Once upon a time, there was a place in Hong Kong called Hak Nam. Hak Nam, otherwise known as the “Kowloon Walled City”, had no government, no police, no order; it was a chaotic, dirty, crime-ridden place that could only build up instead of out (hence the “walled” part of the name). It was torn down in 1993, but for decades before that it was home to tens of thousands of people. The Walled City by Ryan Graudin tells the story of three of those people.
Dai is an 18-year-old boy with many secrets, and his time to accomplish an unknown task is quickly running out. Jin Ling is a young girl disguised as a boy, a vagrant surviving by her wits and quick feet on the filthy Hak Nam streets, desperately searching for her sister. Mei Ye is Jin Ling’s sister, captured two years ago by an organized crime group called the Brotherhood and brought to Hak Nam’s most elite brothel. Dai pairs up with Jin Ling to run errands for the soulless leader of the Brotherhood, Longwai, which is part of his unknown master plan. Dai also comes in contact with Mei Ye during his many double-agent visits to the brothel, and the two are instantly drawn to one another. Jin Ling soon learns that Dai is not what he seems, but she has to break her rules of survival and trust him anyway in order to finally find her sister, defeat Longwai and escape Hak Nam once and for all.
I do not want to give away too much of the plot because it has a lot of interesting twists and turns, but this is a very good book and I think people should read it. As I was reading it, I was quite fascinated by two things: 1) This was a real place. This was a real place, and the stories of Dai and Jin Ling and Mei Ye are probably not far from the truth, the only difference being the (mostly) happy endings. 2) This is a teen book. A book for teens, featuring drug use, organized crime, violence, prostitution, anarchy. I mean, the reading level is definitely teen, but the subject matter? Not so much. (I’m starting to think I need to adjust my perception of what is appropriate for teens, though…)