Tuesday, November 11, 2014

THE WALLED CITY: Making a Real Place Come Alive in Fiction

I was so lucky to snag an early copy of THE WALLED CITY by Ryan Graudin, and I have to say: WOW. This book is amazing. 

I think I first fell in love when Jin was running through the city. Or maybe it was when Dai entered the den of the kingpin of the walled city. But really it was when Mei Yee wasn't saved in the first chapter.

And then there's the city. Rich and vivid and so, so real. It fascinated me how Ryan was able to make the setting of the walled city come alive, and so I asked her here today to talk about it and how she came to research, develop, and write such an amazing location.

Thank you, Ryan, for stopping by my blog and sharing your story and the setting of THE WALLED CITY!


THE WALLED CITY, my YA thriller that is coming to a store near you on November 4th, is (like most of my novels) not set in America. The story’s setting is actually very, very closely based on a place called the Kowloon Walled City. This Hong Kong neighborhood reached its peak in the 1980s, when over 33,000 people lived in its mere 6.5 acres. Yes. You read that right. 33,000. It was the most densely populated place on earth at the time. There was no formal architecture—and its shanties piled up to 14 stories high, crowded so thick that sunlight couldn’t reach the streets. The reason so many people moved to this place was because it was a legal no-man’s land. There were disputes between the British and Chinese governments which meant that law enforcement had no jurisdiction within the Walled City. Its borders were filled with illegal dentists, noodle-makers who wanted to avoid taxation, and (of course) the Triad.

I first learned about the Kowloon Walled City in 2011 from a woman named Jackie Pullinger who had worked in this neighborhood for over twenty years. I couldn’t believe that this place existed, much less that I’d never even heard about it before. But I went home, started Googling and fell into a rabbit hole of research. The more I read about it, the more I knew I had to write a story set inside the city’s sunless, lawless streets.

The real Kowloon Walled City was torn down in the early 1990s (though not before its hive-like structure was immortalized in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movie Bloodsport and several
documentaries) and replaced with a park. I was fortunate enough to take a research trip to Hong Kong and visit the site of the former Triad stronghold.

The park still holds traces of the old city. The Old South Gate, cannons, the wells where city inhabitants drew water can all be spotted throughout the park. The largest portion of what the land used to be is the Yamen, which was the building at the center of the city which was used as sort of a community center. The Yamen is now used as a museum, where park visitors can go and learn about the city that once stood there. At the park’s entrance there’s a stone etched with an elaborate cross-section of the city, showing intricate details of the Jenga-stacked buildings. There’s also a very small metal model of the city, which I enjoyed being dramatic over.

What struck me as soon as I walked through the park gates was how small the place felt. In terms of a public park it was relatively roomy, with a plethora of lakes and gardens. Yet when I thought of the space in terms of the thousands of people who teemed within its .010 square mile borders, I got more than a mite claustrophobic.

Of course, my trip to China involved more than just visiting the Kowloon Walled City Park. There was phenomenal food! I got to eat cha siu bao, the Cantonese barbeque-pork-flavored buns which Jin Ling and Dai are so fond of in the novel. I was also fortunate enough to be in Hong Kong to celebrate the Chinese New Year. They displayed one of the most AMAZING fireworks shows I’ve seen in my entire life.

Though my version of the Walled City is set in the fictional city of Seng Ngoi instead of Hong Kong, I wrote the novel so it could read as a historical fiction (ie. All of the cultural details could fit into our real world.). There were so many parts of the real Hong Kong that I was able to envision my characters in—standing at the top of Victoria Peak, taking in the lights of Hong Kong’s phenomenal neon-lit skyline, eating delicious cha siu bao as a part of dim sum, watching the New Year’s fireworks. I can only hope THE WALLED CITY will do the reverse by helping readers experience this amazing place inside its pages.

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