Upwardly Mobile: Inside Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions

Copyright Caravan

AFTER EMERGING FROM the Tsim Sha Tsui metro station, I made my way down a busy street through a steady July drizzle, walking past jewellery shops, clothing stores and large billboards that advertised the Hong Kong dream in all its incarnations: shiny new things, dernier cri gadgetry, and above all diamonds, marketed with the promise of eternal love.

I had only travelled two stops in the deep chill of Hong Kong’s immaculate metro from Central, the city’s main business district and financial centre, which was all suits and banks, and even higher-end shopping, populated by enough white faces that one could imagine Britain’s purchase on Hong Kong had never quite come to an end. By comparison, Tsim Sha Tsui was a world removed. The whites, mostly tourists, appeared like speckles in a crowd that was mainly yellow, but also—and this was new to my senses here—significantly brown and black. South Asians, who barely account for one percent of Hong Kong’s population, were all of a sudden conspicuous where they had barely been in evidence before. And Africans, all but invisible in Hong Kong’s business district, were out in abundance, and after their own particular fashion, they were doing business, too.

My destination, a massively hulking apartment block of heavily weathered concrete named Chungking Mansions, loomed ahead, but I got a sense of the neighbourhood’s flavour even before reaching the entrance. “Copywatch, copywatch? Handbag, sir? Massage?” came the voices as I crossed the street in a crowd during my final approach to the building.

At the entrance to the mansions, a low staircase that led to a darkened pavilion inside, my final obstacles were the milling touts from South Asia who blocked the doorway, trying to scare up customers for the Indian restaurants that are one of the building’s claims to fame.

I took a name card from one of them, but moved past. It was not food that had drawn me here. My first order of business was to find cheap lodging for a few days in Hong Kong, and it had been suggested to me that a hostel run by a Nigerian man named Joseph might fit the bill nicely. But a cheap room wasn’t the main draw to this building either. The very first inklings of what had really brought me here could instead be heard in the calls that rang out from every direction as I made my way through a crush of people down the narrow alleys of the ground floor, lined with endless stalls of merchandise, toward the rear of the airless cavern that functioned like a bazaar.

“SIM cards! International calling cards! Mobile phones, sir,” came the cries, almost all in accents of South Asia. It was this last item that had, in fact, drawn me. The Chungking Mansions, a sprawling and enormous single building, built in five adjoining blocks—and something of a slum at that, despite the grand name—was many things: a claptrap collection of cheap hostels, a collection of Indian restaurants known to be some of the best in Hong Kong, a hiding place for would-be immigrants and asylum-seekers, an emporium for bric-a-brac and odds and ends of every type, an exotic crossroads, platform and assignation spot for prostitutes from Africa or drugs from Kashmir or Nepal.

In a city that can sometimes feel sterile, all of this was surely enough to make this place more than a passing curiosity. But what made it truly interesting, dare one say important, was its place in the trade of the dominant consumer technology of our time: the cellphone.

That commerce had turned the Mansions into the magnet around which was built a human ecosystem like none I’ve ever seen or heard of, and drawn together in its churning slag people from three of the world’s main population centres: China, South Asia and Africa. For the building’s neighbours, merchants in diamonds and pearls and photo gear for rich tourists, Chungking Mansions was simply an eyesore, an abode for undesirables, a place they associated with crime. But the building’s secret—the reason it brought these races together like perhaps no place else on earth—was that it was supplying as many as one fifth of all of the cellphones sold in the booming markets of Africa.

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1 thought on “Upwardly Mobile: Inside Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions”

  1. This is an amazing view of one of Hong Kong’s biggest export successes that is completely invisible as far as the mainstream media is concerned, as well as a financial center as important in its way as the far more glamorous IFC or ICC.

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