“Memory, Misremembering and Nonplace” by Chau Cheuk Man Charmaine

The HP Series showcases excerpts from excellent Honours Projects by students from the Department of English Language and Literature. [Read all entries here.]

Hong Kong Memory.jpg

Supervisor: Dr Tammy Lai-Ming Ho

Memory, especially personal memory, serve as a source in the construction of “nonplace” and the re-imagination of history. Memory is derived from personal experience. It contains details of the past in different aspects of daily life. Memory can provide grand narratives with information and various perspectives to view the same incident. This can supplement documentary records which are usually the major source of information of the past (Abrams 91).

For example, in Chapter I, “Floating City”, of Xi Xi’s Marvels of a Floating City, the background of the floating city is told by the recollections of the experience of “the grandparent of our grandfather” (Xi 3). Instead of providing a concrete timeline of the formation of the floating city, it makes use of an allegorical context (Kellner 332). A lot of figurative language such as “dreads layers of clouds collided overhead” and “sky was filled with lightning and the roar of thunder” (Xi 3) are used to describe the change and transformation of a “rooted” city to a “floating” city. Such descriptions are unlike those in the grand narratives. Yet, they could still represent the past. In short, memory that is stored in people’s minds is a source to supply information for the reconstruction of the past and be written as history.

The “contingent, mutable and creative” nature of personal memory makes it a unique entity to reconstruct the past (Abrams 94). Personal memory creates meaning as the memory beholders retrieve it from their mind (Portelli, Oral History Different 37). The memory beholders have to choose the “right” words, sequences or form to make their images in mind communicable to others. The recall of personal memory does not simply bring back the past into present. Details of events or places could be obtained from personal memory. Thus, people could further make sense of the memory through analysing all the production of “memory stories” (Portelli, Oral History Different 36). For example, how other “memories” contribute to one’s preceding memory. In short, memory contains traces and may evoke analysis and evaluation for deeper understanding of the past.

Personal memory can create meaning and reveal relationship in the reconstruction of the past. Chapter 17, “Mirage: Towers in the Air”, of Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City is one example. The description of the landscape of the city of Victoria is based on the memory of a seaman in The Shipwreck of Kino from Bishu (Dung 48). The image of the city is at first sight a barren island. Hidden in the fog, there are different kinds of houses and buildings along the seashore and hillsides. All the “orderly segmented streets” are crowded with hawkers and constructions. The memory of Kino portrayed the city of Victoria in roughly 1843 as a prosperous and “dreamlike” city in fog with an angle from the sea (Dung 49).

In contrast, in Chapter 19 “Gordon’s Jail” of Atlas, there is an 1843 documentary record named “Gordon’s Map”. In the early version of this aerial map, it highlights the jail and magistracy in the city of Victoria on a bare hillside (Dung 53). However, the Victoria Gaol and Magistracy’s court gradually expand their sizes in the later version towards the south and north of the city. The net-like structure covering the Mid-Levels, shoreline, Central district, Sheung Wan and Wan Chai all becomes parts of the jail. The jail expands until it occupies the whole city. At last, the city and the jail become one (Dung 54).

Kino and Gordon’s version of the image of the city of Victoria in the 1840s seems to be very different and quite “unrealistic”. There are little traces to support the view they are describing the “same” city in a similar period of time. Yet, there is no ground to deny any versions of the city. Kino and Gordon choose to present their city of Victoria in their own way with their own means and personal memory.

Also, from their representations, we could possibly trace some geographical details (i.e. name and location of a place) of the city of Victoria under the British’s rule in the 1840s. The way the “memory beholders” describe the city could supply more information to support our understanding. Even when there are discrepancies with the grand narratives or even within one’s account, these should arouse attention to figure out their “underlying reasons” for in-depth understanding of the memory (Abrams 93). One can look into the reasons for the discrepancies and make sense of the “nonplace”. For example, Kino describes it in a fanciful manner, which could be due to the fact that he is foreign to Victoria; that Gordon describes the city as a jail could be a reflection of colonial traits. Thus, whether the weaving of memory formed a faithful representation of the “place” in every single detail is of less importance. The focus should be how the representations breed reflection. Through reflection, one can be freed from a collective and “absolute” past from the grand narratives (Cheung xi).

The more pieces of memory, the more perspectives we look into, the richer and more vivid the image of a “moment” can be created and narrated. We need to connect and relate different individual’s memory to build a network or a plot to narrate and represent the “story”. The “nonplaces” in Atlas and Marvels of a Floating City serve as examples of this kind of “network” or “plot”. The construction of the city of Victoria and the floating city synthesises people’s personal memory and imagination of Hong Kong. These imagined cities are the collective reflection of Hong Kong across time and space. They are not a permanent image of Hong Kong. They are formed by fragmented subjective imaginations. These kinds of imagination are the simultaneous “work” of both authors’ imaginations and those of readers. Personal memory of an individual’s daily life experience serves as “supplies” for the imaginations. These “supplies” surpass personal subjectivity, time and space. They collectively form a transcending and ever-changing image of Hong Kong.
.divider.pngWorks Cited

Primary Texts

Dung, Kai-Cheung. Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City. Trans. Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Print.

Xi, Xi. Marvels of a Floating City and Other Stories. Trans. Eva Hung. Hong Kong: Research Centre for Translation, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1997. Print.

Secondary Texts

Abrams, Lynn. “Memory as both source and subject of study: The transformations of oral history”. Writing the History of Memory. Ed. Stefan Berger and William John Niven. London: Bloomsbury Link Academic, 2014. 89-109. Print.

Cheung, Martha. “Introduction”. Hong Kong Collage: Contemporary Stories and Writing. Ed. Martha Cheung. New York; Hong Kong: Oxford Link University Press, 1998. x-13. Print

Kellner, Hans. “Narrativity in History: Post-Structuralism and Since.” History and Theory 26.4 (1987): 1-29. Print.

Portelli, Alessandro. “What Makes Oral History Different” The Oral History Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson. New York; London: Routledge, 2006. 32-42. Web.


CharmaineChau Cheuk Man Charmaine is a graduate of the Department of English and Department of Education (Class of 2016). [Read all entries by Charmaine.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s