The Walled City Trilogy
Buried today beneath a park in Hong Kong sleeps Kowloon Walled City, once home to the poor, the criminal, the innocent and the secretive, no bigger than a few city blocks and flourishing outside all conventions and laws. For the Emmy Award-winning American writer of books, films and documentaries, Anne Opotowsky, the vanished Walled City struck deep emotional chords. “It created incredible echoes in all I knew about human history. I see The Walled City in Imperialism, Orientalism, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Africa, the American South and American West. The city, with its story, its people, their need to find a place, which though utterly anarchic, was home, became a powerful muse.”
Hong Kong itself was another inspiration which seduced the widely-travelled Opotowsky. “This was where British Imperialism acted as the catalyst for two wholly different worlds to meet, and the West could unravel their proper exteriors, while the East could be the temptress.” Opotowsky jumped at the chance to explore the medium of comics to develop her fascinations into three audacious historical reveries. The Walled City Trilogy follows three best friends, all Chinese bred in Hong Kong, whose fates are intertwined with that of the city, as they become a revolutionary, a formidable member of the establishment and a powerful member of the Triads, Hong Kong’s mafia.
In the first volume set during the Twenties, His Dream of the Skyland, an eager lad named Song Lu strives towards adulthood, tasting freedom, sex and opportunity. While his post office job delivering dead letters sends him on his bike into the Walled City’s labyrinth of mysteries and intrigues, life for his family and friends only gets more complicated. “I wanted to tell a story that was free of Western Orientalism, of accepted views on how things happened, and who did what and why. In flipping history on its ear, I also wanted to have the freedom to write about people whose lives were just as beautiful and yet were not often told. So it was a blank canvas: I could write tales that were unknown to the characters, the storyteller and to the listener.”
As demonstrated in the new tangential Strip specially commissioned by ArtReview magazine, ‘Song’s Dreams’ (scroll down and read below), Skyland illustrator Aya Morton‘s sinuous, calligraphic brushlines and luminescent washes of colour sweep up the reader in the heady fervour of the place and period. Her frameless, soft-edged panels melt their boundaries, and her idiosyncratic and sometimes vertiginous shifts in perspective mean that no building or wall can contain or confine our vision. Ravishing and remarkable, Opotowsky and Morton’s 300-page volume has recently been released in Europe by Australian publishers Gestalt.
The second book in the trilogy, Nocturne, follows from Gestalt this summer, even longer at 450 pages drawn by Angie Hoffmeister (above), with a third volume underway with yet another illustrator. Opotowsky remains a writer fascinated by the effects and meanings of walls. “They are so prismatic and say so much about who we are as people, about when, why and who we wall off and how this affects those within walls and outside them. For some they isolate, for others they protect and create the freedom to be someone or something wholly new.”
For me to write this intro and profile, Anne Opotowsky generously answered my enquiries about her multiple influences at greater length:
I’m sort of a glutton on the inspiration issue. I search for it constantly. So, in general, when I start to build a narrative, move toward a story – it’s sort of some strange, perfect storm inside my head. Meaning several influences happen at once, and which then fuse together in some Tesla-like experiment, such that I see it, sort of like landscape I guess, unfolding before me. I like stories that are multi-layered and which have multiple echoes. In this case, it was the Walled City itself, which struck deep emotional chords and created incredible echoes in all I knew about human history. I see The Walled City in Imperialism. I see it in Orientalism. I see it in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Africa, in the American South and American West. The city and its story, its people, the need to find a place, that while utterly anarchic, was home, was a powerful muse.
On the flip side, in every story of power I have ever read, everything from Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, to Forster’s A Passage to India, and very definitely Rudyard Kipling (you choose, everything he wrote is still with me), they all explore people who go into a world believing their own, often very oppressive constructs will rule the day, and each time they try and understand something in their new world, it changes on them and takes new shape. Specifically the Marabar Caves in a Passage were a huge inspiration. Caves which confound their visitors, dark mysteries which reveal inner secrets and desires. Way cool for me. Walls also acted as inspiration. They are so prismatic and say so much about who we are as people. When we wall off, who we wall off, why. Also how it affects those within walls (and those outside). It protects some. It creates the freedom to be someone or something wholly new for others. It isolates. It marries. Fascinating invention, walls.
I also was inspired by Hong Kong itself, that is, where East met West. The idea of how Imperialism acted as the catalyst for two wholly different worlds to meet. That’s sort of what the cover of Book One is about (above). It’s inspired by an amateur photo of this Vogue fashion shoot that took place on the Pottinger Street steps in Hong Kong. This alabaster swan of a model posed in some high-end couture wear, and surrounding her were the locals of Hong Kong, hanging off flagpoles and standing on each others shoulders to catch a glimpse of her. It was her porcelain skin against the deep green-greys of rainy, tropical Hong Kong – that strange lock and key between cultures that fascinated me. Hong Kong – not as much now but for much of its past, when laissez faire permeated daily life – was this seductive place where the West could unravel their proper exteriors, and where East could be the temptress. This also allowed me to ask questions about power: whether conquerors really have the power we assume. I had an old friend tell me I’m a revolutionary. That may be true.
Visually, I was wildly inspired by Hong Kong’s beauty. And the place is a physical evocation of what I said earlier, this mix of delicious, tropical exotica, where vines, fronds, tendrils overrun the stately, proper British architecture. We have an enviable photo archive at this stage, photos that range from the earliest chronicles of Hong Kong in the late 19th century, to the modern era, where Hong Kong became the steely towers it is now – and the Walled City of Kowloon became at first a relic, and then extinct. (There is a small museum adjacent to the Walled City site, but the land the city sat on, it is now a park with a basketball court). Anyway, the photos we culled of Chinese people, who remained wholly connected to their culture in look and feel, also intrigued me. There were those who become “British” in all ways. There were Eurasians, maybe the most poignant, and the inspiration for the most enigmatic character in the three books. Book Two begins when a small Eurasian child, on the docks of Calcutta, who has lost sight of his father, is taken by a couple bound for Hong Kong, because the dockmaster is annoyed by the boy’s cries. Beyond that, how the two cultures portrayed themselves to each other, in ads, movies, messages that went back and forth.
I am also always inspired by the potential for great collaboration, and there, I was fulfilled, in my work with Aya Morton and Angie Hofmeister (below). I will soon begin work on Book 3 with a third illustrator.
Last, I have really deep feelings about how stories have been crafted, saved, told. I am only interested in writing about the events in a human’s life that s/he doesn’t understand, not the things s/he does. So I wanted to tell a story that was free of Western Orientalism first of all, of accepted views on how things happened, and who did what and why. I wanted also, in flipping history on its ear, to have the freedom to write about people whose lives were just as beautiful, and yet were not often told. So it was a blank canvas: I could write tales that were unknown to the characters, the storyteller and to the listener.
The trilogy takes place over the course of fifty to sixty years, where the three main characters, best friends, all Chinese-bred in Hong Kong, find their fates intertwined with that of the city. Over the course of the trilogy, one becomes a great revolutionary. One is a fallen star who becomes a powerful lieutenant within the Triads, the famous Hong Kong mafia that began, with complicit approval of the British ruling government, inside the Walled City. One begins as a rebellious rascal and thief and ends as a formidable member of the establishment. So they climb walls, wall themselves off, wall others out. I wanted the people in the trilogy to embody the place, and vice versa. I hope it does that.
Angie Hofmeister Interview
The Krishka Studio blog ran an interview with the German illustrator of Nocturne, in which she commented about the work-in-progress (see her rough layout above):
“I’ve been working on a book for three years now, and it’s going to be finished next spring. It’s a 450 page Graphic Novel called Nocturne, written by Anne Opotowsky and illustrated by me. This book occupies me for most of the day, it’s something like my personal Mount Everest, but I’m glad that the finish line is in sight. It’s tough work because you have to go back and forth all the time, do revisions and talk things over many times. I had to draw the first two chapters completely anew because my lines had gotten so much better over time. But it’s a beautiful project and I can’t wait to hold my first book in hands next year.”
Angie is not the only one eagerly anticipating this second volume of Opotowsky’s trilogy (cover preview, below).
Posted: June 15, 2014
This Article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ArtReview.