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


Chungking Express, Miramax Films, 1994


Chungking Mansions is a place that is terrifying to many in Hong Kong. Here are some typical comments from Chinese- language blogs and chat rooms: “I feel very nervous every time I walk past [Chungking Mansions]. . . . I feel that I could get lost in the building and kidnapped.”  “I am . . . afraid to go [to Chungking Mansions]. There seem to be many perverts and bad elements there.” “I saw a group of black people and Indian people standing in front of a building. I looked up and saw the sign ‘Chungking Mansions.’ Just as the legend goes, it is a sea of pitch darkness there.” “I went with some classmates for curry today. It was my very first time going to Chungking Mansions. I felt like I was in another country. The curry was all right, but I was scared when I entered the building . . . because my dad told me I should never go in.” As this last quotation indicates, some Hong Kong Chinese, particularly young people, are attracted to Chungking Mansions because of its half dozen semi-fashionable curry restaurants on its higher floors, but many more are afraid to even enter the building.

This fear of Chungking Mansions extends beyond Hong Kong—it is apparent among commentators from the developed world as a whole. Consider the following passages, largely written by American and European journalists, also taken from the Internet:

Chungking Mansions is the sum of all fears for parents whose children go backpacking around Asia. . . . In the heart of one of the world’s richest and glitziest cities, its draw card of cheap accommodation has long been matched by the availability of every kind of vice and dodgy deal, not to mention its almost palpable fire and health risks.  Chungking Mansion is the only place I have ever been where it is possible to buy a sexual aid, a bootleg Jay Chou CD and a new, leather- bound Koran, all from the same bespectacled Kashmiri proprietor who can make change for your purchase in any of five currencies. It is also possible, while wandering the alleys, hallways and listing stairwells of Chungking Mansions, to buy a discount ticket to Bombay, purchase 2,000 knock- off Tag Heuer watches or pick up a counterfeit phone card that will allow unlimited calls to Lagos, Nigeria. . . . You can disappear here. Thousands have. Most of them by design. Chungking Mansions offers very cheap accommodation for backpackers and is a hideout for illegals such as those who have overstayed their visas. It is a den of crime, of drug trafficking, prostitution and generally all the nastiness that goes on in the world you can find in Chungking Mansions. . . . Personally I go there for the curry.

This dodgy reputation dates from the 1970s, when Chungking Mansions emerged as a hangout for Western hippies and backpackers. It grew during the 1980s and early 1990s, as confirmed in the dark portrayal in Wong Karwai’s famous 1994 film Chungking Express, a film about Hong Kong Chinese postmodern romance that takes place, in part, in Chungking Mansions. The film depicted Chungking Mansions misleadingly. Hong Kong Chinese did not usually come to Chungking Mansions in the early 1990s, and those who did stuck out so obviously that they probably couldn’t have engaged in the kinds of activities the film depicts. Nonetheless, the film does accurately convey the seedy atmosphere of the place at that time. This dodgy reputation of Chungking Mansions continues today, largely because of the massive presence of South Asians and Africans in the building, as seen through the quasi- racist lenses of Hong Kong Chinese and other rich- world peoples who don’t quite know how to interact with their poor- world brethren.

The biggest reason why so many people in Hong Kong and in the developed world are terrified of Chungking Mansions is simply that they are afraid of the developing world and the masses of poor people who come to the developed world for some of the crumbs of its wealth. The quotations above exaggerate Chungking Mansions’ dangers—I have been told by police officials that there is less crime in Chungking Mansions than in some other buildings its size in Hong Kong, because of its central location and the prominent presence of security guards and police. Nonetheless, they do reflect a basic truth of the place. Chungking Mansions is in Hong Kong, but it 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. And this is why I have titled this book “Ghetto at the Center of the World.”

A ghetto is defined as “a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure.” Chungking Mansions is a building and not a quarter of a city; its residents do not consist of a single minority group, but of members of multitudes of such groups. Nonetheless, Chungking Mansions is indeed a ghetto in the sense that the minority groups who stay there (all but the whites and Hong Kong Chinese) are to at least some extent economically blocked from Hong Kong as a whole and are socially discriminated against through racism or fear of the developing- world unknown. Chungking Mansions is seen by many, such as the authors of our earlier quotations, as a transgressive other in the heart of Hong Kong. To many Hong Kong Chinese, living in one of the world’s richest cities, Chungking Mansions is a “heart of darkness.”*

But if Chungking Mansions can be characterized as a ghetto, it is an unusual sort of ghetto. Most of the people in the building, operators of the various wheels and cogs of low- end globalization, are remarkably bourgeois in their outlooks on life. They represent the striving middle class of the developing world in South Asia and Africa. Hong Kong people may see Chung king Mansions as a hellhole of danger and vice, as do some of the tourists in the building, but for most of the people residing or working in Chungking Mansions, this “ghetto at the center of the world” is a beacon of hope. It is their best chance to climb out of developing- world poverty and make a prosperous life for themselves. Among many of the Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and evangelical Christians from South Asia and Africa who work or trade in Chungking Mansions, Max Weber’s “Protestant Ethic” lives on—hard work and savings, as well as a little or a lot of luck, can buy them a ticket to a better life.

Why, then, does Chungking Mansions, this “ghetto at the center of the world,” this island of the developing world in Hong Kong’s heart, exist?

*Chungking Mansions has been linked in some accounts to Kowloon’s Walled City, demolished in 1993. The Walled City, several kilometers from Chungking Mansions, was an area never fully under colonial British control and was throughout the twentieth century a haven in Hong Kong for illicit activity, such as prostitution and drug dealing. Largely impenetrable by police, it was long controlled by Chinese organized crime groups. Chungking Mansions has never been quite as off -limits to external authorities as the Walled City was reported to have been, and the comparison of the two sites is historically incongruent. Nonetheless, both the Walled City and Chungking Mansions have been seen over the years as Hong Kong’s “others”—Hong Kong’s “hearts of darkness”—and in that sense there is indeed a parallel.

Read ‘The World in a Building’, Gordon Mathews’ account of his time at Chungking Mansions here

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.