so close, yet so off

Karen Cheung interrogates the desire to name, and giving yourself permission to write something that feels real.

Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.




An editor and I are having an argument over a short story I’ve written. The story features fish that flail inside red plastic bags, real estate agents that accost you outside shiny malls, and a woman who dreamt of winning beauty pageants as a little girl but grew up to become an air stewardess with perpetual back pain. I find it somewhat frustrating that we don’t get proper nouns or place names, he says. That’s where the meatiness of a story comes from, those concrete details. I tell him that I know he’s probably right, but these days I have this mental block that keeps me from calling the city Hong Kong. If I name the city, I won’t be able to write about this place at all, I say. The editor doesn’t understand. In subsequent rounds of editing the draft, he keeps inserting demands for names: name the street, name this island, for heaven’s sake just name this place, give the readers some specificity!


*   *   *


In a lecture given by Hong Kong poet and scholar Tammy Ho Lai Ming in November 2016 titled “Can we say Hong Kong,” Ho imagines several scenarios where one would not be able to simply say the words Hong Kong: Hong Kong has been rendered obsolete as a term, or it has become taboo, or the name itself is censored. Thankfully, she says then, none of this has yet happened. But the question itself is a provocation: Ho wants us to consider the possibility that one day, we would not be able to say the name of the city anymore, “or at least not in the way we prefer.” The act of saying, she continues, also extends to “expressing,” “articulating,” and “representing.” To say Hong Kong is to understand that there is an inherent responsibility in naming the city—for instance, to represent an experience that at least takes into account the realities of its inhabitants.1

But why is it that writers from Hong Kong, those who are the most well-placed to do this act of articulating and representing, so often abbreviate or anonymise the city in their works? I’m thinking of how Dung Kai Cheung fictionalises Hong Kong as a lost city of Victoria in Atlas; Xi Xi’s “Fertilia” as Hong Kong; more recently, Dorothy Tse recasting Hong Kong as “Nevers” in Owlish, and Hon Lai Chu calling the place “H City” in her social media posts. It would be tempting to attribute the recent examples as an act of self-censorship in light of the latest political developments, but I feel other impulses at play here. As Jennifer Feeley notes, “Renaming or not naming Hong Kong gives these authors the freedom to construct competing versions of the city vis-à-vis its official history, enabling them to invent their own limitless realities.” And in Tse’s own words, in reference to her work prior to Owlish:

I cannot object to a reader trying to find some kind of Hong Kong-ness in my writing. However, once you begin to write, your identity starts to blur…writing is essential to me because it is a way to become another person. Different selves are created when you begin to write, and so are the worlds they belong to. Being a Hongkonger and the experiences I had growing up…are, of course, essential to me, but only to me, it is just one kind of reality. I am more interested in themes like transformation, crossing boundaries, escaping.[2]

What if calling it something other than Hong Kong is the only way the writers could artificially impose a critical distance that would allow them to write at all? What if, by not saying Hong Kong, they are able to get closer to a truth that they would otherwise be unable to access?


*   *   *


I didn’t use to find it difficult to say Hong Kong. Last year I published a memoir in which, according to a quick PDF search, the words Hong Kong appeared a total of 865 times. I have spent the last decade of my life aggressively writing Hong Kong into every draft, whether it was a status report on yet another facet of freedom being eroded away in the city or some personal essay where the only reason I was commissioned was so I could assert some authority as a “Hong Kong writer.” There is Hong Kong in the title of almost every essay I’ve written for an international publication.

I write a long email to the editor, explaining that this refusal on my part to say Hong Kong is not some creative rejection of literary conventions, but a fairly new development. It isn’t only because I want to mask and protect the identities of the people around me, or even to free myself from “factual” descriptions of Hong Kong politics out of fear of the national security law. It’s also because: when everybody tells you that this place you’re from is supposedly dead, you really have to be its PR person if you still want this vague non-entity of the “international community” to support your city. You can criticise it, sure, but your criticism should be directed towards the enemy—the state, the institutions, the gatekeepers—and not your own people, even when they’re behaving in ways that make you want to stab them in the eye. But I’m tired of this, I say to the editor. I want to be petty and harsh and unkind, and to do that I simply can’t say Hong Kong, I have to call it something else entirely so I can write the material at all. It’s this elaborate mind game I’m playing with myself. 

Can we perhaps interrogate this desire to name something, I ask. Is it so a reader can Google a place to know it’s real, which would supposedly be a more satisfying reading experience, even though readers would likely have no frame of reference for the place if they’ve never been to Hong Kong anyway? If what we want are names, would it perhaps help if, say, I give something a fake place name that has no real-world counterpart?

The editor doesn’t address any of these questions. Peng Chau, Des Voeux Road West, Sycamore Street. Why don’t you just call it what it is, he says again. I punch my keyboard in frustration.


*   *   *


Maybe if you want to continue to write and still stay in Hong Kong, you should try publishing under a pseudonym, a well-meaning friend suggests. A thought then comes to me, one that is both morbid and deeply narcissistic: is it general suffering in Hong Kong that people want to read about, or a suffering that is now specific to me and attached to my name?


*   *   *


Do names matter? A good name, as writing advice goes, is an opportunity to signify the race, class background, and period of time that a character is situated within the story. The names of the people in my writing do none of these things. It’s because I let my friends pick their own pseudonyms. I don’t like giving my friends a fake name. To call someone in my life by another name in a piece stinks of dishonesty to me, even though it is an established practice in “creative” nonfiction writing. What I want is total truth, not something that only resembles it.

I think part of this discomfort arose from my background in journalism and its emphasis on factuality, but also as a general consequence of living in Hong Kong. When you’re in a city where politicians continually try to alter history in order to serve the interests of the regime, you naturally feel this sense of responsibility towards adhering as closely as you can to the “truth.” Because of this, I keep running into practical difficulties when I try to write memoir or nonfiction: I haven’t permitted myself the creative liberties of having composite characters, or filling in memory gaps with an artistic rendition of the event. Instead, I opt for time jumps, which could end up feeling jarring or incomplete or just plain unsatisfactory as a reading experience.

The only way I feel I can circumvent this artifice of turning a person into a character is if I collaborate with the person themselves. One friend opted for “Bianca” because she liked Bianca Belair, a WWE wrestler. Another friend said he wanted to be called “Gareth” because his favourite footballer was Gareth Bale. I love the ridiculousness of this. I don’t know a single Hong Kong person named Gareth or Bianca. “Gareth’s” real name is something much more Hong Kong: a variation of a popular biblical name, with the “s” is swapped for a “z,” presumably because the z looked cooler to a first grader, which is when we are often told to pick our English names. His actual name has more of a story to it: it elucidates our complicated relationship with the English language and what it reveals about class—the fact that he named himself, for instance, suggests that he did not have middle-class parents who had codified an English name into his HKID. It also encapsulates this feeble attempt of exerting some control or sense of individuality over this language that had belonged to our colonisers.

By calling him Gareth, all of this is taken away. But his only role in that piece of writing was to serve as an old friend who left me food I could come home to and hold my hair back as I puke into a toilet. Him being called Gareth didn’t alter that truth.  


*   *   *


The editor in the first anecdote in this piece is not really an editor, and this short story does not actually exist. The details of what happened are obscured because it is an episode I am not at liberty to share for a variety of reasons, and they are presented here as such to prove a point. It is truthful insofar as these interactions did take place and prompted an intense existential crisis on my part over the nature of names, and what it means to say Hong Kong during this time. And that truth matters more than who this person is and what the story actually says. 

Maybe we changed somebody’s name because it involves a complicated relationship between us and that person, the intricacies of which we are unable to articulate without the protection of anonymity. Maybe it is because we live in times when to name would be to threaten the safety of people we love. Or maybe it is simply an act of artistic expression, a means of imbuing another layer of meaning. Sometimes we christen people and places with a new name not because we want to obfuscate the truth, but because the name itself is an impediment to expressing that truth.

Call it Nevers, call it H City, call it anything you want. Whatever it takes to give yourself permission to write something that feels real.



Karen Cheung is a writer from Hong Kong. She is the author of The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, New Statesman, The Rumpus, Evergreen Review, The Offing, and elsewhere. She currently co-runs the literary journal Cicada.

Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee. 




1. In summer of 2023, I saw a play that purported to be about the Hong Kong protests at the Bush Theatre in London. I left the theatre furious, and a friend cried out of frustration. But when pressed about what had upset me, I found it difficult to express what exactly was “wrong” about the production. It would have been easier to articulate my anger if the play had been a wholly inaccurate depiction of the demonstrations or the city. What was disorienting was that the play had gotten so close to capturing the experience of the protests, and yet it was continually off in the small details. The characters were played by actors of Southeast Asian descent, and their attempts at speaking with a Hong Kong–English accent inevitably sounded like Singlish. One actor repeatedly made the error of saying CPP instead of CCP (the Chinese Communist Party). Two out of the three characters in the play were formerly apolitical or engaged only in surface-level activism, making it difficult to relate to them, for those of us who had been active during the movement and moved here in no small part for political reasons. Yet the play also chose to depict two of the most painful episodes during the protests: the siege of Polytechnic University, and the death of Leung Ling Kit, also sometimes called “raincoat man”—which immediately triggered memories of the movement, and I felt emotionally manipulated. Seeing the name of my city in a fictional work of art and being unable to point out any clear factual inaccuracies with this representation—to have it feel so close, yet so off at the same time, reminds me of the uncanny valley, the sensation of discomfort produced by the eerie proximity of a replica appearing to be real and our knowledge that it is not.

2. Mike Ingham and Christopher Mattison, “History is Now,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, 59 (2019): 214–30.





Fri, 13 Oct 2023

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