‘There are three rules of survival in the Walled City: Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife.’ Hak Nam is the Walled City inside an abandoned fort, where no government has jurisdiction and a warren of dark alleys and ramshackle houses have grown up. Here the gangs are the rulers and crime and death are a way of life.
The story is told through three voices. There’s Dai, who comes from a wealthy family in City Beyond, the slang name for Seng Ngoi. We know that he had a brother who is now dead, that he has 18 days to fulfil a mission to allow him to return and that he needs someone to help him get into the brothel run by Longwai. The second voice is Jin, a waif in the city, who can run very fast, lives by his wits and is being chased by a gang of murderous urchins. Jin is in the walled city to find his sister who has been sold into the sex trade by their alcoholic father. Oh, and Jin is actually a girl. The third voice is Mei Yee, Jin’s sister. Kept in a brothel she is favoured by one of the clients, a foreign diplomat. She longs for freedom, but at the very opening of the book we learn what price a break for freedom costs.
The Walled City is itself one of the characters. It seems to absorb and swallow its inhabitants whole, which is both a protection and a danger. The fact it is inspired by Hong Kong’s Kowloon is fascinating.
This is an exciting tale that reveals its characters layer by layer. The plot unfolds before us and we see how each of the characters deals with changes in their situation, the dilemmas they face and how people react to seemingly inescapable situations. Some of the minor characters are clichéd, but our sympathy always lies with the Dai, Mai Yee and especially Jin.