Walking into the main entrance of Hong Kong's Chungking Mansions is like walking into crossfire. It's an immediate assault of sound and color: Neon signs blink, racing against each other, calling out to every passer-by to buy or sell or trade. Every cell phone model under the sky is advertised, iPhones hawked alongside ancient Nokias.
Pakistani and Indian men shove menus into your hands and guide you into elevators that will take you to their employers' establishments, their shouts of do-you-want-dinner? and Indian-food-Indian-food! like verbal buckshot. Yet the salmon-esque flow of pedestrians never stops. Give it a few decades, and it might look a little like Ridley Scott's vision of dystopic Los Angeles in Blade Runner.
Pass by the quiet money changers and hawaladars with an offensive amount of cash sitting in their booths. Walk by the coin laundry shops, the Buddhist organization's office that also sells hats, the phone accessory shop that also sells roast chickens (by pre-order only), the fake watches sold by guys also slinging bananas and apples and chips. There are folding tables occupying what should be corridors between store space. There aren't any clocks and there is no sunlight; illumination is forever fluorescent, high noon or midnight.
A few doors down is what used to be an unnamed African restaurant that boasted Akon as one of its clients. It's now J's Taste of Africa, where tradesmen from the faraway continent stop for a filling meal. As long as J isn't on the phone, her stereo is playing upbeat music from home. Order some egusi with fried chicken or whatever fish she has that day. It comes with enough semolina fufu to feed a nuclear family. Her customers speak to each other in Kiswahili about politics at home, about their work, about living in Hong Kong. The bowls and plates must have been scavenged from other restaurants, because none of them match.
For the people who eat at J's, it's not just about getting a taste of familiar comfort. It's also about being able to speak in their native language, to be understood in ways that forged their identities.
Spatterings of every Asian language can be heard in the complex, but it's mostly fast business talk. Nobody really smiles in Chungking Mansions. It's a labyrinthine place, and one that's not just for traders and backpackers: Four thousand people live there.
The police raid the Mansions once in a long while, mainly to sweep for people who have overstayed their visas, but largely leave the ecosystem alone. The Mansions run on their own time, to live and die within their own walls.
Storeys above the hubbub of the ground level businesses are secret kitchens. Tiny 50-year-old apartments have been converted to private restaurants that are unlicensed and unlisted in magazines or online. The only way to discover them is to prowl around the blocks and look for their traces: the smells of strong spices that linger because of poor ventilation, or worn paint on doors that lead to fire escape passageways. Locating one doesn't mean getting in—their proprietors don't usually welcome outsiders or newcomers. To enter, you usually need to walk in with someone the boss already knows. Needless to say, cameras are off-limits.
For those who are in the city under less fortunate circumstances, they can eat at a mess hall at the top of one of the Mansions' blocks. It's part of a refugee assistance center that occupies two floors, and they serve two hot meals a day for those who need help after escaping whatever nightmares haunted them in their homeland.
Chungking Mansions is probably best known from Wong Kar-Wai's arthouse masterpiece, Chungking Express. It's a great piece of cinematic work, but unlike in Wong Kar-Wai's movies, different cultures don't exactly weave together in Hong Kong: they run in parallel lines, sharing the same space but never intersecting. Globalization might fuel international and intercultural business, but everyone eats their own food. Their cuisine is a reminder of home in a loud city where you can rub shoulders with a thousand strangers on any given day, but still feel alone—more so if your skin is significantly darker than everyone else's.
But these cooks who are from everywhere—Pakistan and Nepal and India, Turkey and Lebanon, Malaysia and Indonesia, Tanzania and Nigeria—they are the beating hearts of the hidden kitchens of Chungking Mansions, the ones who bring strangers together and seat them in sunless, serpentine walkways. For the duration of a meal, hyperactivity subsides. Ice breaks and conversation blossoms into bickering or laughter. Faces become familiar over time. Friends are made.
Walk out of Chungking Mansions after dark. Stroll by the guys standing in front of the complex who are selling fake watches and SIM cards and hash. A couple of backpackers ask me if I can sell them a bullet. They sound Dutch. They must have read somewhere that Chungking is the place to score, or other backpackers told them. I hate to admit it, but they're right. I tell them I'm not the guy they're looking for and walk away, but not before I pick up a few pieces of buttery garlic naan for a midnight snack.