Variations on a city

Suen Lok Ching

Technological advances in the art of governance have made it entirely possible these days to cancel cities. Citizens fall dead asleep after a night scrolling down and down an interface of corporately sponsored media. At midnight, the local district office absorbs the neighbouring municipality and its neighbouring municipalities, east, south, west, north; but also upwards and downwards, into the stomachs of metro stations and over the wing-clipping lips of apartment blocks.

The city expands without even the space for a moment of hesitation. The empire’s heart of hearts subsumes the subdivided bedroom on the fourth floor of a tenement building. Atlases gild over gridded streets like sleepers in their beds. For the tenement’s inhabitants, the new address confers access to superior job opportunities, superior chemicals on the epidermis of the corner supermarket’s fruits, and superior state education for their children (should reproduction ever become an option). When they awaken, the open-air corridor winding around the block’s each floor flourishes, its ledges planted with blossoming splinters of glass.

The city’s atom mutates into a cell and then a star. Rewriting its borders cancels its existence: it is to pull out its streets like underground wisdom teeth, or to rip them, as one does in court to an unwilful contract. Like the watermark on that contract, a new city lays itself upon the cancelled city, a soft stamp of power, an invisible force larger than the self.

It lays itself upon the cancelled city in a shadow of light. Is such a thing still possible?

If it is, it is equally possible to redraw rivers and seas over the city, drowning it. This works best if the city is post-industrial. In the slogging shrug of acid lungs, waters rise to engulf stone warehouses and brick flues. The citizens, who all but slept in the factories, inhaled justice and exhaled corruption in the city’s ribcages.

The conversions of oxygen to carbon dioxide and virtue to sin were once mechanical transformations, democratically accessible to all. As the city floods, however, these
transformations cease to be special. All it takes is the building of a wall, cleaving from bank to bank of the yellow gush. No dehumidifier will ever extinguish its dampness.

There will be no fish to lie with in the new reservoir. It will contain freshwater for the post-cancelled city, and the fish will refuse the concentric ripples of sterility. From the vantage point on the mountain that pins the tissue of the reservoir to the valley’s sternum, the city’s surface crumples. Its film furrows with roofs and chimneys and even a skyscraper, a first, failed anchor to the modern world. Some former citizens dream that their dead cats’ spirits summon fish, like demons manifesting their gods. Prowling the reservoir’s bedclothes, they spoil the water’s salinisation levels, concentrating a wealth of salt beyond its price. In the ex-citizens’ dreams, the capsized city exsiccates the post-cancelled city. One city drowns in an excess of water, and the other in lack of it.

To sleep is to give oneself fully to one’s dreams. To act on them is to drown in them. These ex-citizens end up paying to dive into the wreck, sipping unsalted ash from their cats’ urns to sanctify their sleep.

A final case study. Consider the modern port city, and the line of water surrounding it that rises and falls. The city sketches its presence, free, where there is no sea. The water is the wall that encircles it. Doesn’t this seem paradoxical? Creating more land to disappear a city?

As a space in intimate and constant communion with water, the port is too familiar with the sea’s peculiarities to succumb to flooding, and too disparate for easy cancellation. It builds itself like a pantoum: it slips through itself, as do its flight attendants, textiles, sex toys, and other goods. Having infected the full length of its coastline, the port city’s structure depends on its continued ability to change, contingent on itself. It changes and absorbs change, an island in the needle weaving hermetic thread.

One could imagine that expanding a port’s physical territory might lend itself to maintaining, perpetuating, propagating the fiction of its existence (for that is all existence is, in the hands of authority: fiction). Not only will the city grow, but this change will sustain its slow breaths, the flow of zeroes and things through its hinterland. This expansion would warm the winter of its disappearance.

Yet giving the city new land grounds it in inertia, while reclaiming its waters denies it its fictions. Look out the window, write this down. Workers scuttle over clean white canvases of litter, pulling them taut into the corners of the bay. Dredgers, clawed like chicken feet, excavate Styrofoam food containers on which to colonise new beaches. Spreading itself out over the horizon’s tabletop, viewed from the island directly south of the harbour’s mouth, is a sheet of concrete, set with plastic cranes and laminated shipping containers. Nestled in the island’s neck, three middle-aged women in ruffled swimsuits sit upright in the sea, lapping at the shallows with their thighs.

“Are you going up north next week?” one of them asks. “No, my grandson has exams, my son asked me not to come”, another says. When they’d still been dreaming in the city, the residential estates they’d inhabited fronted the water. That was before the government initiated the first phase of applied research. There will be no more ocean for these women, and no country either.

Waking every morning by the unreclaimed sea becomes the most insidious dream of all, more dangerous than that of fish-summoning cat-demons. A dream or a memory? The border is porous between them now, like that between city and country. Each remembers when they were the other: when metal used to be liquid, and oil, nothing more than iridescence.

If dreaming is a certain way to pervert hope, then to sleep must be the most vagrantact of debauchery, in flagrante delicto of reality’s unfragrant delights. For the government’s studies in the art of disappearing have imposed a deadline on the port city. A dead line: on one side of the line it lives, and on the other, it is dead, depending on your perspective. On one side there is sea, and on the other, water sluices to stone. Alchemised out of waste, archaeology for cemeteries, the new lands really do stink.


Official incentives to promote political stability have accelerated the mechanics of the disappearance project. In its research headquarters, a white glass-walled studio above the university, engineers, economists, urban linguists, and novelists have established a new truth: disappearing as a transitive verb concentrates the most potency when tailored to the target city. Where techniques of disappearance used to be conjugated indiscriminately, the latest advances in artificial entropy show that mode must meet intention for the greatest efficacy.

The white studio overlooking the bay homes a 1:1 scale model of the port city, unfolding in the pericyclic topography of polystyrene. Within the scale model there is a hill,
and on the model hill stands a university with a white studio. The city shrinks itself to scale again, and on the hill over the harbour in that shrunken model city is a university campus. The scaled city in the studio is also the city that contains it; that same studio, just up the road, beneath five strata of security clearance. This unbodied echo crosses and recrosses the dead line.

What diagrams divide the city’s segments? They comprise roads and boulevards that reroute into streets, a specific arrangement of them, at specific dimensions with names unique to the interface of space and time. (The era does not strictly matter; cities have disappeared everywhere.) The streets are rows of buildings, themselves of specific dimensions, but at least eleven metres tall and three shopfronts wide. Glass slashes through the reinforced concrete faces at regular intervals; they bleed out soggy clothes, the sounds of wirelessness, laundered books. Transverse stripes mark the urine of air conditioners.

The quantity of buildings in the city is finite, but the number is so great as to be inestimable. Within those buildings, an infinitely larger yet equally bounded number of soup spoons; of stools stacked in symbiosis; of Formica tables, folded to the side, and bamboo poles to corset the city’s scoliosis. Their numbers, too, are a constant tug between the plus and plus and plus of material rejects; and yet, rigged in the red thread on the white studio’spinboard, the equation devolves to an increasing minus. If a city catch a country coming through the rye...

The city’s buildings encompass an equally exact number of lives, and because of the freewheeling nature of humans, their quantity is more interesting to study yet infinitely more volatile. They ebb, they go. Theoretically, they are possible to trace but, at this intensity of reality, they disperse like leaves. An architect on the disappearance project proposed researching whether or not these beings constituted the true material of the city, taking the ex-citizens of the drowned city as the norm group. I don’t believe her name would be familiar to you. The last records of the city’s growth are buried on the dead side of the line, in those memories so vague they might be reclaimed hopes.

For each drop of concrete in the dirty water, an inversion occurs. A few metres away from the port’s liquid edges, you advance down the network of a common street. Where the vertical bounds of human activity yield to sky and ground, emptiness swells to meet the margins. In that void unfurls a life-sized, inverted map of the disappearing city.

Miracles in the inverted map-city are possible but unfree, chartered to the brim of posthuman possibility. You travel along the map by flight, near-instantaneous. You shatter the earth with penetrating lightness; you cross the sea without touching a single droplet of water. And fifty floors above ground, what do you open your window upon? The flattened florals of lights on the grid? Does your window bash into another as you swing it free? Can you reach out and touch that other window from between the metal grilles? Can you act on your dreams? Can you feel the solid thrumming lifescape of an invisible city, inverted, hovering in the space between your perceptions?

When researchers in their studio trialled cancelling, flooding, and reclaiming the urban scale models, their experiments delivered the expected headways. But reclaiming a model does not a port disappear. For the unbodied echo must come from somewhere; yet scale model manufacturers find themselves unable to resurrect the mouths speaking over the dead line.

The concrete fact of disappearance continues, for now, to elude the government. Until official researchers complete their studies of entropy, to disappear will remain to transform inwards, to invert, to revert, so that the land precedes the water, and the refutation precedes the accusation. The key appears to be in that disembodied echo of the city, from metropolis to scale model, over the dead line and back. Is it possible to resign the city to the right side of the dead line? The metro bells toll their riders. The port no longer canals its arms into the city, but some years ago, a photographer stopped near the foot of this hill. A cat dove into the sea. As the harbour refracted the city’s face, the line arrested him momentarily. A shadow of light balanced itself on the seam between peninsula and island, city and country.

The canal ascends to the motorway. The cat’s spirit rewalks the piers, the walls encircling water in the night weather. You may begin reclaiming now

Suen Lok Ching

Suen Lok Ching is the Cantonese name of a Hongkongese writer and editor living in Dublin, Ireland. Their criticism and essays have been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and Asymptote.

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