When I lived in Hong Kong, I always got a kick out of taking friends and family to Chungking Mansions for the first time. You should have seen the looks in their eyes when we strolled over to the elevators in the C block. They must have thought I’d gone mad in Hong Kong, and that they might not make it out themselves.
And then we’d enter an Indian restaurant on an upper floor and they’d lose themselves in curry and wonder why they ever doubted me.
So it was with great excitement that I read Gordon Mathews’ new book, Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong (University of Chicago Press, 2011), this week.
Part narrative, part anthropological study, with a smidgen of memoir thrown in, Ghetto shows how this one building is not only a third world microcosm in a developed world city, but also that it’s responsible for much of the clothing and mobile phone sales in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Back in the 90s when I went there for Indian food, I loved the diversity of the Mansions. Africans, South Asians, Caucasians, and Chinese all mixed together. But according to Mathews, the Mansions’ demographics have changed since then. There are many more Africans and mainland Chinese. He also writes that it’s tamer than its heyday hippie years, which spanned the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
One thing I couldn’t believe was that drug use had tapered off apart from a slew of Nepalese heroin addicts who are Hong Kong permanent residents thanks to their Gurkha fathers (who served the Crown during HK’s colonial days).
According to Chris Thrall in his breakthrough memoir, Eating Smoke, Chungking Mansions is the place to go to for drugs. I can still picture Thrall’s vivid description of wealthy American teenagers getting high off meth in a cramped Chungking Mansions guesthouse.
Gordon Mathews lived in a guest house at the Mansions once a week for several years and conducted extensive research, not only there but also in the home countries of merchants who frequented the Mansions. Some interesting observations of his that stood out include:
* Goods are cheaper in China, but third world merchants trust people in Hong Kong more;
* People in Sub-Saharan African can enjoy first world goods like mobile phones because of Chungking Mansions;
* If you return your mobile phone before the warranty expires, there’s a good chance it’ll end up for sale in Chungking Mansions;
* Indians and Pakistanis work side by side as friends and colleagues in Chungking Mansions with little problem;
* Of all the many restaurants in Chungking Mansions, only one is Chinese;
* English is the lingua franca of the Mansions;
* Although Chungking Mansions is a seedy building, the third world merchants who do business there are not poor because they had enough money to leave their home countries; and
* Chungking Mansions won’t be around forever, and its lifespan depends on how many Africans move their business from Hong Kong to China in the coming years.
Ghetto is a fascinating look into one of my favorite places in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine Hong Kong without Chungking Mansions, so the last bullet point is hard for me to accept. Thanks to Gordon Mathews, Chris Thrall, and Wong Kar-wai’s film Chungking Express, memories of Chungking Mansions will live on.