From eyesore to icon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am


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An argument between two neighbours outside a guesthouse is in full swing as Salina Lam Wai-lung steps out of her office. She tries to mediate, but this time her soothing words fail.

As chairwoman of the Chungking Mansions Incorporated Owners, Lam knows the building and its owners like the back of her hand, and her mediation and negotiation skills have worked wonders.

Since moving into the building in 1988, she's been on a mission to lift it from the dark years of crime and overcrowding and remake it in the eyes of Hongkongers.

'People from more than 100 nations come here every year. We want to show this is a good place to live. You know, there is a saying about Chungking Mansions, that it's a goldmine, an endless goldmine.'

Those two words, Chungking Mansions, often send Hongkongers and foreigners alike into lengthy debate or nostalgic reminiscences.

Eyesore, firetrap, a dangerous ghetto, or Hong Kong's own version of the United Nations - the 17-storey building divides opinion as much as it captivates.

About 5,000 people live in the five blocks that make up Chungking Mansions, and another 10,000 pass through every day. The first two floors are commercial - an atmospheric mix of trade and smells from around the world - and among the flats in the rest of the building, curry houses and guesthouses, not all legal, abound.

In the 1960s, unit owners were Chinese, both from Hong Kong and the mainland. At that time flats would sell for about HK$30,000.

In the early 1970s, as Hong Kong's economy boomed, prices rose to more than HK$70,000. Lam bought hers in 1988 for HK$600,000. She estimates that today a flat would cost about HK$3 million.

The original intention was that from the third floor up, Chungking would be residential only.

But in the late 1970s, South Asians began to buy up flats and turn them into guesthouses. The place became crowded and the building's reputation began to slip, when maintenance was poor and fires common.

It became home to an eclectic mix of backpackers, down-at-heel travellers and the odd crook and triad. Word soon spread that it was a dangerous place.

In 1994, after Wong Kar-wai portrayed Chungking Mansions as a dark, mysterious place in Chungking Express, its reputation was sealed on an international scale. Today the backpacker haven still conjures images of thieves and drug addicts.

In his book Ghetto at the Centre of the World to be released tomorrow, Gordon Mathews, a professor in the anthropology department of Chinese University, argues the main reason for Hongkongers' fear of the building is that 'it is an alien island of the developing world lying in Hong Kong's heart'.

However, as its 50th birthday approaches in November, it is a far different place from the infamous building of the '70s, '80s and '90s.

Renovations and security overhauls have transformed it. No longer is it the place in 1995 where an Indian woman was strangled to death.

As for critics' calls for its destruction or redevelopment, the building is effectively protected by its complicated ownership structure. A beacon of globalisation in the heart of Hong Kong, it is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

'Chungking Mansions could not be built today,' said Dr Lee Ho-yin, of Hong Kong University's faculty of architecture. It is typical of the composite buildings of the 1950s and '60s, part commercial and part residential.

He added: 'At that time, safety requirements were not as high as they are today.' There were not enough fire escapes and as the number of guesthouses grew in the 1980s, the electrical system was often overloaded. The building's shortcomings became more apparent as the decades went by and safety incidents multiplied. 'In the 1990s lots of people said Chungking Mansions would be torn down,' Mathews said.

'But at that time people were rightfully concerned because of the overcrowding and the load on the electrical grid.'

In July 1993, a power failure left the building's residents in the dark without running water for 10 days.

Guesthouse owners and landlords had ignored several warnings about overcrowding from the Tsim Sha Tsui District Office.

That's when Lam stepped in. She was elected chairwoman of the incorporated owners in December 1993 and presided over a HK$30 million renovation.

Security was upgraded too and 40 CCTV cameras were installed in 2000. Now there are 310 monitoring every floor and staircase and 30 security guards patrol the building.

'We improved the electrical system, we repaired the old lines that caused the fires, we improved hygiene and we made sure everybody would put their garbage in the appropriate areas,' recalls Lam, who has been re-elected chairwoman ever since.

'We want everybody to feel safe, because so many people from all over the world come to Chungking Mansions to do business. We want to tell everyone in Hong Kong that Chungking Mansions is a safe place. Safety is the first requirement to conduct good business.'

The building is undergoing another HK$20 million renovation, which includes a cloak of multicoloured LED lights on its exterior, to be unveiled during a ceremony on November 11.

Despite the latest renovation, there are still some fundamental problems. Corridors and staircases are still filthy. There are only 10 lifts to service the 5,000 residents, just two for each block.

Electrical wires hang unprotected. A shop owner on the first floor points at them and says: 'We are in one of Tsim Sha Tsui's prime locations, and we can see the wires. What kind of job is that?'

Because of its prime location a stone's throw from the Peninsula and Sheraton hotels and the new K11 and iSquare malls, it is easy to think Chungking Mansions will soon fall prey to one of the city's developers.

But that's 'highly unlikely', said HKU's Lee. 'There are 920 ownership shares in the building, which makes any major agreement, such as a sale, very difficult to reach.'

Lam added: 'A developer cannot buy the building. When Chungking Mansions was a dilapidated place, no one bought it because the owners were too divided. Now that the apartment prices have risen and the building conditions have improved too, it is even less likely.'

And the Urban Renewal Authority is unlikely to move on the building. It has confirmed it is not covered by any of its plans.

Lee pointed out that Chungking Mansions is part of the city's collective memory. While it does not qualify as a heritage building, he says, it could be considered one because of 'the cultural richness and diversity it contains'.

But do Hongkongers really know the place? 'It is surprising how very few people in Hong Kong have actually ever been inside the building!' said Lee. Mathews believes the fear of Chungking Mansions expressed by some Hongkongers has been shaped by racism, but the younger generation is overcoming those problems.

'Now I see classes and NGOs coming to Chungking Mansions. There is an increase in interest in the place,' he said.

The building's occupants have also been working to change Hongkongers perceptions. 'We found that a lot of people in Hong Kong have misconceptions about Africans,' said Fusseini Mohamed, who uses the name Dixon because it is easier for Chinese to pronounce.

Every day from 9am, he can be found roaming the corridors of Chungking Mansions. Originally from West Africa, he is the chief organiser of the African Committee, an organisation that works to improve the image of Africa in Hong Kong and improve relations between Chinese, South Asians and Africans.

Mohamed, who addresses classes and invites students to come to Chungking Mansions to bridge the culture gap, acknowledges there is still a way to go. But he says: 'I challenge you to find a place like Chungking Mansions.' He believes the building's bad times are over and says business is booming.

Sipping a fresh milk tea nearby, asylum seeker Abdi says that if Hongkongers knew more about the building, they would end up loving it.

'Chungking Mansions is where you can speak your own language and find the food that you like,' says the 23-year-old, who has been in Hong Kong for four years. 'It is the closest place to home.'

A friend beside him adds: 'It may be a low-class building, but it is a five-star building. You have everything.'


- The total number of rooms offered by guest houses.

- The 50,000 sq ft second floor was divided up into 360 small shops