Budget Hong Kong: Renting A Room At The Notorious Chungking Mansions

There are two types of travelers: those who would go out of their way to avoid a place like Hong Kong‘s notorious Chungking Mansions – and those who would elect to stay there.

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]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

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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.