Of Hong Kong: The Chungking Mansions
Neatly embedded in the bustling tourist district of the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon Peninsula, Hong Kong, the Chungking Mansions offer 17 floors of cheap guesthouses and small businesses run by people from all over the world. Though a quick walk by the entrance of the seemingly non-descript building could lead to a visitor completely missing the site, entering the buildings reveals a system of people and businesses that has been dubbed “The Ghetto at the Center of the World” by scholar Gordon Mathews. Through exploring the history of the mansions, the people who perpetuate its existence, the cultural identity of the mansions, and the perception of the mansions both locally and internationally, it becomes apparent that the mansions are not just a hub of low priced electronics and inexpensive beds for travellers, but rather an enclave of questions surrounding prevalent ideas of globalization, immigration policy, and cultural mixture and imagination.
HistoryChunking Mansions was erected in 1961, and upon construction, was one of the taller buildings in the surrounding area. By the late 1960s, the Tsim Sha Tusi area was heavily influenced by the Vietnam War, which transformed the area into a concentrated area of prostitution, specifically to appeal to the American military, as Matthews explains. By the early 1970s, the mansions became a hub for backpackers and hippies looking for an economical place to stay, while also looking for a lodging option that offered an experience in itself. This appeal to the budget traveler was solidified as popular guidebooks began to include the mansions in their coverage of Hong Kong. Lonely Planet, the world’s largest travel guide publisher, acknowledges this idea by stating, “say ‘budget accommodation’ and ‘Hong Kong’ in one breath and everyone thinks of Chungking Mansions.” Though economically beneficial, the increased popularity of the mansions led to the overworking of the building’s infrastructure. On February 21st, 1988, the building’s electrical system succumbed to its overuse, leading to a fire that killed one man and left approximately 10 other individuals injured and in 1993, an explosion in the power supply room left the mansions electricity and waterless for 10 days. Paralleling the influx of visitors and proprietors to the mansions was also an increase in crime and violence—underscored by the murder of an Indian woman in February of 1995 and the arrest of 59 people in the mansions on April 23, 1996, for immigration and drug-related crimes.
Though the Chungking Mansions endured a tumultuous history, the site remains a prosperous and bustling center today. In his book The Ghetto at the Center of the World, Mathews outlines exactly how the Chungking Mansions are able to exist, and why they will continue to exist. First, he attributes the longevity of the businesses and hostels to the cheapness of the building itself—a combination of a lack of unified ownership as well as racism targeting the South Asian presence in the mansions that kept many Chinese away and prices low. Next, he sites the ease with which people from the developing world can enter Hong Kong. This, he attributes to Hong Kong’s visa regulations, which allow many to enter without visas for up to ninety days. Though policies are experiencing a shift, Mathews still characterizes Hong Kong’s regulations as relatively relaxed. Finally, Mathews emphasizes the important effects of south China’s manufacturing abilities in the prosperousness of the Chungking Mansions. South China’s manufacturing power leads to people from the developing world traveling to China to purchase goods. Finally, rather than exhibiting the globalizing economic tendencies of multinational corporations like Coca-Cola, for example, the Chungking Mansions are a site of low-end globalization in which business is conducted at a smaller, more personal scale that so far, has worked. Today, the traders, sex workers, asylum seekers and managers of the mansions are a “club of the third-world successful, including even those at its lowest stations, despite the downtrodden status they may suffer in Hong Kong,” according to Mathews.
In 1996, director and writer Kar Wai Wong introduced the Chungking Mansions to the world through his film, Chungking Express. The film portrays two stories—one of the helplessly enamored ex-boyfriend of a woman he’s convinced will return to him by May 1st if he purchases a tin of pineapples daily with a May 1st expiration date, and another of the complex obsession a young woman develops with a local police officer. The film artfully and emotionally depicts Hong Kong through abstract, canted angles, and the repetitive, almost stinging use of the Mamas & The Pappas’ “California Dreaming.” Through utilizing recognizable, iconic images of Hong Kong, the film grounds its dreamy plot in reality, allowing the viewers to view what is presented to them as real, or at least plausible. For the Chungking Mansions, this becomes problematic, as the site is portrayed as a hub of drugs and illicit behavior. Through the film, the mansions are essentially “immortalized as a den of lawlessness,” as Jason Beerman of CNN comments.
The travel advisement of big names like CNN and Time have also contributed to the global perceptions of the mansions. Time Magazine places the Chungking Mansions as #9 on their “Hong Kong: 10 Things To-Do” list. “When the local tourism board refers to Hong Kong as "Asia's World City" it's referencing the well-ordered worldliness of big banks, fine hotels and a philharmonic — not the worldliness of Bangladeshi hash dealers and Nigerian men trading used PCs by the container load,” author Liam Fitzpatrick states. “Brace yourself,” he concludes. CNN offers an exposé on a journalist’s experiences at the Chungking Mansions; a first person narrative that author Nicholas Olczak titles, “A Thrilling Look at Chungking Mansions: One Man’s Jittery Exploration of a Hong Kong Icon.” Olczak writes, “I dropped my bag, relieved that the search for a room was over. Then I headed next door to Chungking Mansions for a celebratory samosa, along the way fending off numerous offers to purchase far stronger stimulants.” He then writes, “At the front desk of a ramshackle guesthouse, a Filipina dressed in hot pants and a bra was arguing with another Filipina. Was she the housekeeper? A guest? There was no way of telling. Meanwhile, a group of Africans in a back room shouted at each other like they were celebrating a win at a craps table. Or getting ready to pull knives. Again, no way of knowing for sure.” Though perhaps honest descriptions of their experiences, or at least their opinions of the Chungking Mansions, both Time and CNN offer relatively narrow and distant commentary—paralleling the expected experiences of the wandering tourist that visits the mansions for a few hours, or perhaps a few nights. The problem with this, is that what is occurring in the Chungking Mansions cannot be succinctly stated in a 10-things-to-do-list, or in a brief travel journal, as the movement of people, cultures and goods that occurs in the mansions can barely fit into our lexicon of words and world ideologies.
Though the media tends to offer a negative perception of the Chungking Mansions, the situation is complicated by the perception of the mansions by the actual occupants and workers. Mathews states, “Chungking Mansions in the popular Hong Kong imagination is a dodgy place, but for its residents the building is a landmark of opportunity for a rags-to-riches climb.” How can a place that represents upward mobility, the promise of a more prosperous future, and opportunity be a place where children are recommended to be accompanied by adults at all times? Mathews answers this question by stating, “Chunking Mansions is in Hong Kong, but is not of Hong Kong. It is an alien island of the developing world lying in Hong Kong’s heart. This, not its crime and vice, is the major reason why it has been so feared.”
While Mathews’ statement that a major factor in the negative perception of the Chungking Mansions is its ‘differentness,’ may be true, his assertion that the mansions are “in Hong Kong but not of Hong Kong,” remains somewhat unsettling. To state that the Chungking Mansions are not “of Hong Kong” is to not allow deviation from an expected cultural landscape—a problematic mentality that has led to war and genocide around the world.
When I left Los Angeles for my first ever trip to Hong Kong, I have to admit that I had an image in my mind of a very unfamiliar, and uniformly “Asian” place. However, exploring this new continent led me to simultaneously realize the problems with both generalizing Hong Kong’s culture, as well as deeming it ‘different’ or ‘exotic.’ Different compared to what? Exotic in who’s eyes? Strangeness, unfamiliarity and difference are inherently subjective. So what does this mean in terms of the Chungking Mansions? Perhaps it is a matter of steering away from diction that establishes certain entities as ‘other,’ and looking at the exchange occurring in the Chungking Mansions as inherently of Hong Kong—and part of what makes the city so vibrant and alive.
Beerman, Jason. "Inside Chungking Mansions with Expert Gordon Mathews." CNN Travel. N.p., 15 Aug.
2011. Web. 01 July 2013.
"Chungking Mansions." Lonely Planet Travel Guides and Travel Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2013.Fitzpatrick, Liam. "Hong Kong: 10 Things to Do." Time. N.p., n.d. Web.
Franchineau, Helen. "From Eyesore to Icon." Sunday Morning Post. N.p., 7 Aug. 2011. Web.
Mathews, Gordon. Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. Chicago: University of
Chicago, 2011. Print.Olczak, Nicholas. "A Thrilling Look at Chungking Mansions." CNN Travel. N.p., 18 Oct. 2009. Web. 01