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A mini united nations

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am

Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong
by Gordon Mathews
University of Chicago Press

Sitting among the imposing glass-and-steel edifices on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui is a rather scrappy building that evokes radically different emotions, depending on who you ask.

Some, particularly born-and-bred Hongkongers, see Chungking Mansions as a dark den of dodgy goings-on and would fear to walk through the entrance full of counterfeit-watch sellers, tailors' touts and the array of nationalities in their colourful costumes of African robes, Indian saris, Sikh turbans or Muslim attire. They warn their children not to go there, but this only creates an air of mystery that has the opposite effect. Then there are those who love the bustle of what is a self-contained world of multiple nationalities, the pungent smell of spices and exotic cooking, the chance to get a cheap mobile phone and arguably the best curry in town.

Longtime Hong Kong anthropologist Gordon Mathews spent countless days and nights at this ramshackle pile of low-budget hostels, restaurants and retail outlets while researching Ghetto at the Center of the World in 2006, making many friends in this sub-economy a stone's throw from one of the world'sglitziest finance centres. He stayed at least one night a week, often more during the writing period and still goes there on Saturdays.

While there have been documentary radio programmes and films made about Chungking Mansions - the edgier, seedier side of the building was exemplified in Wong Kar-wai's 1994 movie, Chungking Express - Mathews gives a voice to the people who call the complex home through interviews with restaurant workers, traders, asylum seekers, and tourists staying at its guesthouses.

Mathews is an academic, so the book, while eminently readable, has a bit of an academic air. It would have benefited from a livelier tone in places - perhaps conveying how his subjects spoke: the Nigerian, the West African, the Indian whose family is in Calcutta but who has entered a paper marriage with a Chinese friend so he can get Hong Kong residency. But Ghetto at the Center of the World is a well-researched and interesting book that provides a real insight into the daily lives of many who live in Chungking Mansions. He debunks the mysteries and makes the people real - their everyday lives, their concerns for work and family, as they make a living in the yellow light of the shops and hallways, or crowd into the small lifts at the end of the long corridors.

Chungking Mansions has often been compared to Kowloon Walled City, which was razed in 1994. It also had a reputation as a place 'where people go in but never come out', which it may or may not have deserved. Kowloon Walled City had a spaghetti of electric wires overhead and also was a great place for cheap dentists who had qualified on the mainland but couldn't get a licence here. It had its fair share of triad activity and prostitution.

But the comparison shouldn't be overblown. While there are criminal activities going on at Chungking Mansions, Mathews discovers most residents are simply trying to eke out a living. Some are traders from Nigeria and Ghana who fill their suitcases with 500 phones to take back home, others are waiting for a China visa to visit factories across the border. By spending so much time there, Mathews managed to get below the surface: one or two phone sellers told how they revamped old phones with new covers and sold them as new. But the ruse only succeeded with less-savvy buyers and they'd never try it with traders from Nigeria, for example.

Some of the book's best moments have to do with friendship rather than business: the African woman who leaves her seven-month-old baby with a Hong Kong Chinese shop owner when she needs to go out; the African trader seen playing with children of another nationality. And there's tragedy: an Indonesian domestic helper is dying, her partner from Ghana already dead from Aids, and she's waiting to return home to die.

Matthews does not draw a veil over the racism that is a reality of life here, but also attempts to debunk some stereotypes - that one ethnicity is unhygienic, another you can't trust and so on. It's true to say many Hong Kong Chinese are not that keen on black Africans, that Pakistanis don't like Indians because of historical and political issues, that fights at Chungking Mansions often involve Nepalese. That said, Mathews also describes the pragmatism and friendship he saw between the different nationalities: Pakistani owners of guesthouses or restaurants hire Indian workers because they share common languages; a Chinese guesthouse owner will hire an African face to attract guests from the continent.

And there are lighter moments too, whether they were intended or not. One of the best involves Indian prostitutes who sidle alongside this Caucasian academic hoping for some trade, but gradually give up after his numerous visits. Oh, it's him, never mind.

Such living, breathing accounts bring the inhabitants of what Mathews describes as a ghetto to life. Many are forced to live there - they cannot afford to go elsewhere - and to a certain extent find it a haven as they live on the edge of society.

Among those are many asylum seekers. The issue has always been a thorny one for Hong Kong. While the city accepts many, their lives are often spent in limbo. Fewer now go to jail for overstaying, but they are not allowed to work. Still, some from Africa and South Asia do find work at Chungking Mansions.

Mathews found that immigration inspectors and policemen working the local beat took a pragmatic view of Chungking Mansions. If the issue is drug dealers, it's treated as straightforward crime. If it's asylum seekers from Africa or South Asia working in restaurants and guesthouses, they are more relaxed. While he couldn't get a policeman to say it, Mathews believes this is because they aren't taking jobs off locals. But it's still a life lived on the edge. Copy-watch touts look out for police, as do asylum seekers and their employers - as, if enforced, it's a prospective jail sentence for working illegally.

As one of the older buildings in Tsim Sha Tsui, and despite periodic clean-ups, Chungking Mansions will be torn down eventually. But Mathews says the low-end globalisation that occurs within its walls will continue in Hong Kong. He notes the huge wealth gaps between the restaurant owner and his cleaner, between the African guesthouse owner and his asylum-seeking employee from the same country. But despite this inequality, those at the very poor end of the scale hope that they too will be rich one day - and this is what holds Chungking Mansions together.

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