A thrilling look at Chungking Mansions

A thrilling look at Chungking Mansions

One man's jittery exploration of a Hong Kong icon
Chungking Mansions
Step out of Chungking Mansions and let the rush of Tsim Sha Tsui envelope you

Fires, muggings, murders -- these are the nice things you hear about Chungking Mansions and its neighboring Mirador Mansions, the notorious pair of buildings in Tsim Sha Tsui that houses a labyrinth of restaurants, bistros, shops, apartments, and about 4,000 residents. Most importantly, they also house some of the cheapest accommodations in Hong Kong.

The Mansions’ intimidating reputations have been spread wide over the years by films such as Wong Kar Wai’s "Chungking Express", in which scuzzball low-lifes use the mansions’ warren of rooms as headquarters for all their illegal scuzzball activities. But I was desperate. Hong Kong was the last stop on my world-travel itinerary and I was scratching the well-worn burlap of the bottom of my money bag. I needed a cheap bed and I needed it fast.

Clutching a list of Chungking Mansions and Mirador Mansions budget hotels that I’d scribbled on a scrap of paper during one of those wildly optimistic bursts of travel planning, I headed first into the lobby of the Mirador maze and crammed into a sweaty elevator for a shaky ride toward the rooms above.

At the front desk of a ramshackle guesthouse, a Filipina dressed in hot pants and a bra was arguing with another Filipina. Was she the housekeeper? A guest? There was no way of telling. Meanwhile, a group of Africans in a back room shouted at each other like they were celebrating a win at a craps table. Or getting ready to pull knives. Again, no way of knowing for sure.

Past an open doorway revealing a roomful of women laboring away at a bank of sewing machines, the guy manning the desk of the next place was a little friendlier and greeted me with a Cheshire-cat smile. He led me to a dungeon with mold crawling across the walls and a tiny steel bunk bed. Suddenly, his smile lost a little of its charm.

Who needs the Peninsula?

I tried my luck at another place on my list. Instead of a receptionist and a front desk I found a hand-scrawled sign on a closed door: “Please call for room 6627-XXXX.” I called and had a confusing conversation with a Chinese kid. I was pretty sure the kid told me to stay put and that he’d come find me. Ten minutes later, a boy came slapping down the hall in flip-flops and board shorts. He led me up two floors and enthusiastically showed me a room. “You have television, air conditioning, and a shower. Only HK$150 a night,” he said, dancing around the tiny, windowless cubicle and turning on every possible appliance and switch.

I nodded as if to say, “Who needs the Peninsula when you can have all this?” I dropped my bag, relieved that the search for a room was over. Then I headed next door to Chungking Mansions for a celebratory samosa, along the way fending off numerous offers to purchase far stronger stimulants.

Alarm bells

Just when I finally managed to fall sleep, a fire alarm started screeching. A real one; not the one in my head.— Nicholas Olczak

After dinner, I had trouble falling asleep in the windowless room. Every time I shut my eyes, visions of house fires tore through my mind and all those warnings about muggings and homicides in Chungking Mansions and Mirador Mansions echoed in my brain.

Just when I finally managed to fall sleep, a fire alarm started screeching. A real one; not the one in my head. I lay in bed deciding whether I should stagger out to the hallway or just ignore what was most likely a malfunctioning alarm in a budget hotel. Eventually, I drifted outside with all the other bewildered half-sleepers who’d spilled into the corridor. “At least the fire alarm works,” someone said, and we all nodded in solemn agreement before heading back into our rooms.

After that angst-ridden first night, my mood picked up, thanks in large part to the food. Chungking Mansions has the best Indian food in Hong Kong, with at least twenty restaurants in different corners of the buildings -- you’re never far from a nicely balanced curry, fresh naan, and crisp, cold beer.

There’s also plenty of atmosphere. I quickly came to appreciate just riding the elevators with the city’s ethnic minorities, mostly Indians, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Pakistanis, and Africans who reside in the Mansions. The two Mansions are well located for exploring Hong Kong.

Step out the doors and the urban rush of Tsim Sha Tsui envelopes you. The crowded shopping streets and night markets of Mongkok are within walking distance and the Star Ferry, with transport to Hong Kong Island, is ten minutes away by foot. With the attractions of Hong Kong so near at hand, I didn’t spend much time in my room. Mostly, my room was a secure place to sleep and store my stuff. Once I got used to the noisy ambience, I slept comfortably with the knowledge that there’s no better place -- well, no cheaper place -- to experience a genuine Hong Kong legend.