The World in a Building
by Gordon Mathews
Chungking Mansions is a dilapidated 17-story structure full of cheap guesthouses, restaurants, and shops of all kinds located in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district, which encompasses some of the most expensive real estate on earth. Chungking Mansions has been famous in recent decades as the haunt of backpackers traveling through Asia, but today it is has a different significance: It is where small entrepreneurs from South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and other regions come to seek their fortunes; where Indian temporary workers on tourist visas struggle to survive on substandard wages; and where asylum seekers in flight from societies in Africa and South Asia come to escape political tyrannies and economic deprivations. Chungking Mansions—feared and avoided by many people living in Hong Kong, terrified by what they see as a developing-world “heart of darkness” in Hong Kong’s epicenter—is perhaps the most globalized building in the world, with people from across the globe jostling within its crowded, narrow confines. I have counted people from 130 different nationalities within the guestbooks of its 90 hostels. Why does this building exist? Why do these people all come here? What can this place teach us about globalization?
As an anthropologist, I have spent the past five years trying to answer these questions, doing ethnographic research in Chungking Mansions—hanging out in its corridors and phone stalls and snack shops and sleeping in its guesthouses several days each week, talking with everyone I meet about what they do, why they are here in this building, and how they make their livings and live their lives. What I’ve found is explored in detail in my book published last month, Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, but let me here give you a brief glimpse of Chungking Mansions and its denizens.
Chungking Mansions was built in 1962, and for a few scant years was the address of Hong Kong celebrities, but it rapidly deteriorated. This was partly because the building lacked unified ownership, and the hundreds of owners could do as they pleased with their property, from sub-letting to creating brothels; it was also partly because of the prominent presence of South Asians in the building, which, in a racist Hong Kong environment, caused its property values to plummet. By the late 1970s, Chungking Mansions had emerged as a haven for all the backpackers passing through Asia, as trumpeted by the Lonely Planet guides; owners fled the building, dividing their apartments into a dozen or more tiny cubicles to serve as guesthouses for travelers. This placed a huge strain on the building’s electrical grid—fires began to take place with regularity, including a well-publicized fire in 1988 that left a Danish tourist dead. In 1993, an explosion of the building’s power circuits left it without electricity or water for seven days.
By the late 1990s, a different group had begun to frequent the building: First more South Asians, coming from their home countries to seek business opportunities, and then Africans, drawn by the increasing manufacturing power of south China. This was the new magnet making the building profitable. A new, more dynamic ownership committee emerged in the late 1990s, making the building more salubrious and unified; this has continued into the present, with the ownership committee installing new facilities in the building, including bigger elevators and CCTVs to monitor potential crimes. But the underlying mechanism of Chungking Mansions is this: By keeping prices very cheap, many of the 900 or so owners of the building can make large amounts of money. Virtually all the other property owners in the area have taken a different strategy; sell to the highest bidder and let prices soar, but in Chungking Mansions, that would be killing the goose that lays the golden egg. This is why Chungking Mansions flourishes today, as a ghetto of the developing world amidst the glittering shopping malls of wealthy Hong Kong.
The developing-world denizens of Chungking Mansions come to the building not just because it is cheap, but also because Hong Kong, unlike most other developed-world societies, allows many people from developing-world-countries to enter without a visa. Most important of all, they come to the building because of the massive manufacturing prowess of south China, manufacturing goods such as clothing, furniture, mobile phones, and computers, for the lowest prices in the world.
Some of these goods are copies, and most are shoddy; but these are the goods that many in the African and Asian developing worlds can afford. It may be that China’s most important role in the early 21st century is that of creating a form of globalization that people in the developing world can afford. Chungking Mansions, as an entrepôt between China and the developing worlds of Africa and South Asia, has an extraordinarily important role to play in this process. I estimate, based on detailed but necessarily secretive analyses of Chungking Mansions’ phone stalls (since much of what they do is not altogether legal), that 20 percent of the mobile phones now used in sub-Saharan Africa have passed through Chungking Mansions. Many of the other goods in Chungking Mansions also make up a significant proportion of trade between China and Africa/South Asia. In this sense, Chungking Mansions represents a world hub of what I call “low-end globalization”. Not the globalization of multinational corporations with their batteries of lawyers and multi-million dollar advertising budgets, but rather of the African or South Asian trader coming to Hong Kong to buy and pack a few hundred mobile phones in his or her luggage to take back to the marketplaces of Lagos or Nairobi or Lahore, or the Indian laborer supporting his extended family in Kolkata from his salary from working 180 days a year in Hong Kong. This is what low-end globalization is all about.
This brief account leaves aside the compelling personal stories of different people in the building, so many of which I have heard over the past five years. Consider the Nigerian trader taking his pooled family savings in the hope of making a fortune, only to lose it all in a bad deal, returning to Lagos in shame with no more than the shirt on his back; or consider his luckier or more diligent compatriot, making a tidy profit and returning to Hong Kong a month later with more money with which to buy goods, as long as he can avoid the not-so-stringent surveillance of Hong Kong and Chinese customs, and have the right connections to get through customs at home with the right bribes paid. Consider the Pakistani merchant who has come to Hong Kong to work with his relative, only to be abused and given no pay, and eventually turned loose to try to make it as an undocumented laborer in Hong Kong. Four years later, his relative has gone out of business, having spent too much time and money on gambling and mistresses, while he himself has become rich and fat, as a major merchant in Chungking Mansions. Consider the Somali asylum seeker, jailed for smashing a bottle over the head of a tormenter after having drunk whiskey for the first time, and much later imprisoned after serving as the unwitting middleman for Africans selling illegal diamonds to mainland Chinese; now he is desperately seeking to overcome his legal record in order to get to the United States as a refugee, but will they take him?
Consider the Ghanaian trader selling handkerchiefs and aphrodisiacs who somehow made it big, making tens of thousands of dollars by bringing back home to Ghanaian street markets a product that he had no idea would be a hit. Consider the Somali asylum seeker, an aspiring writer desperate to be allowed refugee status in a developed-world country but who now in is in a seemingly permanent limbo; he only waits and worries that the U.S. falsely thinks he is a terrorist. Consider the Kenyan sex worker, calculating carefully how many customers she needs to service and how much money she needs to make each week to be able to eventually start a store in Nairobi and support her young daughter. Finally, consider the Indian temporary laborer who falls in love with a Hong Kong party girl and seeks to marry her, only to be told, “I only want to play! I would never consider marrying you…”
Chungking Mansions has thousands of such stories, all waiting to be told to anyone who asks and wants to listen. These stories are sometimes heartbreaking—I, like many of you who read this, am from the developed world, and have only a limited understanding of what it is like to live in a truly poverty-stricken society. But this is life as lived in the world as a whole.
One of the most interesting things about Chungking Mansions is that people from all different religions and ethnicities are jumbled together in one location. The Christian and the Muslim who in their home countries hate each other may work side by side in Chungking Mansions; the Indian and Pakistani workers who at home might dream of each other’s death are here peacefully interacting. There are occasional fights in Chungking Mansions, but by and large it is a quite peaceable place. Why? One reason is simply that everyone wants to make money. As a Pakistani said to me vis-à-vis Indians, “I do not like them; they are not my friends. But I am here to make money, as they are here to make money. We cannot afford to fight.” Underlying this is the fact that almost everyone who comes to Chungking Mansions, even the most poverty-stricken asylum seeker or downtrodden laborer, is a success by the very fact that they are in the building—they, unlike almost everyone else in their home societies, had the money to be able to travel thousands of miles from home to make a new life for themselves. Despite the bad reputation of Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, it is in fact an enclave of commerce for the up-and-comers of the developing world. There is some overt criminal activity in the building but not much; as a Pakistani merchant said to me, “Why should I engage in crime when I can make much more money selling mobile phones?”
There is much more to Chungking Mansions than I have thus far described, for the building is huge, housing some 4000 people on any given night. There is an Islamic bookstore, where long discussions about the meanings of the Koran take place, and there is a Christian ministry as well; there are several unlicensed African restaurants providing fufu and goat meat, as well as countless Indian stalls vending samosa and sweets; there are numerous outlets where money can be sent informally to Pakistan, Nepal, or Nigeria; there are NGOs for asylum seekers; and there are places selling every conceivable entity one might want: saris, real estate, computers, jewelry, whiskey, watches, Indian news magazines, Bollywood videos, pornography, New York Times bestsellers, spy cameras, greeting cards, sheets, sports shoes, and money in dozens of currencies. Chungking Mansions is in this sense virtually a self-sufficient ecosystem, and one might never leave for weeks on end—although because it is little more than a hundred yards from one of Hong Kong’s fanciest hotel and two of its newest shopping malls, there is every reason to venture outside for those who want to behold a totally different world.
This, then, is Chungking Mansions. I write about the place because I find it utterly fascinating, but also because its bad reputation over the years is so unwarranted. (The only real danger of the place remains fires; but no one has died in any fire in the building over the past two decades: it is probably more realistic to worry about getting hit by a car in front of the building than consumed by a fire within). There is no better place in the world in which to see what globalization, as experienced by most of the world’s people, really looks like. Chungking Mansions will no doubt eventually be torn down—the building is getting older, and its property is too valuable for developers to forever ignore—but with the developed and the developing world increasingly intermingling, all the world may eventually become Chungking Mansions. And this, I believe, will be a very good thing.
All photographs (except first image) courtesy of the Author
About the Author:
Gordon Mathews is Professor of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests are culture and identity, global culture, anthropological theory, and meanings of life. He is the author of Hong Kong, China: Learning to Belong to a Nation, Global Culture/Individual Identity: Searching for Home in the Cultural Supermarket, and Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong.