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About Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City

Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City is a fiction novel based on non-fiction elements written in Hong Kong by author Dung Kai-Cheung.[1] The novel was written during 1997, but the translated version by Anders Hansson and Bonnie S. McDougall was published in 2012 by Columbia University Press. This novel is known for the unique style it is written with: fictional 'archaeology’.[2]

Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City
Book Cover
Author Dung Kai-Cheung
Title Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City
Country Hong Kong
Language Chinese (translated into English)
Genre Fiction
Published 2012
Media Type Book

Historical Context

The history of Hong Kong under British and Chinese rule

In 1842, the British Empire took over the island of Hong Kong after winning the First Opium War against China. In the year 1898, the British Empire made a deal with China, promising to return Hong Kong back to them in 99 years.[3] Under British rule, Hong Kong experienced a huge change after colonization. Many British-style systems were implemented without discussion, such as the legal system and economic policy.[4] Hong Kong developed at a very fast pace, their economy and business sectors growing rapidly and turning Hong Kong into the vibrant, contemporary city it is known as today. However, during this period, citizens had a British governor that was appointed by the British monarch and not elected by the citizens themselves.[5] This meant that Hong Kong citizens were almost completely disenfranchised, with no control over the direction of the future of their city. When the year that China and Britain had agreed to return Hong Kong back under China’s rule arrived, Hong Kong once again had to deal with a huge shift. It became a “Special Administrative Region” of China, and per China’s agreement, would operate under the “one country, two systems” principle. This allowed them more freedoms than mainland China, such as an independent judiciary, multiple political parties, and freedom of assembly and speech. However, this agreement would only last for 50 years.[3] Hong Kong citizens still continue to have no real power in controlling what future their city has.

The impact of the 1997 handoff of Hong Kong on Atlas

Author Dung Kai-Cheung wrote the novel Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City during the year of 1997, which was the year that Hong Kong was returned from the British empire to mainland China. During the years leading up to the handoff, Hong Kong citizens grew increasingly worried, unsure of what would happen to their lives and country after rejoining mainland China. Thus, in 1997, many anxieties were at their peak. Hong Kong citizens have a very unique identity, as their country has been ruled by two powerful countries with very different ideologies, while the citizens themselves had virtually no control over what happened to them. Author Dung Kai-Cheung discusses this unique Hong Kong identity and history through his novel using the fictional city Victoria, even writing within the novel’s preface that “fiction has always been a means of identity-building”[1], and that “literature always begins with self-questioning, and to write is an attempt to answer these doubts”[1]. This novel is Kai-Cheung’s attempt to confront his own self-questioning brought on by the nostalgia and anxiety that rose from the handoff.

Synopsis and Main Characters

Internationally acclaimed author Dung Kai-Cheung has divided his novel Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City into four major parts – Part One: Theory, Part Two: The City, Part Three: Streets, and Part Four: Signs – for a total of fifty-one chapters. The novel does not have distinct main characters, but is written from the perspective of archaeologists of a future advanced world. It has been written from a narrator’s point of view and is made up of observational statements. The group of archaeologists are looking at the fictional city of Victoria. The city of Victoria is clearly based on the author’s native city of Hong Kong, but names have been changed so as to not restrict himself to real life facts and history of Hong Kong. Dung Kai-Cheung frequently mixes up the actual history of the area with his imagination, and serves up a unique blend of stories both fictional and non-fictional. The archaeologists are basically trying to resurrect the city to its former glory and trying to rebuild the metropolis. Kai-Cheung writes many stories made up of facts and imaginary anecdotes in the novel, like story of Tung Choi Street and Sai Yeong Choi Street, and how they were named. Victoria is also shown to be a very vibrant city. The novel works its way through earlier instances of growth in the city, and its consequent evolution in physical structure and society – from being founded during a colonial reign, and then eventually becoming a part of the mighty nation of China. Furthermore, there is quite a discussion about how maps paint a picture and can influence how others shall perceive a city. There is an extensive dialogue about how they capture and represent a city to the wider audience, and vast social commentary and critique[6].

The novel looks at Victoria through a number of maps, historical documents, and ancient artifacts. The author has taken a fresh approach and the novel has been written in such a way that each section or chapter can be read on its own, and the reader does not need context from other sections of the book like a traditional novel. Every section provides a unique perspective to the city of Victoria on the basis of its geographical boundaries, culture, and history. The reader can read the novel as is, but is also able to bring in his own knowledge of Asian history for a more enriched reading experience. The lack of protagonists and other key characters, and a lack of plot makes it an atypical read, but the unique approach makes it interesting[7].

Prominent Themes

Memory and the impermanent nature of the city

In the chapter entitled “Cedar Street”, the narrator tells of a forgotten and minor street called Cedar Street. He describes the only testament to its existence; the account of a minor author who grew up on the street. But it cannot be returned to, and the author poetically remarks that through a map he cannot find the scent of cedar, the sound of wind blowing against the branches or feel the tree trunk’s rough pattern. Finally he asks, “why is there no map to reproduce its sound, its feel, its scent?”.[8] The analogy drawn is one which reminds the reader that the true nature of a place is lost with time, and cannot be brought back to life through the pages of a map—it lives on only in memory.

The tension of existing between cultures

One motif touched upon in the novel is that of a tension between the British (and colonial) world, and the Chinese sphere. This tension is one that is most borne out in language—as Dung calls into question the unsteady relationship between the names of places and the places themselves. Similarly to maps, Dung uses words to “overlay and displace one another, until no one can tell the difference between water spinach and watercress, a process which becomes even more dizzying when more than one language is at work”.[9] Even the very English translation plays upon this theme, bringing “instances of foreignized, displaced English into their lucid, fluid prose” and thereby mirroring the "tension between official English, written Chinese, and colloquial Cantonese in Hong Kong”.[10] This tension is thereby addressed in the form of the novel, as well as in its content.

Imagination and speculation as methods of representation

Dung Kai-Cheung makes references to Roland Barthes at various points in the novel, particularly for his thoughts on subjective (or personal) scholarship. He asks whether there can “be a kind of personal scholarship, as Roland Barthes proposes in Camera Lucida: a utopian ‘impossible science of the unique being’”.[11] This personal scholarship would be one which consists of imaginative projections and speculations.[11] Importantly, Dung puts forward the notion that this imaginative element can and should be understood as one method of representation, if not academic research. This theme underlies the entire work, which blends fiction with reality for the purpose of better representing the character of Hong Kong. It also nuances our understanding of the handover, by demonstrating the role of the speculative purpose of Hong Kong in ultimately shaping the real city itself. In other words, the change is not just political but also affects the real essence of the city.

Making visible the invisible

Along a similar vein as the previous theme, Dung Kai-cheung states that one of the most important tasks of literature in general is “to make visible the invisible”[12]. Through this view, Dung creates Atlas as a way to demonstrate that the notion of Hong Kong being “called a borrowed place in a borrowed time,”[12] is a reductive and imperfect representation to those who live there. As such, Hong Kong is not just a place that is to be handed off between nations, but rather a rich culture that cannot be reduced in this manner. Dung expresses that “we [citizens of Hong Kong] belong to the space-time that is ours. Nobody lends it to us and we don’t borrow it from anybody”[12]. Using just words, “an imaginative power that is not bound by a photographic image,”[12] Dung is able to transcend the bounds of the purely visible, drawing our attention to that which escapes these incomplete representations of the city.


Author Dung Kai Cheung and many of his popular works, including Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City are renowned to be a leading figure in the world of Hong Kong literature. Their successes garnered multiple awards ranging from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards (2013) for Atlas to the Hong Kong Book Award for both 2017 and 2018. Being one of Hong Kong’s most accomplished writers, Dung Kai Cheung involves himself in the education of others as an associate professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong by teaching and sharing his insight and knowledge on Chinese writing[13]. Much of the inspiration and style for his works originate from prominent Hong Kong writers: Leung Ping-kwan for his themes, styles, and in particular his great concern for Hong Kong culture, as well as Xi Xi, for her playfulness and joyous creativity where she lets all objects become animated at will, to name a few[14].

The work Atlas was first written by Dung Kai Cheung in 1997, the year when Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain, consequently becoming a Special Administrative Region under the People’s Republic of China. For many native citizens, this occurrence spelled a time of widespread anxiety regarding the future of their land and these exact anxieties underwrote much of the book’s premise; Atlas essentially approaches Hong Kong from a future archeologist perspective who reconstructs the city using various fragments, relics and maps of a forgotten past to symbolize and challenge Hong Kong’s ambiguous cultural identity[15]. Dung Kai Cheung also describes Hong Kong and its culture as innovative and open to change due to its rootless nature after being created by the British. This aspect of Hong Kong however, began its decline after its return to China[16].

The depicted fictional archaeology of Atlas that constitutes Hong Kong’s cultural memory and Dung Kai Cheung’s literary style that is often described as “Europeanized” draws connections between his work Atlas and that of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: The short chapters and detached scholarly tone recall Calvino's work while both Dung’s and Calvino’s literary works utilizes fantasy to generate a space for the observation of global relationships. Atlas differs from Invisible Cities, however, in the way it concentrates on a single imaginary city known as “Victoria”[17] which is a parallel to the real world’s Hong Kong.

Further reading

On "Atlas":

Hybrid Narratology in Kai-cheung Dung's Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Asunción López-Varela[18]

Hong Kong as Alternative Sinophone Articulation: Translation and Literary Cartography in Dung Kai-Cheung’S Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Long Chao[19]

On Dung Kai-cheung:

A Hong Kong Miracle of a Different Kind. Dung Kai-cheung’s writing/action and Xuexi niandai (The Apprenticeship) by David Der-wei Wang[20]

On Time: Anticipatory Nostalgia in Dung Kai-Cheung’s Fiction by Carlos Rojas[21]

Other works

Hong Kong flag during British rule

Dung Kai-cheung also wrote a number of other works, including:

Cantonese Love Stories: Twenty Five Vignettes of a City

This is a collection of what Dung Kai-cheung prefers to call "'sketches' rather than 'stories'"[22]. They mostly seek to give a small representation of different pieces of Hong Kong's culture. Despite the themes of these sketches being quite a bit less avant-garde, surreal or opaque" as those seen in Atlas, the general notion of introducing Hong Kong as a place with its own unique culture, and blending between the imaginary and reality remains apparent.[22]

A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On

Another collection of Dung Kai-cheung's sketches outlines the "consumerist dreamscape of late-nineties Hong Kong" and deals with the development of Hong Kong after the handover from British rule[23]. Similarly to Cantonese Love Stories, this collection makes clear that despite Hong Kong's handover from West to East, it is a place with its own identity that is constantly developing. Furthermore, the surreal blending of imagination and reality flows into this work as well, as there are "odd circumstances abound"[24].


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Kai-Cheung, Dung (2012). Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City. JSTOR: Columbia University Press. ISBN Check |isbn= value: invalid character (help).
  2. "Atlas". Columbia University Press. Retrieved Nov. 18, 2022. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Hong Kong's handover: How the UK returned it to China". BBC. July 1, 2022. Retrieved Nov 18, 2022.
  4. Chan, Ming K. (1997). "The Legacy of the British Administration of Hong Kong: A View from Hong Kong". The China Quarterly. 151: 567–82 – via JSTOR.
  5. Ping, Xin (May 6, 2021). "A look back at HK human rights under British rule". China Daily. Retrieved Nov. 18, 2022. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  6. Dung, Kai-Cheung (2012). Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-16100-8.
  7. Silver, Steven H. "Steven Silver's Reviews". Retrieved 16 November 2022.
  8. Dung, Kai-Cheung (2012). Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City. Columbia University Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-231-16100-8.
  9. Samatar, Sofia (9 September 2013). "Review: Atlas".
  10. Klein, Lucas. "Review: Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City".
  11. 11.0 11.1 Dung, Kai-Cheung (2012). Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City. Colombia University Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-231-16100-8.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Dung, Kai-cheung (2012). "Dung Kai-cheung on Atlas and History as Fiction". Columbia University Press Blog. Retrieved Nov 20, 2022.
  13. "Dung Kai-Cheung". Wikipedia. July 12 2022. Retrieved November 20 2022. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  14. "Dung Kai-cheung's Hong Kong Convergence". zolimacitymag. November 10 2021. Retrieved November 20 2021. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  15. Kalkreuth, Sophie (January 12 2013). "What is Hong Kong? On the Archaeology of an Imaginary City". lareviewofbooks. Retrieved November 20 2022. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  16. "Interview with Dung Kai-cheung". Columbia University Press. August 7 2012. Retrieved November 20 2022. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  17. Samatar, Sofia (September 9 2013). "ATLAS: THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF AN IMAGINARY CITY BY DUNG KAI-CHEUNG". Strange Horizons. Retrieved November 20 2022. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  18. López-Varela, Asunción. "Hybrid Narratology in Kai-cheung Dung's Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City". LAS ARTES DE LA VANGUARDIA LITERARIA: 23–33.
  19. Chao, Long (2018). "Hong Kong as Alternative Sinophone Articulation: Translation and Literary Cartography in Dung Kai-Cheung'S Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City". Open Cultural Studies: 771–780.
  20. Wang, David Der-wei (2011). "A Hong Kong Miracle of a Different Kind. Dung Kai-cheung's writing/action and Xuexi niandai (The Apprenticeship)". China Perspectives: 80–85.
  21. Rojas, Carlos (2016). "On Time: Anticipatory Nostalgia in Dung Kai-Cheung's Fiction". The Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures: 847–865.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Gordon, Peter (2017). ""Cantonese Love Stories: Twenty-Five Vignettes of a City" by Dung Kai-Cheung".
  23. Kai-cheung, Dung (2022). "A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On". Translated by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson.
  24. Henry, Rick (2022). ""A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On" by Dung Kai-cheung".