Fiction | Hong Kong

A magical metropolis

Xi Xi’s novel “My City” takes readers back to Hong Kong in the 1970s.

Blick in eine Einkaufsstraße. Man sieht einige Ladenschilder mit chinesischen Schriftzeichen und viele Menschen.

A busy shopping street in Hong Kong in the 1970s


What does a name say about a person? In the case of the Hong Kong writer Xi Xi, perhaps quite a lot. Translated, the characters of her name mean “West”, but that was not the reason why the author, born Cheung Yin in Shanghai in 1937, chose this pseudonym. The Chinese pictograms reminded her of “a girl in a skirt skipping over squares painted on the floor”.

This keen sense of the visual is also reflected in her literature, which German readers can now discover for the first time in her great novel about her homeland, “Meine Stadt” (“My City”), which was written by the author who died in 2022.

The first-person narrator, a young man named Aguo, an employee of the local telephone company, moves to the nameless city with his mother and sister. They find refuge under the roof of a small old house. Downstairs lives an aged carpenter who has found his home in world literature.

We join Aguo as he wanders through the city, making astute observations about ordinary lives unfolding in 1970s Hong Kong. As he strolls through the bustling city and its green hinterland with colleagues, his best friend travels the world on a container ship.

Aguo is a curious chronicler of his surroundings, collecting bizarre impressions of everyday life in the city on his wanderings and experiencing how living, working and living conditions leave their mark, as do traumas and traditions. He depicts a Hong Kong that is moving into the modern age: "No more Chinese drums and hooters in the alleys, no more armies of bicycles on the streets."

“‘My City’ makes stylistic use of the toolbox of magical realism without ever losing its grip on reality”

As a British Crown Colony, the coastal city has always been a place of refuge - and the stories of escape in the text often have autobiographical references. After graduating, Cheung Yin worked as a primary school teacher before she began writing screenplays and film reviews in the 1960s as Xi Xi.

Then she turned to literature. In 1975, “My City” was published as a serial novel in the literary supplement of the “Hong Kong Express”. In it, the author irresistibly shows that it is the little things in life that matter. The short chapters, illustrated with drawings by the author, some of which are reminiscent of pictograms, are repeatedly about what people in this melting pot of identities experience in their everyday lives.

In her illuminating afterword, Karin Betz, who has impressively translated its lightness and linguistic diversity (High Chinese, Cantonese, English) into German, demonstrates how allusive this allegorical novel is.

Stylistically, “My City” makes use of the toolbox of magical realism without ever losing its grip on the ground. The more closely you read the book, the more its visual and narrative complexity emerges. With a light touch, Xi Xi evokes a multifaceted panorama of her hometown.

This wild, visionary novel, comparable to Raymond Queneau’s “Zazie in the Metro”, sets a timeless monument to this strange city in limbo.

“My City”, by Xi Xi was published in English by The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, translated by Eva Hung. The German translation by Karin Betz was published as “Meine Stadt” by Suhrkamp Berlin. Karin Betz also published a journal on her process of translating the novel to German.