City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong by Leo Ou-fan Lee Harvard University/Belknap HK$240 Eighty-five years after the establishment of the British crown colony of Hong Kong by the dyspeptic-sounding combination of Sir Edmund Belcher arriving on the HMS Sulphur, a fire broke out in the east wing of the Hong Kong Hotel. In 1926 the hotel was the swankiest place in town, opposite Pedder Wharf on Pedder Street, where The Landmark stands today. The fire raged for two days and nights, but that didn't stop tea being served as usual in the west wing. That story of British and Chinese sangfroid, recounted by Leo Ou-fan Lee in his new book City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong, obliquely illustrates an adage about Hong Kong - that the colony's spectacular success came about because the two groups existed in a state of perfectly mutual contempt. For what better way to demonstrate impervious confidence on both sides than for the British to thumb their noses at fire while sipping Darjeeling tea, while the Chinese, whose hard work ran the hotel, did the same? Anecdotes and vignettes pepper Lee's book. Yet this is no elegiac history of a colony-that-was; rather, his gentle, personal musings read more like a declaration of love for a city full of contradictions. At the heart of this work by the professor emeritus of Chinese literature at Harvard University and professor of humanities at the Chinese University of Hong Kong is a preoccupation with preserving memory and culture, crucial to helping Hong Kong avoid the fate of becoming just another 'generic city' of Asia. Left to bureaucrats and land developers, he says, Hong Kong will lose all its uniqueness, as demonstrated by the recent demolition of key sites such as the Star Ferry clock tower and Queen's Pier. 'For me, the vitality of the future always depends on how we preserve and assimilate the past,' Lee writes. 'Today, more and more people are becoming aware of this and are taking part in a movement to save ... an old street here, a clock tower or police station there. 'In making the effort they help to keep alive a collective memory which, however fragile, will shape Hong Kong's destiny.' Lee takes the reader on a ramble through Hong Kong, starting at Pedder Street and ending in the New Territories. His stance is that of the flaneur chronicling the life of a beloved city. The tour is also a ramble through time, starting with 16th-century Ming dynasty maps identifying the island as 'Heung Gong', or Fragrant Harbour, probably named after the trade in incense from an indigenous tree, the kuang heung. Inspired by two thinkers - University of California, Irvine professor and Hong Kong citizen Ackbar Abbas, and architect-theoretician Rem Koolhaas - Lee ultimately offers a more localist interpretation of the city, quoting that great writer of place, Naguib Mahfouz: 'It clamours with a distinctive and personal life of its own.' For Abbas, Hong Kong's incessant physical renewal, coupled with its political impotence, the result of being sandwiched in a colonial past, an undemocratic present and an uncertain future, becomes a form of 'disappearance' that affects all people living in the city. Koolhaas' theory of the 'generic city', popular with a postmodern crowd, offers a dystrophic vision of Hong Kong's future, with airport, shopping malls and hotels the only reliable elements in an increasingly characterless, high-rise space whose self-proclaimed, sad virtue is that of quick transit. Hong Kong is special; long may it remain so, Lee says. However, the obstacles are many. Identity and culture are elusive, intangible concepts easily erased by the bureaucrat's pen and the wrecker's ball; localism, while it celebrates the speciality of a place, runs the risk of degenerating into mediocrity. To illustrate the danger, Lee points to the damaging drop in the city's English-language skills, which threatens the city's cosmopolitanism. Lee draws on decades of expertise in literature to highlight Chinese and English fiction about the city, such as Shih Shu-ching's City of the Queen, a tale of the prostitute Wong Tak-wan, whose offspring rise to positions of social eminence. And why, he asks, did the experience of Japanese invasion and brutal captivity not produce any works of literature on a par with those from Shanghai or Southeast Asia, such as J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun or Pierre Boulle's The Bridge over the River Kwai? Was colonial life so stultifying that it erased all creative impulse, Lee wonders. Hong Kong filmmakers such as Stanley Kwan Kam-pang, Tsui Hark, Ann Hui On-wah and Wong Kar-wai have perhaps risen best to the challenge of capturing their home city, exhibiting a 'persistent obsession' for their 'bewildering and lost' hometown. Wong's romantic leitmotif, 'a spiritual quest for a lost love or a romance with the past that is irretrievable', has won him a cult following. With economic growth creating megalopoli of millions of people on the mainland, how can Hong Kong stay special? Lee says the city must celebrate its cultural heritage, the intangible weight of history that gives a place its soul and quality of life. Those are things no mainland city can manufacture - and which Hong Kong throws away on pain of true, final disappearance.