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Impossible City

HK rain shower

A poem for Hong Kong, inspired by Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning”.

*       *       *

Stolen land, you say,
The shame of a hundred years
Redeemed on a midsummer’s night.
But the mind is quick to forget
The hardships that brought you here.

Do you remember?

You came to me, the Barren Rock,
Because your dreams could not be snuffed out.
You came because you believed in your right to live,
Your right to think, to speak, to start anew,
To choose your own destiny.

You built a house from scraps
Up there, on the hill.
And when the winds lashed its walls,
When rain turned the soil to rivers of mud,
You held fast to a distant hope.

Inside the temple, the church, the mosque,
You bowed your head in prayer
When it was outlawed from whence you came.
You read whatever you wanted in pursuit of knowledge,
But over those protective hills,
Teachers who knew too much were shamed.

I had little to give, only this land;
A place of anchorage in the storm,
An outpost for you to mould a future,
And I watched as you set to work.

The sweet-smelling incense of the past
Became the diesel fumes of progress.
Fireflies turned to a million stars
Spread out over the folds on my back,
Beneath the stony lion’s watchful gaze.

Do you remember why you came?

Nations rise and fall;
Dynasties are but a fleeting vapour,
Like morning fog on the mountaintop.
But I remain, firm ground for your weary feet.
I am the place where you built this impossible city,
A fortress, a haven, a fragrant harbour;
Yours to fight for and yours to keep.

*       *       *


I penned this because a sizeable proportion of Hong Kong people have no issue sidling up to the same regime responsible for causing their forebears much grief and suffering.

“Stolen land” refers to how Britain wrested control of Hong Kong during the Opium Wars, while the second line invokes the ‘Century of Humiliation’, a concept in modern Chinese nationalism that is taught in history textbooks and often parroted by the Chinese Communist Party. It was “redeemed on a midsummer’s night” as Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese sovereignty took place on June 30-July 1, 1997.

The ‘Barren Rock’ is the derisive term famously used by Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, when Hong Kong was ceded to the United Kingdom in 1841. He described the new colony as “a barren rock with nary a house upon it,” adding that “it will never be a mart for trade.”

After World War II, Hong Kong became a refuge for hundreds of thousands fleeing dire economic circumstances and political persecution. My own grandmother, who studied to become an English teacher in Shanghai, was forced to confess her “Western poison” after the Communists took the city in June 1949. She escaped to Hong Kong roughly a year later.

In the fourth stanza, “You built a house from scraps/Up there, on the hill.” refers to the shantytowns that sprang up on hillsides around the city. I remember a squatter settlement near my school that existed well into the 1990s – it was one of the last to be razed. “And when the winds lashed its walls” refers to the seasonal typhoons that buffet the territory, while landslides – a common occurrence in the summer – also make an appearance. Both are metaphors for the challenges settlers faced in their new home.

The next stanza speaks of the freedom of worship and access to information that Hong Kong enjoys, in contrast to Mainland China. Growing up, I remember a story from my piano teacher who lived in Beijing until the 1980s. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Mao’s Red Guards stormed her apartment, confiscating her classical music books and smashing her vinyl records. Her mother saved two precious volumes on the works of Chopin by hiding them on the balcony. At this time, teachers were forced to wear dunce caps and students humiliated them with verbal and physical abuse. Things have greatly improved since China reopened its doors in 1978, but restrictions are still in place, with strict controls on religion and widespread censorship of “sensitive material” both on and offline.

“The sweet-smelling incense of the past” alludes to the legend that gave Hong Kong its name (‘Fragrant Harbour’). Before the British arrived, Hong Kong Island was a centre for trading incense made from the native agarwood trees. It was said that the fragrance could be smelled many leagues out to sea. Finally, the “stony lion” stands for the distinctive peak known as Lion Rock. Rising almost 500 metres above the city, it played a starring role in a TV series that first aired in the 70s, depicting the lives of everyday people living beneath its slopes. Four decades later we still speak of the ‘Lion Rock Spirit’, the shared values of perseverance, solidarity and a can-do attitude that helped propel Hong Kong to greatness.

33 Comments Post a comment
  1. An excellent short history and commentary. Our travels took us to Hong Kong in 1971, 1985 and 2011, and I was amazed at the changes in the city each time — while the core seemed unchanged.

    May 25, 2015
    • Wow, I wish I could have seen Hong Kong in the 70s and 80s. My parents say it was a much nicer, more liveable place back then.

      May 25, 2015
  2. Beautiful poem. I love how you connected each stanza to Hong Kong. I don’t know a lot about the city, but you’ve definitely piqued my interest. 😊

    May 25, 2015
    • Thank you, Josie. I was planning to publish the poem on its own, but then I realised that readers outside Hong Kong wouldn’t understand the allusions and symbols! Glad you read it the whole way through. 🙂

      May 25, 2015
  3. Reblogged this on Variety as Life Spice and commented:
    An impressive poem that illustrates the background and the transformation of Hong Kong. Not only is HK simply a financial city as most of us known, but also a place where people from all walks of life are embracing the can-do spirit through continual endeavour. Elegantly written with unique icons and rich description, this poem would be an enticement for readers to glimpse over it.

    May 25, 2015
    • Wow, thank you for reblogging my poem and also for the encouragement. I appreciate it!

      May 26, 2015
  4. What a wonderful poem James, and a wonderful tribute to your city. Never have I heard Hong Kong described so eloquently. Bravo.

    May 25, 2015
    • Thank you so much, Alison. Your kind words mean a lot to me – hopefully I’ll get the chance to take you and Don around the next time you come by.

      May 26, 2015
  5. Beautiful poem to describe how the Hongkong is..

    May 25, 2015
    • Makasih Nurul, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      May 26, 2015
  6. I love it! hong kong is always in my heart!

    May 25, 2015
    • Grazie! I can certainly tell from your recent posts.

      May 26, 2015
  7. James, this is such a concise, yet beautiful introduction to Hong Kong’s long history and the sentiments that envelope the locals in terms of the territory’s relationship with China. It usually takes longer for me to understand a poem, but this particular one is just so eloquently-written.

    May 25, 2015
    • What a lovely comment – thanks so much, Bama! I’ve been meaning to write something like this for a long time, although I never thought it would take the form of a poem.

      May 25, 2015
  8. So very beautiful James! What a stirring tribute to your homeland, and a poignant reminder of the dreams and values associated with its creation. I hope and pray that your generation can keep them alive against all odds.

    May 26, 2015
    • Thank you very much, Madhu! I feel the same way – judging from last year’s street protests, I am certain that younger Hong Kongers are a force to be reckoned with. Hopefully it is these brave men and women who will be our city’s leaders in 20-30 years.

      May 26, 2015
  9. This is excellent, I don’t know a lot about Hong Kong and its history, but I have always wanted to travel there someday and see what it’s like.

    May 26, 2015
    • Hong Kong is a small place, but it is just fascinating with surprises at every turn. Hopefully you’ll get here soon!

      May 26, 2015
  10. Wow, stunning poem, well done 🙂

    May 26, 2015
  11. Lord of Mirkwood #

    Great poem. Really illustrates how the PRC has destroyed Hong Kong since the 1997 takeaway.

    May 27, 2015
    • Yes, sadly a lot of people are either unaware or simply don’t care, while others are complicit for the sake of business interests. I am hopeful in the rise of a civil society in China… and with it a growing appetite for political change.

      May 28, 2015
  12. James, a stirring tribute to Maya Angelou, as well as a marvelously-crafted poem about the “stuff” of Hong Kong. I guess all cities, or places, have stuff. Sometimes, it’s good to sit and ponder that stuff to gain a better sense of realities. I loved the explication paragraphs after the poem. I have forgotten how much I liked visiting Hong Kong. Your blog is becoming much more than a journey. Or maybe that is exactly what it has always been, and we just took a turn in the road and viewed another vista?

    May 28, 2015
    • Badfish, thank you so much for those kind words. I watched a video of Maya Angelou reciting her poetry at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration and it very nearly moved me to tears. Her words held so much power and truth. I love your broader idea of a journey – now that I’ve published this poem I wonder what other verses I will write in the future. Maybe I will pen one for Indonesia, or for specific places on my upcoming travels. It’s something worth thinking about.

      May 28, 2015
      • Yeah, adding a poem for each country, or even each place…or a person…could be a great added feature to your book. I like writing poetry, I like where my head goes (some other reality), but the result always seems to pretty much suck.

        May 29, 2015
  13. The Awayfarer #

    This post is an education. Reading interesting slices of history about a place always gets me excited about the idea of visiting. I also appreciate the idea of putting poetry with an annotation on a blog!

    May 31, 2015
    • Whether we’re at home or abroad, I think that knowing the history adds a lot to the depth of an experience. I’m glad you enjoyed this post as much as you did – thank you for taking the time to write me a comment!

      June 3, 2015
  14. Lovely picture – would love to visit very soon! Thank you for the poem!
    For more Travel Inspiration visit us on

    June 10, 2015
    • Thanks in turn for writing me a comment! I’m glad you enjoyed this post.

      June 10, 2015
  15. Reblogged this on steppy18.

    June 22, 2015
    • I appreciate the reblog – thanks!

      June 22, 2015
  16. Wow!
    thanks for sharing, great words.

    June 24, 2015

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