The flophouse option

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 October, 2008, 12:00am

If the economic crisis leaves you down on your luck, Nathan Road's notorious budget hotels may give you time to plan your comeback

The trouble with us good folk of Greedytown is that, although we understand that a bank is a place where can borrow an umbrella in fair weather, we tend to forget that the bank is also allowed to ask for it back when it begins to rain. Now that the scientifically inevitable business-cycle downturn has coincided with a downpour that is drenching the stock exchanges, we're all fretting about the worst thing that could happen. The sky falling in. Already happened. Now what? You're still alive aren't you? Still in possession of a head and four limbs, if not that condo in Phuket any more. And, the way things are going in the markets, it looks like you may have a bit of a struggle with the mortgage on your Discovery Bay home too. Oh dear.

In this futuristic metropolis, ancient wisdom is in short supply. 'He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.' That was Lao Tzu 15 centuries ago. How he would have laughed at the Hongkongers pecking away at their Blackberries and PCs, always only seconds away from the abyss. And how many of them will be remembered 1,500 years from now? Not this one anyway, despite my killer Excel spreadsheet prowess.

They say that the businesses of Hong Kong is business. Wrong, the business of Hong Kong is property. All else bows to that amorphous god named square foot. The year of the rat was always going to be tricky and treacherous, according to my analyst buddies who are now drinking cans of San Mig at the ferry pier. But the rodent is a harbinger of good fortune too. Rents are tipped by some to fall in coming months - if landlords are seriously considering meeting all those mortgage payments. On the other hand, there are going to be repossessions (remember the bank's umbrella?).

The thing about losing a property back to a bank (don't kid yourself, it was always theirs anyway) is that it has a multiplier effect. Next thing that happens is you lose your spouse or lover. Then you lose the plot, then you lose your mind, then you lose your job. And sorry pal, the union can't help - because you didn't join, did you? The union hardship fund may as well be located on one of Saturn's moons as far as you're concerned.

So now you're down on your luck - we're talking utter calamity - where are you going to go? Tsim Sha Tsui's Chunking Mansions is actually looking quite spiffy these days, with many a guesthouse having brand new internet lounges installed as I write this. Mirador Mansion used to be dubbed the 'New Chungking Mansions' after CKM's 2004 largely cosmetic makeover, but now even Mirador is raising its game.

There are hundreds of flophouses in both places where your downward spiral can be arrested for as little as HK$160 for a single room a night. And if you don't mind sharing a dorm with some very interesting people, mostly merchants from the developing world, it'll cost you about HK$40 - but upfront payment is required. Now that you've been humbled, an epiphany awaits somewhere in the gargantuan termites' nest at the south end of Nathan Road - but all you ask for is only a chance to prove that money can't make you happy.

Here's a thought as you wedge yourself into a room slightly bigger than a coffin: in the 1960s, Chungking Mansions used to be a rather posh address, and home to many celebrities from Hong Kong's entertainment galaxy. The original apartments used to be many times larger. Since then, few buildings on Earth have been so voraciously subdivided in the pursuit of a few extra bucks - often wired to some maxed-out bozo via the Western Union on the first floor.

One thing about living in Chungking Mansions is that you really have to pay the rent on time. If you don't, the penalties are swift. The first warning is a same-day scrap of paper affixed to your door with the punctuation-free message: 'Mister pay the rent or get out' (or a close variant thereof).

Next, all your possessions get chucked into the black vortex of nothingness that is an architectural feature of the centre of each block, a kind of well-cum-rubbish bin heaving with rats, food waste, toxic waste, liquefied body parts from unsolved homicide cases, disintegrated chunks of what looks like an old Sputnik satellite, and worse. This is the flipside of not having to pay three months' deposit for your place of abode.

If you check into Chungking Mansions and you're over a certain age, you'll be taken for a freshly released mental patient or ex-con, and the complex won't seem as friendly as is oft-described. Moreover, since the death of real travel writing (blogging killed it a few years ago), the excuse that you're staying at Chungking Mansions for 'research purposes' doesn't wash anymore.

I've paid my dues through Hong Kong's frequent bouts of economic skittishness, so these days, in order to stay out of Chungking Mansions, I take a simple precaution. Every day, after my first cup of coffee, I look online through the Forbes list of the richest people in Asia. And if I'm not there, I get dressed and go to work. If that fails and I wind up a resident again, as opposed to an occasional diner at Block E's historic Khyber Pass eatery, here are a few things I'll console myself with.

Close proximity to most of my favourite South Asian restaurants in the eastern hemisphere, an African restaurant that serves free breakfasts for all the brothers and sisters in the know (sorry, my secret), an endless supply of compelling real-life narratives, random and abrupt early morning parties of some West African cultural origin (always been too drowsy to investigate further), and, best of all, a refreshing lack of wealth-centered passive aggression. So instead of: 'Yah, I bought a place/condo in Hawaii/Croatia/Shanghai, during Sars, amazing how much it's worth now!' ... you get: 'I'm in dorm A, what dorm are you in?'

Given the ubiquity of the universal law that dictates the only way to treat others is as equals, it's not surprising that Chungking Mansions has a tranquil heart, one that its raucous hum belies. One of these days I might buy a place there.

By the way, if you ever get chucked out of Chunking Mansions you have hurtled under the point beneath which most mortals in Hong Kong are not permitted to fall. That's when the sky really has fallen in.