Identity

Sonia FL Leung’s memoir grapples with trauma and exclusion in Hong Kong as a Chinese-born writer

Nov 07, 2019

Amid #MeToo and Hong Kong protests, a mainland Chinese-born writer grapples with trauma of the past and her place in the city.

In Sonia FL Leung’s autobiographical short story “The Moon in a Dog’s Eye,” a deserted construction site can be a sanctuary, slippers can turn to stardust, and moonlight can be a healer and source of strength in the face of trauma.

Leung moved to Hong Kong from mainland China as a teenager and faced discrimination from local kids who instantly saw her as other. In her personal essays and short stories, she recounts her experience as a forever-outsider in her adoptive home with equal parts sorrow, hope, and otherworldly magic.

Sonia FL Leung
Sonia FL Leung / Photo: Courtesy of the author

Her upcoming memoir, tentatively titled Hong Kong Dream, touches on her childhood in Fujian, her coming of age in Hong Kong, and a brutal sexual assault that led her to run away from home and spend years as a teenage vagabond in Taiwan.

Leung’s stories stand at the nexus of two major movements—#MeToo and Hong Kong’s mass protests—and they offer a unique perspective as someone who has lived through trauma and still has a tenuous relationship with the city that excluded her.

‘Mainland girl’

Leung left Fujian Province for Hong Kong at the age of 12 with her younger sister, Ting, in the mid-1980s. Her parents, seeking a better standard of living, had moved to the city earlier and found factory jobs.

For Leung, the transition was not easy, and many of her stories express the alienation she felt in and out of her home during her adolescent years.

“I never went back home. I persisted and fought all the way through. I never went back to ask for someone to take me in or help me.”

Sonia FL Leung

“When I first came to Hong Kong, I was called dai luk mui,” Leung says, referring to a derogatory Cantonese term that translates to “mainland girl.”

For Leung, it was clear from the denigrating language that local Hong Kongers used for mainland Chinese, Westerners, and migrant workers from Southeast Asia that there was a social hierarchy, and she was near the bottom.

In school, she was held back two grade levels on account of her English and Cantonese skills, further isolating her. Leung grew up speaking Mandarin and Hokkien. She said no matter the effort she exerted to fit into the Cantonese-speaking crowd, her accent “almost always betrayed” her. Hong Kong society, in her eyes, was exclusionary.

In her story “Diamond Hill,” Leung writes about living in a subdivided housing slum as her father struggled with drinking and gambling issues. Meanwhile, she was her mother’s least favorite child. “Being dark-skinned [and] super sensitive...I became her target,” she writes.

(Read more: The real-life story of a high-achieving drug dealer)

In another story “The Moon in a Dog’s Eye,” she recounts how a table-tennis coach raped her when she was 14. The experience nearly broke her. “I fell into depression and suicidal behavior,” she says. Her home life, already strained, severely worsened. 

“I never went back home,” Leung says, her voice hardening. “I persisted and fought all the way through. I never went back to ask for someone to take me in or help me.”

‘Lost souls’

When she was 15, Leung bought a one-way plane ticket to Taipei. She survived financially on the kindness of Taiwanese university students who allowed her to stay with them.

After two years of dorm hopping in Taiwan, she returned to Hong Kong and found work at a souvenir shop. She took up residence in the infamous Chungking Mansions and wrote about this tenuous time in her life in the story “Home of Lost Souls.”

“I understood the unfortunate fate of the domestic workers as I too experienced discrimination as an outsider.”

Sonia FL Leung in “Home of Lost Souls”

“It was the cheapest I could get in town,” she writes. “HK $45 (around USD $5.80) per night.”

Leung found refuge within a microcosm of Hong Kong’s immigrant population. “Maids from the Philippines or Thailand or Vietnam in Hong Kong, which back then was a British Colony, were at the bottom of the social hierarchy,” she writes. “I understood the unfortunate fate of the domestic workers as I too experienced discrimination as an outsider.”

Her friends came from all over—Australia, Germany, Japan, South Korea—and the experience helped her grapple with the trauma that spurred her to run away.

Leung’s time with Hong Kong’s immigrant population helped her come to terms with the city that excluded her.
Leung’s time with Hong Kong’s immigrant population helped her come to terms with the city that excluded her. / Photo: Gavin Huang

In the story, the reader is swept up with detailed descriptions of Hong Kong’s cityscape, from the “playful neon lights” of Peking Road to the stars immersed in the skyline.

They helped Leung realize that “there was this bigger world out here where I belonged.”

(Read more: The artists fighting to save Hong Kong’s fading neon lights)

While working on Hong Kong Dream, Leung saw hope in those beautiful moments when she is at peace with the city where she grew up.

In “The Moon in a Dogs’ Eye,” she describes how the intertwining of the sky, moon, and stars with Hong Kong’s rough urban landscape give her the space to envision a brighter future for herself.

“You know, that sense of belonging, even after nearly 30 years now, I still don’t feel that. I may never feel that.”

Sonia FL Leung

“You know, that sense of belonging, even after nearly 30 years now, I still don’t feel that,” Leung admits, “I may never feel that.”

But as a writer and longtime resident, she feels responsibility to write as a “witness” to the protests unfolding in Hong Kong, and it’s her identity as a writer adrift that has fueled her support for them in the past four months.

Leung explains that her mother was very loyal to the Communist Party, and that devotion rubbed off on her as a young child.

But it began to fade when Leung had the opportunity to access different books, stories, and perspectives about mainland China. “Because of my ability to have the chance to read different books and gain different perspectives, I’ve felt that this is the most basic human right,” she says. 

“I want young Hong Kongers to also have that chance,” Leung says. “When I first came to Hong Kong, I saw the harbor, and I saw the ships going out. And I felt hope. And I want the young Hong Kongers to be able to see what I saw. And to be able to read and to be able to write as I'm writing now.”

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