The World Inside a Building: Chungking Mansions

It can be hard to explain Chungking Mansions to someone who has never been there. You can start with numbers: 17 storeys, five lifts, three blocks, each connected by a two-floor shopping arcade. 4,000 residents from 129 countries. Hundreds of small shops and restaurants. But these figures don’t really convey the way Chungking Mansions is a city within a city, both a part of Hong Kong and a place removed from it. Anthropologist Gordon Mathews calls it a “world centre of low-end globalisation,” connected as much to the markets of Lagos and Karachi as it is to Nathan Road, to which Chungking Mansions opens its eager jaws.

From a distance, Chungking Mansions looks ordinary enough: a scrubby grey block punctuated by mismatched windows, some of them filled with scrolling LED advertisements for the building’s many guesthouses. Strips of blue light added during a recent renovation give the façade a tatty kind of glitz. Walk closer, however, and the building asserts a gravitational pull. Its entrance is a constant churn of activity. South Asian men tout for Indian restaurants on the upper floors of the building. West African women stand in brightly patterned wrappers. Haggard European backpackers make their way through the crowd, nervously eyeing the gauntlet of money changers, electronics shops and samosa stalls inside.

Grey facade – Photo by Gerlald Figal on Flickr

In his 2011 book Ghetto at the Center of the World — indispensable to anyone who wants to understand Chungking Mansions in all its complexity — Mathews positions the building as node for a kind of alternative globalisation. “It is traders carrying their goods by suitcase, container, or truck across continents and borders with minimal interference from legalities and copyrights, a world run by cash,” he writes. “It is also individuals seeking a better life by fleeing their home countries for opportunities elsewhere, whether as temporary workers, asylum seekers or sex workers. This is the dominant form of globalisation experience in much of the developing world today.” And Chungking Mansions, situated in the middle of a wealthy financial capital, is an unlikely hub for that world.

Many accounts of Chungking Mansions assert that it was a “high-class” building when it opened in 1961, home to middle-class families and celebrities. That wasn’t entirely the case. Like many other buildings built at the time, Chungking Mansions is what architects call a composite building – a structure without much regulation on its internal use, where residences and commercial spaces can co-exist. Before the 1950s, Hong Kong was a city of low-rise shophouses, and when the population boomed after World War II, building codes were slow to evolve. Developers built as densely as they possibly could, which produced enormous structures that loomed over the street like canyon walls.

Tsim Sha Tsui, which was Hong Kong’s shopping and entertainment hub in the 1950s, has many such buildings. Champagne Court, Mirador Mansions, National Court, Far East Mansion – all were built around the same time as Chungking Mansions, and they all share its surprising mix of uses. Many were attractive places to live when they first opened, with spacious flats and a convenient location, so residents were willing to put up with having a workshop or a brothel down the hall. Compared to these other buildings, however, Chungking Mansions was “a dump,” in the words of novelist Xu Xi, who grew up nearby.

The building’s internal layout consists of a two-storey podium capped by three separate towers, which put an instant strain on the five small lifts that serve the upper floors. “It was already crowded – you had to wait a long time for the lift, and you thought, what happens if there is a fire?” recalls George Wong, whose family lived in Chungking Mansions in the 1960s. Their flat was about 700 square feet, with two bedrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen. “At that time it was considered a medium-sized flat – now it would be a large flat,” says Wong.

Chungking Mansions seen from Peking Road in the 1970s – Photo courtesy HKU Libraries.

Chungking Mansions was a buzzing commercial centre soon after it opened. About 20 percent of the businesses in its shopping arcade were owned by Indians or Pakistanis, making the building an instant hub for Hong Kong’s South Asian communities. Young music fans hunted for the latest vinyl at Orbit Records, which stocked singles imported from the UK. In the basement, the Bayside Club hosted “tea dances” (caa4 mou5 茶舞), which were an integral part of the English-language pop music scene that flourished in Hong Kong in the 1960s.

“A lot of my growing-up days were spent in Chungking Mansions,” says singer Anders Nelsson, who performed in the Kontinentals, a pop band made up of students from King George V School. Orbit released the Kontinentals’ two singles, I Still Love You and I Think of Her, and Nelsson worked for the label after school. “I was a gofer, an office boy,” he says. “I even had to go to the pier at Canton Road and collect boxes of singles. They weren’t big enough shipments to hire a truck so I would hire a rickshaw, put the records in the back and run alongside it as the rickshaw puller pulled them on to Chungking Mansions.”

By the late 1960s, many of the flats in the building had been converted into guesthouses that served American soldiers who were on a break from fighting in Vietnam. They lingered at the entrance, waiting to meet sex workers they could take up to their rooms. Backpackers began staying in the guesthouses, too, lured by cheap rates. (A 1981 edition of Lonely Planet informed travellers that “there’s a magic word for cheap accommodations in Hong Kong – ‘Chungking Mansions.’”) In his book, Mathews quotes an American visitor who described Chungking Mansions in this era as “a flophouse for Europeans, Americans, Australians, mostly students – there were a lot of hippies, some druggies.”

Other flats were converted into Indian restaurants and light industrial workshops. All of this new activity created a huge burden on the building’s electrical system, which hadn’t been designed to handle air conditioning or televisions, let alone commercial kitchens. “As they added more people and more things, they had to add more electricity, so they hung cables outside the walls,” recalls Wong, who returned to Chungking Mansions in 1982, after studying in the United States. He remembers being shocked at the building’s condition. “People threw trash down [into the courtyards] and it invited the rats to come up,” he says.

Fires were a constant problem. One blaze in 1988 killed a Danish traveller and injured nine other people, but few remedies were made until 1993, when the overburdened electrical system exploded, plunging the entire building into darkness for seven days. The owners’ corporation finally took action, overhauling the electrical supply, which was unveiled in a ceremony that drew Hong Kong’s then-governor, Chris Patten. As Mathew notes in his book, Patten was the first and last Hong Kong leader to ever visit Chungking Mansions. Many other Hongkongers have never set foot in the place, scared away by its seedy reputation.

The 1990s saw a decline in the number of backpackers and a growth in residents from India, Pakistan and Nepal, many of whom stayed for months as they worked illegally in the building’s shops and restaurants. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a new wave of African traders arrived, using Chungking Mansions as a base as they bought goods in Hong Kong and China to resell in their home countries. “By the early 2000s, the majority of people staying in Chungking Mansions were African,” notes Mathews. The shopping arcade filled up with shops catering to their needs, including many businesses selling mobile phones — Chinese knockoffs of popular European and Japanese brands — that were destined for resale on the streets of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Mathews estimates that, in the 2000s, up to 20 percent of the mobile phones sold in sub-Saharan Africa had passed through Chungking Mansions.

The mobile phone trade has since collapsed. These days, it’s easier for African traders to bypass Hong Kong and head straight to the mainland, though Mathews notes that many still spend a few days in Chungking Mansions, which has become a kind of “gentleman’s club” for traders. Many shops in the retail arcade have closed. Last November, the South China Morning Post described an “unprecedented downturn,” with rents plummeting – one shopowner claimed his rent had dropped from HK$35,000 per month to just HK$7,700, reflecting the decline in trade. Though the ground floor of the arcade is still packed with cafés, grocery stores and electronics shops, the mezzanine is nearly half empty.

But Mathews warns against overstating the troubles. “Traders are coming here a bit less,” he says. “But Chungking Mansions as a whole seems to be doing reasonably well, except for the phone services. Restaurants are failing less now than they were five years ago.” Over the past few years, the quality of guesthouses has improved, the building is cleaner and more organised, and CCTV and fire sensor systems have made it safer than ever. “It seems to me the building is as international as it has ever been, just not as a centre of trade,” says Mathews.

That’s especially true when it comes to asylum seekers – Hong Kong’s own part of the global refugee crisis. There are roughly 11,000 people seeking asylum in Hong Kong, many of whom come here because it is one of the few places they can reach without a visa. For them, Chungking Mansions is a place to find a helping hand or a familiar face. “It’s many cultures inside one building,” says one East African man who has been frequenting Chungking Mansions for about 12 years. “This is a new world altogether, compared to what’s outside.”

Though he is no longer conducting research on Chungking Mansions, Mathews still keeps his ear to the ground. Every week, he hosts a free English-language class that is actually more like a debate club. (Mathews wrote an evocative essay about the class for the New York Times in 2012.) On a recent afternoon, about a dozen people from Iran, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan, Japan and Somalia gathered around a table in the offices Christian Action, a social services organisation. Mathews rifled through a stack of newspapers and brought up the news of the day. Former chief executive Donald Tsang had just been sentenced to prison, and there was a story about his son sending him a box of essentials.

“Has anyone been to jail in Hong Kong?” asked Mathews

One man raised his hand. He had spent time in detention after submitting an asylum claim. “They give you all sorts of things. If you request a guitar, you can have it. The problem is you have no phone and no computer.”

At one point, the conversation turned to Trump, and one Somali man mentioned that he had just filed paperwork to be resettled in the United States, but his hopes had been dashed by the travel ban.

Later, after the class wrapped up, Mathews went downstairs for lunch at a Punjabi restaurant. He reflected for a moment on what Hong Kong would lose if Chungking Mansions disappeared. It was a purely theoretical exercise – due to its enormous size and complicated ownership structure, it will be nearly impossible to redevelop Chungking Mansions in the near term.

“I’m probably too tied up with this building over the years to look at it objectively,” he says. “On one hand, you could say it would hardly matter at all [if it disappeared]. On the other hand, what Chungking Mansions has become is a centre of foreignness in Hong Kong that is not Chinese and not gweilo. It is not like SoHo or Lan Kwai Fong, which are full of white people. It is the anti-SoHo, the anti-Lan Kwai Fong.

“One of the biggest shifts is that this place has become attractive to a lot of young Hongkongers. They aren’t staying overnight, but they’re coming here for a meal, and that isn’t something their parents would have done. So this building is appreciated much more than it was 25 years ago, and it is appreciated largely because it is a centre of South Asian and African cultures in Hong Kong. You don’t get that elsewhere, and that will continue on as it always has.”


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