THE CRUMBLING, 17-STORY FAÇADE of Chungking Mansions contrasts sharply with the high-end boutiques and restaurants that surround the five-tower complex. Air conditioners jut from the towers' windows at intervals, dripping water that stains the concrete walls beneath them. On the sidewalk, aggressive touts, many from South Asia, do their best to entice passersby to enter the Mansions and change money or enjoy a quick meal. Most walkers shrug off these advances and give the building a wide berth as they keep moving toward their intended destination. Those who venture inside can find the intensity overwhelming, as I discovered during a trip in 2005 when I went in search of an Indian restaurant my guidebook praised. I was unprepared for the extreme claustrophobia I experienced in the chaotic hallways, although I resisted the urge to abandon my quest and exit the building immediately. Even by the standards of bustling Hong Kong, Chungking Mansions gives new meaning to the word "crowded." The complex is home to dozens of small restaurants and guesthouses (the latter providing lodging to almost 4,000 impoverished migrants and backpackers every night), as well as countless small businesses and wholesalers that serve traders from Africa and South Asia. In Ghetto at the Center of the World, anthropologist Gordon Mathews asserts that it is "the most globalized building in the world."
On the "Golden Mile" of Nathan Road, at the tip of Hong Kong's Kowloon Peninsula, Chungking Mansions is, in many ways, a world unto itself. As Mathews says, in the eyes of many Hong Kong locals, Chungking Mansions "is in Hong Kong, but it is not of Hong Kong." Though it stands in close proximity to several of Kowloon's upscale tourist locales (notably the Peninsula Hotel, which serves lavish afternoon teas and offers rooms for upwards of $400 per night), fearful residents and skittish visitors treat the complex as a no-go zone. With a reputation for drug, theft, and prostitution problems, Chungking Mansions appears to be "an alien island of the developing world lying in Hong Kong's heart."
Constructed in 1961 as a complex of residential and commercial spaces, Chungking Mansions had a mixed reputation in its early days. Some locals remember it as a high-class place that boasted a shopping mall, with escalators and a nightclub, and housed a few local celebrities and British Army officers in the apartments above. Others describe it to Mathews as already "a dump" by the mid-1960s. Built of low-quality concrete that was typical of still-developing Hong Kong at that time, Chungking Mansions did not age well. The exterior grew stained and weather-beaten, and the electrical system within the complex quickly became insufficient for the building's needs. By the 1970s, Chungking Mansions was renowned among backpackers for its cheap guesthouses, while Hong Kong residents viewed the Mansions' increasingly dodgy atmosphere with wariness.
Then, in 1988, a Danish tourist died while trying to escape a fire. The incident called attention to the complex's dilapidated and unsafe conditions, which led to several rounds of refurbishments and upgrades. However, the building retains a dingy, seedy quality that has been impossible to renovate away. When the Western backpacker trade fell off a bit in recent years, new waves of tourists and long-term visitors filled the void; at present, the guesthouses largely cater to a mix of South Asian, African, and mainland Chinese clientele.