Chungking Mansions has been a Hong Kong institution since 1962, the year my mom first went to Hong Kong. But as I learned–the hard way–neither my mom nor her family ever ventured into the bowels of this backpacker hostel and Indian restaurant jungle (which back then was more of a tenement for local Chinese).
When I came onto the scene in Hong Kong, I’d heard legends of the Mansions almost upon arrival at the Chinese University. The other American students in my program were plotting to get away from campus–the dorms were locked after midnight–and try a night at the Mansions, just for the fun of it.
I was pretty nerdy and stayed on campus most nights, but that didn’t mean I shied away from the Mansions during the day. Quite the opposite.
When my mom sent me a newspaper article about the Trans-Siberian Railroad, I noticed the premier travel agency for this six-day train trip was located in the Mansions. So I made my way to the Mansions and waited patiently in line at the elevator bank. Each elevator bank has two elevators with one elevator hitting the even-numbered floors and the other the odd-numbered floors. Restaurant workers queued up with large straw baskets filled to the rim with Chinese broccoli, onions, turnips, or other produce. The elevators didn’t hold many people to begin with, so when someone boarded with a few baskets, the people in line behind that person would have to wait longer, until the lift returned.
On one trip to Monkey Business Travel (which has since moved out of the Mansions), I found myself alone in the elevator with a rotund, middle-aged Indian man. As soon as the doors closed and we began the slow climb up, he offered a guest house room at a discounted rate.
“Very clean,” he told me.
“Sorry, I live in Hong Kong.”
He handed me a business card anyway, in case I ever had friends pass through Hong Kong.
Upon my return to the university, I wrote my grandparents a letter, describing my afternoon in the Mansions, including my encounter with this guest house proprietor. I assumed they were familiar with the Mansions (they had visited Hong Kong eight times, after all) and would appreciate a tidbit about a familiar place. That kind of backfired. They called my parents immediately, expressing great concern that I had fallen into the wrong hands and was headed into white slavery. Call your daughter right away, they instructed my mother. (We never used international calls back then; it was too expensive). But my mom made that call.
I assured my parents I was fine and it was just an innocent conversation.
But I continued going to the Mansions, discovering some tasty Indian restaurants scattered throughout the different blocks (Chungking Mansions is made of five blocks, or buildings, from A to E ). My favorite was the Khyber Pass, on the 7th floor of Block E. I usually only went out to dinner when friends or family visited from out of town. And Khyber Pass was always on the list.
In the mid-90s, when my former in-laws arrived from central China for a few weeks and we took them for Indian food at the Mansions, I quickly assessed once we entered the main entrance–surrounded by dashiki-clad Africans, Pakistani men in salwar kameez, and local Hong Kong Chinese in threadbare shorts and t-shirts–that my in-laws might not want to wait in a 20 minute queue for the E block lift to the 7th floor. We were going to the Delhi Club Mess, a 3rd floor walk-up. My in-laws loved Indian food so much that we returned the following week before they returned to China. I think the Mansions even helped them feel more comfortable around people who didn’t look like them.
I’ve since read that the Mansions has undergone renovations, but I can’t imagine it not still being a fire trap and as grungy as ever. I can’t wait to go back.