City between Worlds: My Hong Kong

Article excerpt

City between Worlds: My Hong Kong, by Leo Ou-fan Lee. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. 322 pp. US$29.95/£19.95/ euro22.50 (hardcover).

Following his well-received book, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945, Leo Ou-fan Lee narrates another fascinating story of a Chinese city - Hong Kong. He captures the salient feature of Hong Kong as the city "perched on the fault line between China and the West", and deliberately personalizes his story and narrates it from the perspective of a local flâneur who wanders through Hong Kong's back streets, discovering and presenting pictures of everyday life. These carry rich "genetic" information of what the city is, information often submerged under the stereotype of "Asia's world city".

After his 30-year sojourn in the United States, Lee has chosen to come back and stay in Hong Kong. His perspective, as he emphasizes in the Prologue, is "neither strictly native nor old-colonial". His narrative is microscopic with vivid details, but goes beyond a "confined" city history. This account of the city is like a story of an old friend - distinctively embedded in personal memory. Lee chose this approach to present the dynamism of this densely populated city and to contest the dominant Western stereotype of Hong Kong as a "generic city", with glittering skyscrapers accommodating global financial and commercial establishments. He attempts to "set the record straight" by focusing on the culture and everyday life of local people.

In Chapter 2, Lee begins in the so-called Victoria City in Hong Kong Island during the colonial era, then moves on to the Central Business District. In subsequent chapters, he covers the congested streets in Wan Chai and Causeway Bay (Chapter 3), Victoria Peak (Chapter 4), Kowloon (Chapter 5) and the New Territories (Chapter 6). Chapter 7 is a panorama of Hong Kong's lifestyle, involving the "four basic requirements" of everyday life: food, clothing, dwelling and movement. Chapter 8 views from a distance the city's status and its relation with the country, reflecting the multiple identities of Hong Kong.

A renowned scholar of Chinese literature, Lee avoids the meta-narrative of political economy. …