March 30, 2017

A middle-class apartment block, a centre of nightlife, a seedy flophouse, a centre of global trade and a haven for asylum-seekers: the many lives of Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions.

By Christopher DeWolf


It can be hard to explain Chungking Mansions to someone who has never been there. You can start with numbers: 17 storeys, five lifts, three blocks, each connected by a two-floor shopping arcade. 4,000 residents from 129 countries. Hundreds of small shops and restaurants. But these figures don’t really convey the way Chungking Mansions is a city within a city, both a part of Hong Kong and a place removed from it. Anthropologist Gordon Mathews calls it a “world centre of low-end globalisation,” connected as much to the markets of Lagos and Karachi as it is to Nathan Road, to which Chungking Mansions opens its eager jaws.

From a distance, Chungking Mansions looks ordinary enough: a scrubby grey block punctuated by mismatched windows, some of them filled with scrolling LED advertisements for the building’s many guesthouses. Strips of blue light added during a recent renovation give the façade a tatty kind of glitz. Walk closer, however, and the building asserts a gravitational pull. Its entrance is a constant churn of activity. South Asian men tout for Indian restaurants on the upper floors of the building. West African women stand in brightly patterned wrappers. Haggard European backpackers make their way through the crowd, nervously eyeing the gauntlet of money changers, electronics shops and samosa stalls inside.


In his 2011 book Ghetto at the Center of the World — indispensable to anyone who wants to understand Chungking Mansions in all its complexity — Mathews positions the building as node for a kind of alternative globalisation. “It is traders carrying their goods by suitcase, container, or truck across continents and borders with minimal interference from legalities and copyrights, a world run by cash,” he writes. “It is also individuals seeking a better life by fleeing their home countries for opportunities elsewhere, whether as temporary workers, asylum seekers or sex workers. This is the dominant form of globalisation experience in much of the developing world today.” And Chungking Mansions, situated in the middle of a wealthy financial capital, is an unlikely hub for that world….

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Personally I love Hong Kong. I’ve had to go there countless times for Chinese visas and have stayed in Chungking Mansions a few too many times too- but it’s CHEEP, like the budgie.

In the mornings, i’d go straight downstairs and get a curry and naan for breakfast. From there, i’d hit the pavement steeled for the onslaught of Indian and African hawkers on Nathan Road, and spend all day catching public transport around Hong Kong visiting attractions, wandering through random skyscrapers until the security twigged, hiking up to the peak, and finally finishing my evening sitting on the bench seats at tsim sha tsui  dock to be social with some strangers, and have dinner and a beer while looking at HKI over the harbour.

Nathan road is well worth a waltz- take a walk through Chungking Mansions even if you are not game enough to stay the night. A word of warning though- don’t buy anything of useful value beyond clothes and trinkets from the main shops on ground floor. You’ll get a better deal and less stress on the “outside”. Taylor-made-clothes touts will claw at you. Resist- do some googling and find out a good one yourself and turn up.

Space is at a premium in this city- i’d recommend getting an AirBnB. Better value, more trustworthy, and better rooms.

Treat yourself just once to a high tea at the end of Nathan Rd. towards the water at the grand  Peninsula Hotel. You’ll have to line up but you’ll be blown by how relaxing it is in there….especially after the onslaught just outside!

Honk Kong is a top notch place even if on a budget. However if you are coming loaded prepare for some fast times indeed!

I was lucky enough to stay at Clearwater Bay for a while with a kiwi who was shipping co. CEO and his family. It was so welcome after gruelling it out in Kowloon for a week. They lived next to jungle and had a beautiful beach just down a path. I used to see pigs running in and out on the forest and was so tempted to go kill one and have a hangi with the family but he strongly urged me not to do this as the Triads had a base just down the road and if any pigs were to be taken, they were to be taken by them and them only. Once, while walking his dog a van load of Triads drove past and said “where are your dog bags man”, he had forgotten them. They said he had better pick up any droppings with his hands lest his dog disappear during the night. Not exactly the type of neighbours you discuss rose gardening with but such is the price you pay for living in a flash neighbourhood.

I was trying to save money so sometimes i’d walk to the metro rather than taxi. A Lufthansa 747 pilot once picked me up- just randomly pulled over and said jump in- and gave me a lift to the station in his Tesla car which pulled harder than anything I’ve ever been in.

I met a Dutch woman who taught horse riding in Clearwater Bay. She was very kind and invited me to stay at her flat for a while. I had to pretend to be her brother because the landlord who lived downstairs was a Triad and had a strict  policy regarding how many people can live at the flat. One night I came home quite trashed and stole a beer from his in-plain-view porch fridge. I’ve done so many stupid things like that overseas it is a wonder I am still breathing.

I ended hooking her up with a job teaching riding in China through a Chinese who I had done some business with and who- among other things- had a polo club. Funnily enough, she’s in NZ at the moment teaching the same now and we got to catch up the other day and I was able to return some hospitality.

All the expats there seem to be loving life and earn good coin. If they have family there they are often well behaved but most of the single people piss it up most nights. Everyone is driven and the idiot ratio is a lot lower than anyone would find at home in the west.

If you’ve studied business or are au fait with digital you could easily find a good job. Likewise, teaching is a good wicket.

You can also earn good money in the PRC, but life there is somewhat different and is not for everyone. You can save a lot in PRC because of the living costs but be careful not to live in a bubble with other expats because you’ll end up resenting the place and pissing it up way too much.

Hong strikes the perfect balance between the Orient and the West.

I’ll try and upload some more photos of my time once I find my old phone.

If you are ever over that way drop me a line i’d love to share my tick list. Before you go, read the book Gweilo” by Martin Booth.