A compulsively early riser, 11-year-old Xu Xi awoke one morning in the mid-1960s and looked out from the “suicide-jumper” verandah of her family’s high-rise flat. The sight of the Hong Kong harbor at pre-dawn, breathtaking and spectral, moved her to write an essay that became her first published piece.

Today, Xu Xi often shares that 4am moment with audiences eager to hear a tale of literary discovery from one of Hong Kong’s leading English-language writers. She may even share it with interested Beijing bibliophiles in March when she visits the capital for The Bookworm International Literary Festival 2011.

But in Evanescent Isles: From My City-Village, Xu Xi’s 2008 collection of personal essays about Hong Kong, the author makes it clear that her path to literary life was far from obvious.

Like so many Chinese children before her, the young Xu Xi soon found out from her mother that some activities, while acceptable as “extracurricular” pursuits, were not to be entertained as real careers (see Chua, Amy). A stellar student of letters and a mediocre mathematician, she was soon “streamed” from the arts into sciences following her mother’s iron-fisted back room maneuverings.

Xu Xi returns again and again in Evanescent Isles to themes of impermanence, mapping the ambiguities of her own life onto the changing fortunes of the colony-turned-SAR. Is she Chinese or a citizen of the world? Can she cobble together a conversation (and a friendship) in a patois of Cantonese, Mandarin and English? And as Hong Kong drifts closer to Beijing, can she trust that her “permanent” identity card is as good as its title?

Nothing is certain in Xu Xi’s Hong Kong—the city always seems to be on the verge of evaporating. Many of the characters that populate these essays maintain a curious detachment from the city. The author describes her father as a “Chinese foreigner” in the city, “an immigrant who arrived as an adult and remained the next forty-nine years until his death, all the while ensuring that he would not stumble down the same path as the unfortunate locals.” We get the impression of a city so torn between civilizations and ambivalent toward its “glocalism” that it exists only as a fragile, uneasy compromise.

The essays draw out Hong Kong’s contradictions above all else, leaving the reader with provocative questions but few answers. If it really came down to it, would Hong Kongers rather cast votes or go shopping? And finally, is there a real place for indigenous literature in a culture that is, for all intents and purposes, vastly more interested in the vocal stylings of American Idol reject William Hung?

Unlike her father, Xu Xi has managed to build a life beyond Hong Kong, but not entirely apart from it. Like an uncommonly sturdy migratory bird, she “inhabits the flight path along New York, Hong Kong, and the South Island of New Zealand,” according to her bio.

When she makes her northward detour next month, it may be fair to ask: as Beijing goes global and sheds layers of its past to make way for development, which city is really entering the other’s orbit?

Xu Xi, Evanescent Isles: From My City-Village, Hong Kong University Press, US $21.95

This article was published in March 2011 in City Weekend Beijing. Click here to read the original.