Inside Chungking Mansions with expert Gordon Mathews
I am at Chungking Mansions, a high-rise warren in Tsim Sha Tsui known to contain the cheapest guest houses in Hong Kong, and immortalized as a den of lawlessness in Kar Wai Wong's 1994 movie "Chungking Express." With me is Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the author of the recently published book, "Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong."
I find myself standing in the alley behind Chungking Mansions talking to s_pain, a rapper and record producer from Ghana. Around us are other Ghanaians gathered around a small stall that sells, among other things, shots of Indian whiskey known to the alley regulars as “tears of the lion.”
Suddenly, a young Chinese woman stumbles out of the building and sits down on the ground, completely catatonic. She is followed by two uniformed policemen who tried to coax her out of her stupor. “Siu je? Siu je? (Miss? Miss?)” they say, snapping their fingers in her face, trying to get her to answer.
Above us, the thin sliver of evening sky visible through the scaffolding is fading to black. Inside Chungking Mansions, many Muslim traders, shop owners, asylum seekers, and workers from Africa and South Asia are taking a break and heading to the nearby Kowloon Mosque to pray and end the daily fast of Ramadan.
These small scenes, intertwined yet disparate, are a summation of the soul of Chungking Mansions. It is a dichotomy: a third-world flophouse in the midst of the glitter and sheen of Nathan Road, Hong Kong’s Golden Mile.
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When Hong Kong Chinese and Chungking Mansions denizens see each other they think they’re strangers, but in fact, they’re the same. They’re striving to be middle class. That’s the nature of this building.— Gordon Mathews
Chungking Mansions in the popular Hong Kong imagination is a dodgy place, but for its residents the building is a landmark of opportunity for a rags-to-riches climb. Chungking Mansions figures as an important depot in the worldwide movement of goods and capital to and from the developing world -- low-end globalization.
“Low-end globalization is globalization not as practiced by the big multinationals with their batteries of lawyers and their billion-dollar budgets,” says Mathews.
“It’s globalization done by individual traders carrying goods in their suitcases back and forth from their home countries. That’s the dominant form of globalization here and that’s how globalization works for 70 percent of the world’s people.”
The bearded and energetic Mathews bounds through the small corridors of Chungking Mansions shaking hands, bantering, and joking with people along the way.
The 55-year-old American is well-known in Chungking Mansions because he spent more than four years carrying out research in the 17-story building, sleeping in any of its 90 guesthouses, dining at its restaurants and food stalls, meandering through its stairwells and alleys and speaking with its people.
In addition, for the past four years, Mathews has volunteered as an English teacher for asylum seekers every Saturday at a non-governmental organization situated on the upper floors of Chungking Mansions.
“I don’t believe you should write a book and then leave,” says Mathews. “I think you’ve got an obligation to the place, and I carry this out.”
The book that resulted from Mathews’ immersive research is comprehensive in scope and immensely readable.
In "Ghetto at the Center of the World," Chungking Mansions is a Grand Central Station and Mathews traces the passage of people and goods from the building to destinations such as Dubai, Lagos, Mombasa, Nairobi, Bangkok, and Kolkata.
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While traders in Chungking Mansions hail from the world over, the majority comes from sub-Saharan Africa. They are drawn to Chungking Mansions by the collegial atmosphere, the cheap accommodations and the ready availability of a number of China-made wholesale goods, including mobile phones, clothing, watches, and computers.
Mobile phones figure at the center of Chungking Mansions’ global trade, and Mathews estimates that up to 20 percent of the mobile phones recently in use in sub-Saharan Africa had passed through the building at some point.
Increasingly, African traders travel on to China where they source goods directly, but some spend the entirety of their time in Hong Kong and, indeed, within Chungking Mansions.
Mathews writes that some small traders can expect to make between US$400 and $1,300 per trip, but sustaining and building this income takes intelligence, business acumen, and luck.
All walks of life
Mathews leads me on a walk around the ground floor of Chungking Mansions. Among the approximately 140 shops are eateries, phone card stalls, groceries, newsstands, packing and shipping stores, Internet cafés, and shops selling retail and wholesale mobile phones, clothing, watches, and electronics.
While the majority of traders are African, the owners of these shops are largely South Asian and Chinese and some of them have been working in the building for many years. These shop owners have lived their own version of the Chungking Mansions dream, persisting as a rising tide has lifted them toward a middle class existence.
“When Hong Kong Chinese and Chungking Mansions denizens see each other they think they’re strangers, but in fact, they’re the same,” says Mathews. “They’re striving to be middle class. That’s the nature of this building.”
Abrar Ahmad, the owner of a computer repair shop on the ground floor, moved to Hong Kong 20 years ago from Pakistan.
“For 20 years, Chungking Mansions has been up and down,” he says. “It’s been a good place to do business, but these days, it has also become a community center, offering services for all people in the building.”
Indeed, a community of sorts does exist, and many other constituencies walk the halls of Chungking Mansions.
Temporary workers, many of who hail from a single neighborhood in Kolkata and work here illegally on renewable tourist visas, staff the shops and restaurants. Asylum seekers await their fate in various states of logistical and legal limbo. A few sex workers discretely ply their trade among Chungking Mansions’ 1,000 guesthouse beds. Around 40 Nepalese heroin addicts haunt the stairwells.
Finally, an international array of tourists, drawn by the low prices, the mystique of Chungking Mansions, or perhaps unexpectedly misled by their own shoddy Internet research, makes up a significant number of the around 4,000 people who bed down in Chungking Mansions each night.
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We'll always have the Mansions
At the end of our visit, I sit with Mathews at a Pakistani eatery on the ground floor. We order dinner at 7:04 p.m. sharp, when the daily Ramadan fast ends.
We watch a stream of people -- women in saris, a man in an elaborate headscarf, a young Hong Kong Chinese couple, an Indonesian shopkeeper across the corridor, a backpacker couple with a dog-eared Lonely Planet in hand -- and I wonder aloud what the future holds for Chungking Mansions.
The building’s exterior is currently being refurbished to coincide with its 50th anniversary later this year, but how much more staying power does it actually have?
Mathews, who devotes an entire chapter of his book to the building’s future, is not prone to nostalgia.
“I would guess that Chungking Mansions will probably remain, for at least another decade or two, as a center of low-end globalization, but it will eventually be torn down. This is inevitable,” he says.
“However, in a larger sense, Chungking Mansions will remain. There will, in the future, be more and more nodes where the developed and the developing world meet, where all the world intermingles.” Long live the ghetto at the center of the world.
Chungking Mansions, 36–44 Nathan Road. Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong.
"Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong" by Gordon Mathews, Hong Kong University Press. Available at English language bookstores in Hong Kong and Amazon.com.