What could be more seductive to the imagination than the Walled City? A 6.9-acre patch of Hong Kong's Kowloon peninsula, it was a discrete, warrenlike enclave, full of twisting passageways and tiny rooms, that grew up around an old military base and flourished throughout the 20th century. Though it was riddled with crime and had no reliable public utilities, it housed tens of thousands of people at its height. It was finally demolished in 1994.
Life in the Walled City was challenging to say the least, and pictures from its final decades are anything but romantic. Anne Opotowsky looks to a different time in Nocturne, the second volume of her lavish three-part graphic novel about the City. (Though the first book, His Dream of the Skyland, is well worth checking out, it's not necessary to read it first.) Set in the 1920s and '30s, Nocturne is like the City itself, vibrant and contradictory. In these pages, steep little streets are navigated via rickshaw. Cramped rooms for home and work are jammed together chaotically (the very essence of mixed-use development, surely, is a fortune teller's apartment that's next door to a brothel and across from a fish seller). Reading Nocturne, you can practically feel and smell the air, humid and fuggy with inharmonious odors.
With its effusive, occasionally cloying nostalgia for a bygone Hong Kong, Nocturne exhibits both the delights and the dangers that crop up when Western eyes turn toward Asia. Even as it does, it offers much to the reader: Dozens of characters interact seamlessly throughout these pages. The overarching plot hardly seems to advance, but that's not really what matters. Will the impoverished fortune teller Mrs. Lu give in to the crime boss who's courting her? Will Benjamin, the orphan from Calcutta, figure out who his father is? And will the Walled City's canny denizens ever succeed in their schemes to illicitly pipe in clean water?
Opotowsky has worked in film and TV, and it shows here: She's deft at sketching memorable characters in just a couple of pages. She also evokes the rhythms of Chinese speech without aping it, a striking achievement. But, just like she's got a bit too much of the Westerner's affection for Old Hong Kong, she's a little too much in love with the trope of the dream-narrative. Where this city should bustle, it drifts.
The occasional irruption of some bona fide, sassy wordplay feels like a palm slapping a sleeper's cheek. "[Your son is] a mongrel, Mrs. Lu," says the witchy Mrs. Yan, a rival fortune teller, sucking on her cigarette holder. "He belongs in a frying pan." Elsewhere, Xi the acrobat sends an anonymous letter to the girl he loves. "You disturb my soul," he writes. "I run from one thought to the next ... and when I return, there you are again."
Nocturne has a plot — a few of them, actually — but the specifics tend to get lost as Opotowsky meanders through place and character. It's a testament to her skill as a storyteller that the narrative doesn't get completely bogged down, especially since cryptic dialogue and awkward panel structure make it impossible to tell what's going on at a couple of pivotal moments.
That's partly the fault of illustrator Angie Hoffmeister, a talented artist who was in way too much of a hurry when she drew this book. Her evocative faces and elegant set pieces shouldn't have to bear the burden of counterbalancing the messy drawings that appear more and more as Nocturne advances.
And yet Hoffmeister's ad hoc style lends one powerful benefit to Nocturne. It imbues each page with a sense of urgency that wakes up the story a bit and, more importantly, feels true to the place. Hoffmeister doesn't fetishize all the little details that Westerners like to drool over in Asian clothing and interiors. She has a lot in common with her hand-to-mouth subjects — she's got to get it done and move on. The tension between this style and Opotowsky's vision is the capping contradiction in a volume that's full of them. Since it involves both East and West, that's only apropos.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.