are more interesting to look at. Ancient maps are more open to the imagination, even (or perhaps especially) when they were badly made from a technical standpoint. In my book, I took the maps in a double sense – both as historical documents and as fictional stimulation. The former are embedded in the later. The creative conceit of the book is that in an indefinite future, a group of historians, archaeologist and cartographers work together to reconstruct or reinvent a vanished city called Hong Kong from scattered historical documents, most of them maps. The imaginary distance allows me to play with historical possibilities extravagantly.

If we say that fiction is inherently historical, can we also say that fiction necessarily harbors a sense of history? If history is an attempt to make sense of the real past, fiction is an attempt to make sense of an imaginary past. Both aim to give a meaningful account of facts. And in terms of form, both use narration. Reduced to their simplest definitions, both are “meaningful narratives”. Most certainly “meaningful” here doesn’t mean messages or lessons in a narrow sense. Paradoxically, it means form – to have a meaningful narrative is to give form to the chaos of life. It is to preserve or create a sense of wholeness amid the multitudinous and fragmentary experiences of existence in time. On the individual level, memory is the fictional fabrication of a unified self; on the collective level, history is the fictional fabrication of a unified people. It is through meaningful narratives that we achieve identification, with oneself, with an ethnic group or with a nation. But it also works under the exclusion principle. That accounts for the need to forget, to avoid or to repress certain unwelcome aspects, creating the fiction of the Other as the foil to the Self.

When we come to fiction in its purest sense, not as a fictionalizing act in history and memory, but as the art of storytelling, we  open ourselves up to possibilities that are normally beyond imagining. We can use fiction to simulate history and memory, producing narratives that contradict or contrast with reality. The whole mechanism of history and memory (or that of self-fabrication) becomes subject to examination, experimentation and criticism. Fiction makes history, but fiction can also undo history. This brings history back to its original point – the desire to form meaningful narratives. It is only in this way that we can n see how different meanings have come into being, and what alternative meanings are available. As opposed to the reductive and restrictive nature of history, fiction extends and multiplies. It reintroduces chaos and indeterminacy into narratives and yet remains meaningful to the reader, albeit in a more radical sense. The meaningfulness of a fictional work like Atlas can only be understood obliquely, in its “negative” attempt to represent reality. Unlike history which normally speaks in the affirmative, fiction imagines that which is  normally unspeakable in the negative – the spectral, the repressed, the uncertain, the contradictory, the paradoxical. While history deals with what happened, fiction deals with what hasn’t, but would have happened.

It is not an exaggeration to say that historical fiction helps us understand history. Sometimes it even supersedes history and dominates popular imagination of the past. An example is the Chinese classical novel The Romance of Three Kingdoms(三國演義), a 14th century historical novel about the wars between the Three Kingdoms during the 3rd century. All Chinese know the characters and take them to be the real historical figures. On the contrary, very few people have read or even know about the history book it was based on, The Record of Three Kingdoms(三國志). Only historians read it nowadays. But my goal when I  wrote Atlas, and when I write today, is not to replace history with fiction. I am not even trying to convince the reader that my version of history is more probable or desirable. In some cases, it is difficult to tell the true from the false, but in many occasions my imagination runs so wild that it is impossible not to regard it as fantasy. In spite of the book’s solemn intentions, it is a joke, an irony, a parody of history. Fiction allows us to play, a privilege that history doesn’t enjoy. That doesn’t mean that a fictional work like this is anti-historical, that it doesn’t respect history. In its play with history it fully acknowledges the importance of history in making sense of the past. Fiction counters sense with “nonsense”, that which questions and negates “sense” as accepted modes of thinking.

It has been twenty years since Atlas was first published. History has stridden forward at an unprecedented pace. Things happened that could not have been envisaged twenty years ago. Hong Kong has not yet joined the ranks of lost civilizations but the course of events has been so unpredictable that even a fiction writer has to bow his head in disbelief. Has fiction kept pace with history? How would I understand my role as a fiction writer at this moment when history again seems to be moving into a new phase, just as it did twenty years ago?

In the chapter entitled “Geological Discrimination” in Atlas, I made up a rather farfetched argument between two “schools” of geologists. One group call themselves the “indigenous chauvinists” because they venerate the sedimentary and reclaimed land on which the City of Victoria is built. Recent and ephemeral though it is in geological terms, for them, this is the “native soil” from which the city sprang and grew. The other group is called the “granite school”, which, from a vertical perspective, claims that the geological foundation of the city is the igneous rock strata that lie deep underground. Instead of the loose and impermanent gravel piled up in the short moment of a century, they believe that the mighty, steadfast and long-lasting granite underneath should be regarded as the true bedrock of the city’s existence.

These metaphors are open to interpretation. Most obviously, they can be taken to represent different attempts to establish one’s identity through the excavation of the “indigenous”, the foundation (or essence) of the inhabitants of a place. The problem for Hong Kong is that, as a former British colony that was severed from mainland China for more than a hundred and fifty years, it has acquired not only a different political and economic system but also a different cultural identity. This is especially the case for Hong Kong literature, which after 1949 set off on an independent line of development, with very little interaction with its mainland counterpart.

Now more than ever, I am skeptical of any form of collective identity, no matter whether it is Chinese nationalism (the granite rock) or Hong Kong localism (the gravel sediment). I have always believed that a writer, at least when he or she is writing, should refrain from succumbing willfully or unconsciously to any kind of collective sentiment, nevermind a downright ideological one. That is why I try to keep a distance from my native city, which in every sense is my homeland first and foremost. On the other hand, since I am educated and nourished by Chinese culture, especially its rich literary heritage, I also refuse to  deny my strong cultural ties with something which is both larger and longer than the smaller and briefer existence of my home.

There doesn’t seem to be any need to choose between the two, or any problem in embracing them both. At least that was what I had thought. Twenty years after retrocession to China, the tension between nationalism and localism in Hong Kong has unexpectedly become more aggravated than ever. In 2012, there were protests  against the implementation of “national education” in our school system. Commentators stoked fears of brainwashing and the government eventually gave in. Then, in early 2014, the same sentiment grew into a demand for full democracy, ending in the Umbrella Movement that autumn. This time, the government, with backing from the central government, stood firm. Some disillusioned young people were then driven to advocating for full independence. Extreme as it sounds and unviable as it is likely to be, this new movement indicates that the younger generation no longer wants to identify with anything Chinese. Localism has turned into a potential nationalism. But, as I have said before, all nations are fictional inventions — even abortive ones.

Personally, I find both forms of nationalism suspicious. Attached as I am to my home city emotionally, I feel uneasy about the essentialization of “Hong Kong” under the principles of inclusion and exclusion. Hong Kong literature, as a minor one, has long been striving for self-definition. Yet now that the time has evidently come for a forging of a proto-nationalism (or pseudo-nationalism), I feel hesitant about embracing it without reservation. At the same time, neither am I disposed to the Chinese option, which is quickly becoming indistinguishable from pledging loyalty to an authoritarian state.

As a writer, I can only opt for language itself as my “homeland.” A short book of mine was published in English translation last year, entitled Cantonese Love Stories. It belongs to a series put together by Penguin China to commemoration the twentieth anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China. It is a selection from a series of stories I wrote right after 1997. To call them “love stories” is perhaps a little deceptive but the stress on “Cantonese” is far from frivolous. It is in all seriousness a literary statement. The work is “Cantonese” both in terms of its language, which is infused with colloquial usages, and in terms of its content, which is a collection of stories reflecting local lifestyle. I do not assume that this short book or myself as a writer is able to represent the whole of Hong Kong literature. Yet as a specimen, it expresses something which is essential. It is this something that I share with many other Hong Kong writers. What is it? It is our language experience.

I do not call it “our language” but “our language experience” because what I want to emphasize is not an abstract system of language as such, but a language in practice as the common experience of a people. The language I am talking about, of course, is Cantonese, which is called either Yueyu or Guangdonghua in Modern Standard Chinese. (I will put aside the arguments of whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect and call it a language loosely.) It is the language spoken primarily by the inhabitants of Guangdong province in southern China, the descendants of whom make up the majority of the population in Hong Kong. Preserving many features of mediaeval Chinese, it originated in the central parts of China and was brought to the south by waves of immigrants over the last thousand years. It has been pointed out by scholars that its pronunciation is very close to that of the common language in the Tang dynasty. (That is one reason why many people believe the poems of Li Bai and Du Fu sound best recited in Cantonese.)

The history of Hong Kong literature, short though it is, can be traced back to the 1920s. Except in its early days, when it closely followed the steps of the New Literary Movement on the mainland, as I have said before, after the communist takeover of China in 1949 Hong Kong literature was left on its own and followed an independent path of development. However, apart from political and historical factors, important as they are, it is the Cantonese language we speak that forges most forcefully the identity of Hong Kong literature. Admittedly, not all writers in Hong Kong speak Cantonese as their mother language. There was a notable a generation of immigrant Chinese writers from the mainland after the Second World War who spoke in various tongues of the north, and most certainly these predecessors have their place in and contribution to Hong Kong literature. Yet I believe that it is both fair and sensible to say that the majority of local writers are Cantonese speakers. This very fact of linguistic upbringing must have a tremendous effect on them when they take to writing.

The language situation in Hong Kong is tricky, because for the majority who speak Cantonese there is also a rift between speech and text. When we talk and read aloud we use Cantonese, but when we write we use Modern Standard Chinese. Therefore, language practice is split into two different forms, spoken and written, which not only employ different pronunciations but sometimes even different vocabulary and grammar. For us, the ability to write in Modern Standard Chinese is acquired through education and it involves quite some effort in “mental translation” at the beginning. Though it is true that Cantonese does not yet have an official and standardized written form, that doesn’t mean it cannot be put down in script. In fact, the practice of transcribing Cantonese can be dated back to the early nineteenth century. Since Cantonese is a branch of the Chinese language family it shares most of its words with standard modern Chinese. For those words that cannot be found in ordinary dictionaries or texts, there have been customary solutions using either borrowings or characters invented specifically for Cantonese. Therefore, there has long been workable written forms of Cantonese, with regional and historical variants, yet fully recognizable and understandable to any Cantonese speaker. These are widely used in the media and in personal written communications.

It would also be self-deceiving to say that linguistic conditions as such do not have an impact on literary writing. Virtually all Cantonese speakers learn to write Modern Standard Chinese for written communication. Although all Hong Kong writers acquire a high proficiency in written Chinese, their Cantonese background gives their language a nuance which is unique to this literature. The infusion of Cantonese elements ranges  from scattered Cantonese words and expressions, to more extensive experiments in writing whole dialogues or passages in the colloquial form. No matter what, our language experience has been deeply infused into our sensibility and thus our literary style.

This nonequivalence of speech and text is often cited (by critics) as the reason for Hong Kong students’ inability to write “good” Chinese, and the proposed remedy for it is to use Mandarin in place of Cantonese as the medium of instruction in schools. It is assumed that competence in speaking Mandarin will automatically bring about competence in Chinese writing. But there has also been research that refutes such assumptions.

More controversially, there has has recently an opposite movement, one that advocates the full use of Cantonese as a means of writing. According to this view, Chinese (both its modern and ancient form) is a foreign language, imposed on us by a foreign power. Our mother-tongue is Cantonese, and so we should write according to how we speak. Hongkongers should write Cantonese, not Modern Standard Chinese. We should no more write in Modern Standard Chinese that we should start speaking Mandarin. The supporters of this claim are without exception radical localists, mostly young people and students, who dream of fostering an independent Hong Kong identity, and thus a Hong Kong Nation, through linguistic revolution. While Hong Kong identity is real, the projected “Hong Kong Nation” is obviously fiction. To my mind, the possibility of its becoming historical fact is low.

As a writer, I have used Cantonese extensively in my works and hope to see Cantonese continuing to thrive in everyday usage. My mother tongue, my language experience, will be the last thing I will give up. Yet I do not agree that Modern Standard Chinese is a foreign language that has nothing to do with our cultural heritage. I simply don’t see why we can’t have both. We may have a cultural identity that is unique, but we also belong to a worldwide Chinese community, including not just the Mainland, but also Taiwan, Southeast Asia and overseas. The common language of this community is modern Chinese. It would be stupid and self-harming to cut our ties with other Chinese communities. It will not enrich our sensibility but will only deplete it. It is an act of self-destruction. We have to understand that Cantonese and modern Chinese should not be opposed to one another because of political reasons. The two are closely related to each other, and it is better to have a double heritage than a single one.

For me, the non-equivalence between speaking and writing is more of a blessing than a curse. It is this rift between spoken and written language that instills in Hong Kong writers the awareness of the possibility of linguistic innovation. It endows me with a much richer linguistic resource and benefits me with a more acute sense of reflection. We have learnt from our linguistic experience that nothing is taken for granted, that nothing comes automatically, ready-made. All is the product of fabrication, and a matter of choice. By consciously departing from linguistic norms; Hong Kong literature challenges broader notions of unity, oneness, normality and conformity. It seems strange to find or found a “home” on a “land” so negative and insubstantial. But I believe it is what literature is all about – openness and freedom with no positive terms. Neither granite nor gravel are the true ground. There may not even be a ground at all. And if there is, it is certainly not something which is permanent and immovable, but elusive and always in flux and change. It is neither in Chinese nor in Cantonese but in the inescapable fissures and ruptures between them that we find our true home. Thanks to the rift, I am what I am – a Hong Kong writer. ∎


An earlier version of this speech was delivered on April 4, 2018, at the University of British Columbia as part of the City Inscribed series presented by the UBC Hong Kong Studies Initiative in celebration of the launch of the new course “Literature of Hong Kong.” The visit by Dung Kai-cheung was made possible by the generous support of: Department of Asian Studies, Modern Chinese Culture Seminar, Centre for Chinese Research, Department of History, Department of English, Asian Library, St. John’s College, UBC Partnership Recognition Fund, Vancouver Hong Kong Forum Society, Chinese Canadian Writers’ Association, and Richmond Public Library.

Dung Kai-cheung

Dung Kai-cheung is the author of more than two dozen full-length novels and collections of short stories. Among his publications, Atlas: The Archeology of an Imaginary City (Columbia University Press) and Cantonese Love Stories (Penguin), are both available in English. His third book length English translation will be released by Muse as The History of Vivi and Vera written by Dung Kai-cheung Under the Inspiration of the Ancient Chinese Treatise Celestial Creations and the Works of Man in June, 2018.