Dim Sum Dialogues: The Chungking Mansions



This is Nadim.

Nadim is originally from Pakistan. He came to Hong Kong seven years ago with his wife and two children to find a better life. He tells me that he never envisioned his better life to be what he has today, but he’s happy, and enjoying moderate success selling mobile phones out of his shop.

The shop is actually a small stall, at most ten feet wide and four feet deep, situated in a maze of hallways perpetually bathed in dim fluorescent light. The stalls next to him sell a variety of cheap suitcases and even cheaper t-shirts and jackets. No one mentions the word ‘fake’, but it’s quite apparent that most of the items have emerged from a mysterious cloning lab in the heart of mainland China. Thirty footsteps down the hall brings you to the counter of a small Indian restaurant with fresh naan, thalis, curries, and samosas. Next to that is a convenience shop, stocked wall to wall with canned goods, bottled liquor, tobacco and candy. Ten more steps and you’ll be surrounded by head-high stacks of bootlegged Bollywood films.

Welcome to the Chungking Mansions.

The mansions are a series of five 17-story high blocks, connected by a two-level foyer with shops, food stalls, and currency exchange bureaus. On any given day an estimated 4,000 people live here, not including the backpackers that take advantage of an array of cheap guesthouses in the building, and the curious shoppers that wander through the halls. On a weekend, the five lines that form for the elevators in each block display Hong Kong’s multiculturalism at its best. Indian hawkers wait with their filipino girlfriends, young dreadlocked australians rub elbows with african women in brightly patterned dresses, and the chinese security guard carefully monitors the live CCTV footage that comes from inside the elevators.

Chungking, which means “great (and returning) prosperity” is just blocks away from the world-famous Peninsula Hotel in the Tsim Sha Tsui, or “TST” district. TST’s waterfront property offers the best panoramic views of Hong Kong’s iconic skyline, making it some of the most prime real estate in the city. Yet the Chungking Mansions have avoided any signs of gentrification, and seem to be proudly surviving as the central hub for minority culture in Hong Kong. Moreover, it’s an important place of business – a living example of how a low-end globalized economy functions.

I stand outside the entrance to the building, chatting with one of the many touts that persistently offers tailoring services and “copy watches”. The favorite line among this crowd is “Hey boss, guess how much for a suit!”, with the occasional peddler that approaches us to offer a slew of drugs. The tout says to me, “See, you can find anything you need in Chungking Mansions. Anything from A to Zed – you tell me, I can find it within twenty minutes.” I consider testing his offer, but decline and watch as two young men struggle to maneuver four grossly overstuffed suitcases down the entrance’s steps.

The young men with the suitcases are most likely carrying mobile phones. Nadim told me that most of the business he sees is from wholesalers that buy these cheap phones in bulk, and take them back to countries like Kenya, Zambia, and Nigeria. Apparently, one fifth of all of the mobile phones in sub Saharan Africa have passed through the Chungking Mansions at some point – and 70 percent of Kenya’s handsets come from here. Serious traders come to the Mansions with money and a destination, and everything else is handled for them.

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The mobile phone trade might be cheaper across the border in Guandong, but the trading laws and security of Hong Kong are more appealing to the Nigerians and Pakistanis that can’t easily obtain Chinese visas.

The Chungking Mansions have even been able to resist interference from the infamous Triad gangs – but still have issues with gangs of different nationalities that spar with one another. One restaurant owner tells me “These guys that deal drugs back here think they are big time dealers, but really they’re nothing – they are very small time in the scheme of things.”

The building has a bad history of electrical fires and suspicious activity. Signs can be seen at bars around Hong Kong advertising the disappearance of a female backpacker in March, last seen at an apartment in the Chungking Mansions. In 1988, a fire broke out and killed a Danish tourist. A series of arrests in the 90’s spurred the management to install 208 CCTV cameras throughout the building. Of course, it’s really not an extremeley dangerous place, but travelers that stay here should be aware of their surroundings, and shouldn’t entertain invitations into private rooms within the building.

A group of retired Americans in full tourist garb passes by Nadim’s stand, the fluorescent lighting only making their pale skin stand out more against the rest of their surroundings. I ask him what he thinks about tourists here, and he responds “I think it’s good – I don’t think you can come to Hong Kong and not see the Chungking Mansions. If you come to this city, and you don’t see this place, then you haven’t really seen Hong Kong.” Nadim has a valid point, and for a place that’s been dubbed “Asia’s World City”, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of globalization in action.