ATLAS: THE ARCHAEOLOGY
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Dung Kai-cheung has written an amazing exploration of maps, their meaning, and how maps impact perception in his book Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, in which he examines the history (and future) of the mythical city of Victoria, which bears a strong resemblance to his native Hong Kong, but without the need to be confined by the actual history of the location.
Although fictional, and at times it is difficult to tell where the reality ends and the fiction begins, Atlas is not a novel, at least not in a traditional sense. It is, perhaps, most akin to Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars in that each chapter can be read on its own without reference to the others, each chapter providing a different look at Victoria/Hong Kong’s history, culture, and layout. The presentation allows the reader to bring their own understanding of Chinese history and geography to the book and see it through a fun-house mirror, enjoying Dung’s descriptions as alternative interpretations and off-the-wall stories.
While Dung includes several stories about how places came to be named, which may or may not be true, but some of which, like the story of Tung Choi Street and Sai Yeong Choi Street, certainly should be, one of the key points of the book is more than just the relating of stories. In the final chapter of the book, Symbols, he expands his discussion to look at how maps influence the way people perceive the world. Whether questioning the nordocentric orientation of most maps or discussing maps that indicate imbalance of trade, the mere existence of the map indicates
For a book which discusses how maps are used, and which is based entirely on the concept of capturing and representing locations, the one thing that is missing from Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City is the inclusion of any sort of map. Aside from two maps, one of which shows the general landscape of the Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, the other showing a few blocks of Dung's Victoria, with Chinese lettering, the book is devoid of the maps the author is constantly referring to. While not a fatal oversight, it might be nice to see a deluxe edition of the book issued at some point with several of the described maps recreated.
Obliquely, Dung questions the accuracy of any historical (or cartographical) undertaking. His descriptions of Victoria/Hong Kong are not always consistent. By presenting the history of the city from the viewpoints of a latter day archaeologist (reminiscent of the narrator of David Macauley’s Motel of the Mysteries), he creates not an unreliable narrator, but a misinformed narrator. The narrator’s potential mistakes are not meant to mislead, but rather to introduce the debate on the accuracy of historical representation, as well as cartography, which is linked when the narrator is primarily using maps to reconstruct the city’s history.
The reliance on maps also serves as a reminder that Victoria/Hong Kong is a living, vibrant city. People often think of cities as reasonably stagnant, with a building occasionally being replaced or a road being straightened, but Dung’s exploration of Victoria/Hong Kong shows not only the initial growth of the city, but also the evolution of the city, in both structure and society as it moves from its initial founding through its Colonial period until it finally becomes a part, however tenuous, of the greater China.Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City won’t be a book that everyone will find interesting, or even readable. Its lack of characters and plot will dissuade some readers and other readers may not find the exploration of the role of maps, history, and geography appealing, but for those readers who are interested in the crossroads of those topics and who are willing to give the atypical structure of the book a chance, Atlas provides an excellent look at a Hong Kong that never quite was.
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