Travel

When Your Entire World Is One of Hong Kong's Most-Notorious Buildings

Chungking Mansions used to be isolated, an island in Kowloon's dense urban sprawl feared by outsiders as place of disorder and chaos.
Semua foto oleh penulis.

This article originally appeared on VICE China.

Written by Xixi (喜喜). Translated by Felicia Huang.

The lights flicked as I finished my last spoonful of beef brisket noodle, burped, and paid $64 HKD ($10.23 CAD) for the meal. Yeah, this is Hong Kong—a city where prices skyrocketed since the early 2000s. Shit's expensive. I shouldered my backpack and went looking for a place to stay. A Korean tourist in front of me walking into the Holiday Inn. I kept walking and ducked into the building next door: the notorious Chungking Mansions.

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The view from Nathan Road.

I first heard of Chungking Mansions from a book written by Mai Gao Deng Zhu, an anthropology professor at Hong Kong University. In the book, Chungking Mansions was a hive of both crooks and honest businessmen. It was a city unto itself, a remarkably diverse melting pot of immigrants, refugees, drug addicts, pimps, sex workers, and small businessmen.

There's a reason the original Cantonese-language name of Wong Kar-wai's influential arthouse film Chungking Express— 重慶森林 —literally translates to "Chungking Jungle." In the film, Tony Leung and Faye Wong filled Chungking Mansions with a mysterious, indescribable atmosphere. In real life, it was so much more.

The building was easy to find, walking down Nathan Road, you didn't even need to look for the place marked 36-44. All you needed to know was that that alluring place with the Indian immigrants welcoming people inside was the spot. I decided to walk inside to see how much it had changed since it first opened its doors more than 50 years ago.

This huge bowl of beef brisket noodles (it's bigger than my face) costs $64 HKD. Hopefully they will have a half portion next time.

Chungking Mansions was built as five connected buildings (ABDCE) in 1961 at the center of what was then British colonial Hong Kong. In the beginning, it was a residential building, but when tourism started to increase to Nathan Road, Chungking Mansions turned into something else entirely. The building's interior was quickly carved up into cheap hotels, shops, restaurants, foreign exchange and wire transfer centers, and so much more. It was a cheap, comfortable place that was welcoming to new arrivals from overseas. This is why so many South Asian entrepreneurs earned the first of their fortunes in Chungking Mansions.

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Slowly, Chungking Mansions became a gathering place for Indian, Pakistani, and West African immigrants. At the same time another group of foreigners started to wander down Nathan Road to bed down in Chungking Mansions: backpackers. The entire place became so diverse that Time Magazine praised it as a symbol of the benefits of globalization and the multiracial, multicultural face of modern Hong Kong.

I walked down a small hallways, past the stalls selling porno mags, past the cabinets of plastic dildos, and eventually reached a large gate. Before I even fully registered all exactly where I was a man came to my aid, asking, "Madam, do you need a place to stay? Our hotel is cheap and safe."

I asked to see the room and I was led into a labyrinth-like lobby where two people who looked like Hongkongers manned the reception. We walked right, left, right, wound around the golden curry restaurants, past the sketchy shops selling "pure gold," the cell phone stores, and finally arrived in what I could only call the "hotel district" of Chungking Mansions.

The lift stopped at every floor. When we eventually reached the tenth floor, I pushed my way out. I was still totally confused, but the guy who brought me there swiped a card to open a hotel door with the words "Day and Night" written on the front. Inside the receptionists were two young Pakistani immigrants.

One of them, a 23-year-old named Guri, was the night shift staff. He offered me a warm welcome and brought me to see a room. It was $104 HKD ($16.62 CAD) per night, with a 10 percent service fee. He tapped his chest and swore, "this is the cheapest single room you can find in Hong Kong."

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I looked around. It was smaller than I imagined. But it was pretty clean and orderly. I was standing next to the bed and, with a bit of effort, I was able to turn around and see the postage stamp-sized 3-square-meter bathroom. Inside was a toilet, a shower, and an electric fan. "Small, but complete," I thought.

I finished checking in and, seeing that it was still early, I chatted a bit with Guri. He was able to get his visa for Hong Kong three years ago. He followed his uncle to work here. At first, he was supposed to work at his uncle's cell phone store. At one point, as much as 20 percent of all the cell phones in sub-Saharan Africa reportedly came from Chungking Mansions. It was a growth market, until, one day, it wasn't. The African importers decided to go to Hong Kong directly and cut their own deals. Suddenly. Guri needed to find a new job. He found this hotel and took a job on the night shift.

The hallways of Chungking Mansions. Notice all the cell phones.

Between 85 and 90 percent of the people working in Chungking Mansions were men, Guri told me. They were uncultured, low-earning, young men living far from home, he explained. So it was only a matter of time before another kind of business made its way to Chungking Mansions. These "young ladies," as Guri called them were immigrants from countries like India, the Philippines, and Nigeria. Others came from mainland China.

These sex workers were a common sight in the hallways of Chungking Mansions at the time. You could see them searching for fresh faces and new customers, or hiding out near the money changers and trying to chat up whoever seemed to have some Hong Kong Dollars to burn.

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Then there were the other residents of Chungking. The drug addicts and refugees. Hong Kong has a pretty relaxed immigration policy—most people can just show their passports once and stay for 14, 30, or 90 days. A few of these asylum seekers applied for refugee status, starting the long process to permanent residence in the United States or Canada.

As Chungking Mansions got more crowded, it fell deeper into disrepair. Crime became a serious issue In 2013, a young university student from mainland China was raped in one of the building's public bathrooms. The police conducted an investigation, and eventually found the rapist, who had already changed his name. When he appeared on the local news, the man flashed a peace sign.

Hong Kong exploded with anger. Chungking Mansions already made most Hongkongers nervous. Now here was a man who embodied the building's reputation as a haven for criminals. it was then that the Hong Kong government decided it was time to regulate Chungking Mansions.

The alleged rapist being led away by police. Photo via Tengxun News.

Today, a lot of Chungking Mansions is under CCTV surveillance.

The city government told Chungking Mansions business community that they had to install security cameras everywhere, especially inside the lifts. The guest houses are now legally licensed. And the "young ladies," who used to work the building have been chased away, Guri said.

"These ladies now moved to the nearby Mirador Mansions, because it's not as famous as Chungking Mansions," he said. "It's less crowded, more concealed."

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When I asked Guri how he knew so much he laughed and looked a bit ashamed. "A friend who was one of their clients told me," he said.

Life became harder for the young Indian men who worked at Chungking. The rapist was an Indian immigrant, and after the crime, the shop's owners treated all Indian men as potential criminals. If anyone complained about their behaviour, they would instantly be fired, Guri told me.

A photo of the license certificate on the door to my room.

It was another sign of Hong Kong's inherent racism, he said. White foreigners might not be from Hong Kong, they might not even be able to speak Cantonese, but no one discriminates against them. But the city's South Asian communities consistently get the short end of the stick. "White people are on top, and people of colour at the bottom here," he said.

It's why Guri told me that tries to spend as much time in Chungking Mansions as possible. Step out the front doors and stand on Nathan Road and the world is Chinese. It's a world Guri feels no connection with. But inside Chungking, he feels safe.

"Every time I come back, it feels like I am going home," he said. "Inside, I have Indian friends Indian food, Indian tea. But sadly, I still don't have an Indian girlfriend."

It's then that I notice how lonely life in Chungking can be. It was once an island, isolated by fear and distrust from the rest of Hong Kong. Now it's much more clean and orderly, but the people who spend their lives inside, the immigrants from India, Pakistan, and sub-Saharan Africa, still feel just as isolated as before.