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An Archaeology for the Future
The miracle of Hong Kong is that it has always been evolving, incorporating elements of both Chinese and foreign cultures, accommodating influxes of immigrants from the Chinese mainland in different historical periods, and nevertheless maintaining a distinctive cultural identity. This city of immigrants is also a city of locals. Yet the founding of Hong Kong is a historical accident. Had the British not chosen to occupy the barren northern coast of the island in 1841 and set out to make it a colony, Hong Kong as we know it today would not have existed. There is no need for its present inhabitants to express gratitude for that, but we have to admit to the fact that Hong Kong was invented. It was one of the marvelous inventions in human history. Hong Kong has been a work of fiction from its very beginning.
There are enough fictitious Hong Kongs circulating around the world. It doesn’t matter so much how real or false these fictions are but how they are made up. The Hong Kong of Tai-Pan and Suzie Wong, a mixture of economic adventures, political intrigues, sexual encounters, and romances; the Hong Kong of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li kung fu fighting their way through to the international scene; the Hong Kong of John Woo’s gangster heroes shooting doublehanded and Stephen Chow’s underdog antiheroes making nonsensical jokes. And yet, in spite of these eye-catching exposures, Hong Kong remains invisible. A large part of the reality of life here is unrepresented, unrevealed, and ignored. Hong Kong’s martial arts fiction, commercial movies, and pop songs are successful in East Asia and even farther abroad, but for all the talents, insights, and creativity of its writers, Hong Kong literature attracts minimal attention—not just internationally but even in mainland China. I am not claiming that literature represents a Hong Kong more real than the movies, but it has its unique role and methods and thus yields different meanings. It is not just a different way of world-representing but also a different way of world-building, that is, creating conditions for understanding, molding, preserving, and changing the world that we live in.
It is the task of literature to make visible the invisible. (Or, as is sometimes said, to articulate the unarticulated.) Curiously, in contrast to visual art forms like film, literature has a special capacity for rendering visibility. Words are nonvisual signs and many steps removed from the actual and the visible. By virtue of this removal, however, words invoke an imaginative power that is not bound by a photographic image. Telling and writing play on the dialectic between the visible and invisible, and that is the true meaning of “making visible.” This making is no less than the work of an artisan, in whose hands a world of objects is made and an abode of dwelling is built. What is more, it is not an abode of bricks and tiles but an abode of meanings.
It was in this spirit that I wrote Atlas, a verbal collection of maps. It was written and published in 1997, in the year the colony of Hong Kong was returned by its British rulers to become a Special Administrative Region under Chinese sovereignty. Nevertheless I chose not to write directly about the event or the contemporary situation in the narrow sense. The perspective was set in an unknown future time but with a retrospective, archaeological orientation, inquiring into the origin and the long-lost past of the city. The city is supposed to have vanished, and efforts are made by scholars to re-create its history through imaginative readings of maps and documents unearthed only recently. The city is literally rebuilt by relics and fragments, casting a shadow on the question of reality and authenticity and in turn making way for the introduction of fiction into the process of history making.
The claim of history as fiction may seem far-fetched, reductive, and nihilistic, but it has a special applicability to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is often called a borrowed place in a borrowed time. It’s a colonial and therefore biased view, but it’s not because of any doctrine of national sovereignty that I reject it. This doctrine holds that Hong Kong has never been a colony, since the unequal treaties between the Qing dynasty and the United Kingdom have never been recognized by the People’s Republic of China. It also claims that the saying no longer makes sense after Hong Kong’s return to its mother country. My rejection is instead from the perspective of a person who grew up in Hong Kong in its last colonial phase and continues to live here in the post-1997 era. I and many others like me simply don’t accept this description of the place where we live. Why? It’s because we belong to the space-time that is ours. Nobody lends it to us and we don’t borrow it from anybody.
I am not arguing for any kind of essentialism, of a pure and original identity that has always been there, static, unchanging, and unchangeable. The idea of “borrowed place” and “borrowed time,” if taken positively, can also mean possibilities that have not been realized. It can liberate the borrowed from the lender and the borrower. The borrowed is the space and time, and these two make up the spatial and temporal existence of a people that is authentic and not falsifiable. Paradoxically, such authenticity and unfalsifiability can only be mapped, verified, understood, and pursued through fiction. Fiction has always been a means of identity building, and the metafiction of a society is an extended and unending bildungsroman.
This may all sound very functional, even programmatic, but it is not so. Literature always begins with self-questioning, and to write is an attempt to answer these doubts. Literary writing remains a personal matter, with no support from the outside and no collaboration with peers. Yet in writing, we are wonderfully connected in a common concern, a common care that makes us belong in the strongest possible sense. It is a new meaning offered by the phrase “personal belonging,” a near oxymoron, joining the private with the public. Atlas is a personal work, with all sorts of idiosyncratic and wild theories and interpretations, mixing with all sorts of extravagant exercises in imagination and camouflaged insertions of private experiences. Yet Atlas is also meant to be a work that belongs. It testifies to a belonging that was born a long time ago and has been growing since then, responding to but not determined by outward circumstances, whether political change, social upheaval, or economic disaster.
Belonging never closes off possibilities, it is rather the condition for possibilities. It makes possible. Space and time can never be borrowed, nor can they be returned. As one, as space and time should be, it can only belong, and can only belong to a certain people (or peoples). Belonging is always common, but it is also always multiple. That is why I would never take Atlas as a conclusion or ending of a historical period specific to Hong Kong but as the starting point for historical narratives, or histories, that open to us not only the path to the past but also the way to the future. It is in this sense that Atlas can be an archaeology for the future.
I want to thank Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson for their joint efforts in translating Atlas into English. Bonnie’s skill in rendering meanings accurately and yet at the same time flexibly is enlightening, and Anders’s eye for the precision of details is admirable. I have learned many things from them as a cotranslator and have made revisions to the original Chinese text at various places that couldn’t stand the close scrutiny of these two experienced teachers. If there are still any flaws and obscurities in the English text, the responsibility is entirely mine. I would also like to thank David Der-wei Wang, Edward C. Henderson Professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Harvard University, for recommending my book to Columbia University Press, as well as the press staff for their efforts in making Atlas visible to the English-speaking world.
Part One: Theory
“Macao Roads,” drawn in 1810, demonstrated for the first time the possibility of a theory of counterplace. According to an ancient and almost forgotten saying, every place that appears on a map must have one or more counterplaces. This knowledge had been invalidated in the development of scientific mapmaking, and it regained attention only recently through extended researches into ancient maps.
“Macao Roads” was jointly produced by Daniel Ross and Philip Maughan, lieutenants of the Bombay Marine, for the British East India Company. At its center are the waters around what was later known as Hong Kong (including Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories, and the Outlying Islands), while Macao only appears at the far left (west) of the map.
Placed in the middle of “Macao Roads” is an island named Hung Kong (literally, “red river”), and to its southeast lies a bay called Tytam (big load). To the north of Hung Kong, across a natural harbor, is a peninsula attached to the mainland. A place called Cow-loon (nine lanes) lies to the northeast of the peninsula. East of the harbor dividing Hung Kong from the mainland are two entrances, called Ly-ee-moon (gate of ceremonial garments) and Fo-tow-moon (gate of the fiery head), respectively, while the entrance to the northwest of the harbor is called Cap-sing-moon (gate of quick thought). Southwest of Hung Kong lies an island called Lama (blue hemp), and to its west lies another island called Tyho (big inlet) or Lantao, which has an area three times bigger than Hung Kong. A bay called Ty-po-hoy (big cloth opening) is located in the northeast of the mainland.
If we compare this map to other maps with similar topographic characteristics produced around the same time, we will discover numerous corresponding pairs in the local pronunciation, like Red River and Incense Harbor (also known as Fragrant Harbor), Big Load and Big Pool, Nine Lanes and Nine Dragons, Gate of Ceremonial Garments and Gate of Carps, Gate of the Fiery Head and Gate of the Buddhist Hall, Gate of Quick Thought and Gate of Pumping Water, Blue Hemp and Southern Fork, Big Inlet and Big Oyster, and finally Big Cloth Opening and Big Land Sea. This is evidence that, in the mimetic world of maps, a place will inevitably find its counterplace in another, parallel space. A Platonic relationship exists between counterplaces, that is, both (or more) are copies or simulacra of a common “reality” or “idea.” Or, to put it in other words, both are translations of an “original text.” The mutual reliance of counterplaces is built on their common connection with the same origin. Yet this connection only points at another name. The name “Hong Kong” allows both Red River and Fragrant Harbor to become distinct but not mutually exclusive “really existing” places.
Going further, Hung Kong (empty harbor), Tai Dam (big mouthful), Kow Lung (leaning on), Lai Yee Mun (gate of the little rascal), Fai Dau Mun (gate of the quick knife), Kap See Mun (gate of timeliness), Lan Ma (blocking the horse), Lan Tau (broken head), and Tai Bo Hoi (taking big strides) all become possible names (and as such possible places) on the “Macao Roads” of my memories and longings.
When we study ancient maps, we find repeatedly that places with the same name appear in different forms. These places lumped together under one name are not in fact the same place but common places. Although they are not the same place, they have something in common. This is how the term “commonplace” is defined.
Examples of commonplaces are numerous. Take, for example, a place called Hung Heung Lou Shan (literally, “red incense burner mountain”). There is a small island called Hung Heung Lou shown on a map of San-on County (an area roughly corresponding to the Pearl River Delta) in the 1819 edition of the San-on County Gazetteer. Here the island is situated at the near southwest of the Kowloon Peninsula, to the north of Yeung Suen Chau and Kap Shui Mun. In an anonymous map drawn before 1840, entitled “A Map of the China Coast,” however, Hung Heung Lou Shan has been moved to the south of Yeung Suen Chau and its distance from Kowloon increased fivefold. This island is long and narrow, lying crosswise from the northwest to the southeast. Another “Map of San-on County” in the 1864 edition of the Guangdong Provincial Gazetteer shows a regularly shaped island called Hung Heung Lou Shun smack in the middle of waters south of Kowloon.
Given the similarities in their names and their overall relationship with landmarks in the general vicinity, it is safe to conclude that Hung Heung Lou, Hung Heung Lou Shan, and Hung Heung Lou Shun are commonplaces. Nevertheless, we must be on our guard against taking it for granted that they are the same place, for no place on any map can ever be the same place as any other place on any other map. Every map has its own set of places, and every place belongs exclusively to its own map. Therefore, no one single place could ever transgress the map to which it owes its existence and become one with another place. If similar configurations appear on different maps, it is because of the fact that these places are commonplaces to one another. The Red Incense Burner of 1819, 1840, and 1864 cannot be the same Red Incense Burner, but each of them can only be the Red Incense Burner of the maps labeled “1819,” “1840,” and “1864,” respectively.
As a matter of fact, these Red Incense Burners are commonplaces to the place called Hong Kong at a later age (or in another time and space), so that we come to the conclusion that Hong Kong is also a commonplace. It follows that when every place has its commonplaces, each of these places loses its distinctive character and becomes simply a common place. No place can transcend itself to attain an eternal and absolute state. When each and every place reiterates its existence through common means, replicating one another’s commonality and vainly attempting to raise this commonality to the highest degree, its repetitive self-affirmation may end up as a stale convention. This is the reason that modern maps of high precision lack imagination.
By making people forget that places can relate to one another only as commonplaces, these conventions fool us into believing that any place has always been the same—forever fixed and immutable.
In the map in the 1819 edition of the San-on County Gazetteer, Tuen Mun Shun (garrison gate high water) is situated among a group of islands in the sea to the west of Kowloon Shun, standing next to Pui To Shan (cup crossing mountain). On the “Map of San-on County” in the 1864 edition of the Guangdong Provincial Gazetteer, however, Tuen Mun O (garrison gate bay) appears among the mountains on the eastern side of the mainland, to the north of Ma On Shan (saddle mountain), facing Pui To Shan from afar. Further, if we consult the 1897 edition of the Guangdong Provincial Gazetteer, we discover that Tuen Mun Shun has been relocated to the western side of the mainland, inside a bay called Tuen Mun (regiment gate), written with a different character for Tuen.
There are two questions that concern us here: first, the misrepresentation of the location of the place signified as Tuen Mun; second, the misrepresentation of certain locations on the maps as Tuen Mun. These two points imply that a misplaced place will always deprive another place of its correct representation, resulting in a double misreading. That is to say that, first of all, Tuen Mun is not where it “should be,” and second that Tuen Mun occupies a place where it “should not be.” Therefore, the prefix “mis” in “misplace” carries both the meaning of “wrongly taking one thing as another one” as in “mistake” or “misunderstand,” and the meaning of “should not be” as in “misbehavior.” As for the concept of “place,” in this school of thought, it can be understood as “representation” from the perspective of production, or as “reading” from the perspective of reception. In fact, “representation” and “reading” are just two sides of the same coin.
We can, for convenience’s sake, call this school cartocentric, since its members do not believe in any objective reality outside maps. Cartocentric scholars are totally unconcerned about the correct location of Tuen Mun and even deny the legitimacy of such questions. Their investigation is wholly preoccupied in how the “place” called Tuen Mun is being represented and read. According to this view, all representations of places are simultaneously both right and wrong: in whatever place Tuen Mun appears, it cannot be invalidated by factors exterior to the map. By the same token, anywhere that Tuen Mun appears is destined to be wrong. From this is derived the thesis that “all places are misplaces, and all misplaces are misreadings.” The map is regarded as the only operational field of spatial senses.
Investigations from this angle suggest that Hong Kong is also a misplace. Its appearance and evolution in the history of cartography inevitably imply meanings of mistakes, misunderstanding, and misdoing. However, it is also owing to this very inevitability and actuality that it earns legitimacy and correctness, at least literally so.
It is evident that the passion of the cartocentrics in rejecting and rebutting empirical knowledge does not necessarily elevate them above other schools of thought. It remains but one of many competing theories, all perhaps motivated by the desire to control the object of knowledge by seizing the ultimate power of interpretation.
Scholars, in truth, are no different from suspicious and possessive lovers whose derangement only increases the more deeply they probe, since lovers always fix their eyes on misplaces.
The term “displace” can be understood in a narrow and a broad sense. In the narrow sense, it means that the position of one place is taken over by another place in the diachronic development of mapmaking. A good example can be found in “A Coastal Map of Guangdong” in A Comprehensive Account of Guangdong Province, written by Guo Fei in the late sixteenth century. This map is oriented in such a way that it faces toward the South China Sea from the mainland with the south at the top. It shows a big island across the water to the south of the Kwun Foo Guard Post (Kowloon Hills), on which Chek Chue occupies the center and is surrounded by places named Wong Nai Chung, Tai Tam, and Shau Kei Wan. To the southwest from the big island (by its upper right on the map), a small, lonely island named Hong Kong stands in the sea. Comparing “A Coastal Map of Guangdong” with some later maps, however, we discover that the location of the big island opposite Kowloon is taken over by Hong Kong or Hung Heung Lou. In the 1819 edition of the San-on County Gazetteer, Chek Chue has clearly been pushed farther south into the sea by Hung Heung Lou, becoming itself a small, isolated island. In “A Map of the Waterways of Guangdong Province” produced by a magistrate by the name of Chen in 1840, Chek Chue returns for the last time to a central position in the harbor. Nevertheless, Chek Chue is again displaced by Hung Heung Lou Shun in “A Map of San-on County” in the Guangdong Provincial Gazetteer of 1864, and it even disappears from the map.
It can be said that in this process of transformation, Chek Chue was gradually displaced by Hung Heung Lou, and Hung Heung Lou was displaced in turn by Hong Kong. There are two ways in which this displacement could have taken place. The first is Hong Kong (or Hung Heung Lou) displacing the place Chek Chue. This is a form of geographical transfer (at least geographical as understood in the context of cartographical discourse). In the second way, the signifier “Hong Kong” displaced the signifier “Chek Chue” and became the name of a more or less specific place on the map. No matter which is the case, it implies that one place can be replaced by another at any time, and the place being taken over will never be the same as before even though its form and position may remain unchanged.
There exists an even more radical theory that attempts to define the concept of “displace” in a broad sense, and in so doing extends it to a general and fundamental level. According to this theory, every place on a map is a displace. A place is never itself but is forever displaced by another. This is also to say that the map itself is a displacement, and cartography is such a process of displacement. No matter whether we understand them from the perspective of teleology or of utilitarianism, and no matter how scientifically and with what exactitude they are produced, maps have never been copies of the real world but are displacements. In the end, the real world is totally supplanted in the process of displacement and fades from human cognition. The sight of the Guangdong coast in the sixteenth century is forever beyond reach, but not the sight of the sixteenth century “Coastal Map of Guangdong.”
Traditional cartography seemingly instructs us on how to recognize and search for places, but in fact its real lesson is that we can never arrive at our desired place on the map, and yet, at the same time, we inevitably arrive at its displace.
The “Map of the Sun-on-district,” drawn by the Italian missionary Simeone Volonteri in 1866, delineates in minute detail the positions of villages on the British-governed Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula as well as in the adjacent areas of San-on County, which at the time was still Chinese territory. Father Volonteri’s original plan was to have the map engraved in London, so as to acquire enough subscribers to cover the expenses of publication, and with the map would be attached a free copy of a pamphlet on cartography written by Volonteri himself. The engraving was eventually done in Leipzig for considerations of cost, while the complimentary pamphlets were discontinued following complications in matters of distribution. It is said, however, that two hundred copies of the pamphlets had been printed in London, although with the exception of a few copies presented as gifts to fellow cartographers, none survived the passage of time.
In his pamphlet, Volonteri proposed the concept of antiplace and illustrated it with examples from his “Map of the Sun-on-district.” It might be conjectured that the “Map of the Sun-on-district” was in fact a supplement for the purpose of illustrating the concept of antiplace. Since the pamphlets were lost while the maps survived, the theory of antiplace also fell into oblivion. It is now impossible to reconstruct Volonteri’s theory of antiplace. The most anyone can do is to piece together fragments of information scattered among surviving sources.
When the conditions of two places are the diametrical opposites of each other, Volonteri calls them antiplaces. The establishment of antiplaces has nothing to do with the relative positions of two places on a map. Any two points at the ends of any diameter of the earth, thus opposite each other in position on the surface of the sphere, are called antipodes. An example of antipodes is the North Pole and the South Pole, but since they have virtually no difference in weather conditions and environment, that is, in their state of being, they cannot be regarded as antiplaces. The methods of searching for or calculating antiplaces are no longer known to the modern cartographer, and the only example left is to be found in Volonteri’s “Map of the Sun-on-district.”
In the “Map of the Sun-on-district,” there is a place on the Kowloon Peninsula called Mong Kok (mango point), which is said to be the antiplace of Sha Tau Kok (sand head point), on the coast of the northeastern mainland on the map. By 1866, the Kowloon Peninsula was British territory, while Sha Tau Kok was still under the rule of the Qing dynasty. It was not until 1898 that Sha Tau Kok, as an insignificant part of the newly leased New Territories, came under British rule. After that, Sha Tau Kok became a guard post on the Sino-British boundary. According to the antiplace theory, Mong Kok and Sha Tau Kok represent, respectively, the center and the periphery of Hong Kong, each related to the other as polar opposites. In the twentieth century, Mong Kok became a commercial district with the highest population density in the territory, while the name Sha Tau Kok has become a synonym for “wilderness” in colloquial usage, with connotations of backwardness and dereliction. This is the interpretation offered by scholars who have studied Volonteri’s postulation of Mong Kok and Sha Tau Kok as antiplaces, but the question of how Volonteri could, in 1866, predict what was going to happen to the two places in the century ahead is still short of a satisfactory answer.
There is another argument to the effect that the “anti” in “antiplace” originates from the word “antithesis,” such that “antiplace” means “antithetical place.” The term “antithesis” should here be understood in its rhetorical sense, that is, the pairing of opposite ideas in speech or writing for apologetic effects. The opposition of Mong Kok and Sha Tau Kok generates a series of rhetorical antitheses, for example segregation/integration, distance/proximity, separation/reunion, oblivion/remembrance, hate/love. This is why one can say that antiplace is antithesis, and place is thesis. Mong Kok and Sha Tau Kok can be characterized as being in a relationship that has love as its thesis.
This actually coincides with a third interpretation of the term “antiplace.” In this theory “anti” is explained as “going against” or “undoing,” so that being an antiplace means to desert, betray, subvert, forget, and deny the physicality of a place and to deprive it of its material existence, and in so doing turning it into something abstract: a concept, name, image, impression, desire, or fantasy. The meaning of a place for us is thus no longer general, objective, and scientific but individual and irrational—a kind of irrational thesis.
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