In the Ghetto

By Maura Elizabeth CunninghamOctober 12, 2011

Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Mathews

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.

In Ghetto at the Center of the World, Mathews illuminates what lies within the warren of hallways and shops behind the decaying façade of the Chungking Mansions complex. He invites readers to accompany him inside the high-rises as he talks with people from around the world who found their way to Hong Kong. What emerges is not simply a string of conversations, but a thoughtful, detailed investigation of how Chungking Mansions became a global nexus of trade, and how the complex may represent hope for the future in the eyes of those who live and work there. Mathews writes: "It is their best chance to climb out of developing-world poverty and make a prosperous life for themselves." 


Mathews makes clear that it is no accident Chungking Mansions developed into the global interchange it is today. The relatively lax restrictions on entry into Hong Kong enable visitors to stay in the territory for weeks or even months without a visa, which is sufficient time to broker a deal or two and return home with suitcases full of cheap mobile phones or knockoff designer clothing. Hong Kong also provides convenient access to the factories of southern China, which churn out those phones and clothing for shipment to sites around the world. For African and South Asian businessmen operating on the slimmest of profit margins, the inexpensive accommodations and restaurants of Chungking Mansions make the complex a natural base of operations in Hong Kong. 

Cell phones (small, inexpensive, and light) are among the most commonly sold products in Chungking Mansions. Pakistani vendors dominate the wholesale phone trade and Africans are the most frequent customers; Mathews estimates that 20 percent of mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa have passed through the Mansions en route to their final destinations. The quality of these phones varies widely, ranging from refurbished models to China-made copies of European, Korean, or American brands; a buyer must be vigilant lest a few inferior-quality handsets find their way into his pile. Profits vary widely, subject to fluctuating exchange rates and airline ticket prices, as well as the cost of bribes needed to convince customs officials at home to turn a blind eye to the contents of a buyer's suitcase. 

Although Hong Kong locals generally look down on Chungking Mansions traders, Mathews points out that traders are among the moderately wealthy in their homelands, able to assemble the resources necessary to leave for extended periods of time and pay in cash for their shipments of goods. Few of these businessmen operate on a large scale. Instead, their ventures typify what Mathews terms "low-end globalization": "individuals dealing with each other largely on the basis of trust and working with a high degree of risk, often carrying their goods themselves across the globe." Drawn to Hong Kong by the prospect of economic success, the international entrepreneurs of Chungking Mansions work hard to accomplish this uncertain goal, one suitcase of cell phones or fake designer clothing at a time. 


Chungking Mansions is more than just a wholesale marketplace, though; restaurants and guesthouses also fill the building, providing jobs and sanctuary to thousands of economic migrants and asylum seekers. Like the vendors and buyers, most of these individuals operate in at least partial violation of the law. Restaurant servers might lack a work visa, and phone stores might sell blatantly copied goods, but such offenders are rarely prosecuted. Despite the site's widespread reputation for serious problems with drugs and crime, crime is more rumor than reality: One officer estimated that the police receive 15 calls per week concerning Chungking Mansions, most reporting minor infractions such as elevated noise levels. Residents of the Mansions break the law on a daily basis, but in the eyes of Hong Kong authorities, and Mathews himself, these transgressions do not merit much concern. Indeed, if the local government sought to prosecute every lawbreaker within Chungking Mansions, the complex's economy would cease to function.

Keeping the Chungking Mansions economy going, Mathews says, is the chief objective of everyone who has a stake in it, the government no less than the vendors and businessmen, and the various parties have settled into a relationship that seems to work for all involved. While those in the Mansions will occasionally file police reports if they have been cheated or robbed by other complex residents, most prefer to resolve disputes through informal networks of relatives or business acquaintances. The police, as one officer informed Mathews, are generally happy to leave low-level law enforcement to the individuals concerned and overlook technical matters like expired visas entirely. The "live and let live" attitude that prevails at Chungking Mansions prevents the kind of intolerance that plagues countries like Pakistan, an attitude Mathew ascribes to "Islam, with its stern moral codes governing some half the people in Chungking Mansions, coupled with Hong Kong's own tolerance toward human diversity"; and "the Hong Kong government's neoliberalism — its emphasis on business over all else."

Though a blend of Islam and laissez-faire capitalism might not be the expected recipe for success, the two seem to have settled well together within the walls of Chungking Mansions. Perhaps this partnership should not surprise us. Chungking Mansions, as locals say, is "not of Hong Kong," not part of the community it inhabits: its visitors, residents, and the shabby complex itself are often viewed with disdain by their Nathan Road neighbors and Hong Kong residents beyond. Yet Chungking Mansions might actually be considered a quintessentially Hong Kong locale: a space apart, overseen, but not ruled, by Chinese authorities; a site where global currents flow and mix; a zone that not only tolerates but celebrates free-market economics. While outsiders regard it as a blemish that mars the shiny, new face of Hong Kong, Chungking Mansions nevertheless embodies the forces that shaped the territory's past and continue to carry it into an uncertain future. 


LARB Contributor

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a historian and writer living in Shanghai, China. She co-edits the LA Review of Books China Blog and has also written for the Wall Street Journal's China Real Time blog, The TLS, and Dissent magazine. Find out more at her website [link to], and follow her on Twitter @mauracunningham.


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