I’d probably put myself somewhere in the middle.
Nestled between luxury emporiums on one of Hong Kong’s most expensive thoroughfares, the Chungking Mansions is a chaotic complex of shops, food stalls, restaurants, wholesalers, budget guesthouses and low-income apartments. The 17-story compound is home to around 5,000 permanent residents, most hailing from South Asia and Africa. That’s not to mention the estimated 10,000 people that pass through its halls each day, trading in currencies, refurbished electronics, counterfeit bags and other slightly less legal commodities. TIME Magazine called the Chungking Mansions the “Best Example of Globalization in Action” because of its extensive network of informal trade, while The Economist compared it to Spaceport Cantina in the original “Star Wars” film. Travel articles alternately refer to it as a “heart of darkness,” a “den of iniquity” or, simply, a “hellhole.”
Naturally, I was hesitant to check out the Chungking Mansions for myself. But I was also intrigued. With single rooms running from HK$150 (US$19.35) to HK$500 (US$64.50), Chungking Mansions is one of the cheapest budget accommodation options in town, stairwell drug deals notwithstanding. Anthropologist Gordon Matthews estimates that more than 129 different nationalities pass through each year.
%Gallery-174068%What I found was … anticlimactic. After a number of high-profile deaths and disappearances in the 1990s, the owners of the Chungking Mansions installed an extensive CCTV system and employed round-the-clock security guards to monitor the complex. There are regular police patrols, and I witnessed no fewer than five crackdowns during my visit.
Because of the heavy monitoring, Chungking is actually a quite safe place to stay, compared with other Asian backpacker ghettoes. It is also conveniently located in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui, a lively district in the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Luxury hotels like The Peninsula and The Sheraton are steps away, along with malls, restaurants, museums, MTR subway stops and the scenic Tsim Sha Tsui promenade. If you don’t mind the cramped quarters and chaotic surroundings, it’s not a bad budget option. Some even claim it’s a quintessential Hong Kong experience.
Not all Chungking Mansion guesthouses are created equal, though. Quality varies wildly, and photos on booking sites like Hostelbookers and Agoda are often heavily edited. The best way to score a good value room is simply to show up and make the rounds of Chungking’s 80-plus options, most of which are clustered in blocks A and B. The Ashoka Hostel, consisting of nearly 100 rooms across three floors, is a popular option; their head reception desk is located on the 13th floor of Block A. The price per night depends on the month (or even the day) so don’t be afraid to negotiate, particularly if you’re traveling during off-season.
The reward? A chance to experience not only a different side of Hong Kong, but also the world. One guesthouse owner showed me his logbook of guests, hailing from Ghana, Bangladesh, Holland, Malaysia, the Philippines, Germany, Japan and even America. “People from everywhere come to stay here,” he boasted. Globalization in action.
[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]