Chungking Mansions - it's world trade

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 5:53pm

Think globalisation, and the first things that spring to mind are unlikely to be fake mobile phones on sale in a 50-year-old Hong Kong building.

Yet the day-to-day business of Chungking Mansions, where people from more than 120 countries mix and mingle, is the true stuff of modern world trade, an anthropologist argues.

'Chungking Mansions is a centre of low-end globalisation - the type that touches most people in the world,' said Professor Gordon Mathews, whose new book Ghetto at the Centre of the World probes the international world inside the five blocks of buildings in Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, that make up the mansions.

The book documents stories, conversations and experiences that Mathews collected inside Chungking Mansions in four years of fieldwork.

The professor of anthropology at Chinese University first visited them as a traveller in 1983. The building may be an embarrassment for Hongkongers because of its dubious reputation, Mathews says, but it was quite famous and popular with travellers in the 1970s and 1980s.

Around the world, one can find many international neighbourhoods and streets, but to find such a colourful conglomeration of people concentrated in one place like Chungking, Mathews says, is unique.

'It's one building where [the nations] sleep and trade. You can be in it for two weeks and never leave it,' Mathews said.

About 5,000 people call Chungking home, and another 10,000 people pass through its blocks every day. Its rents are cheaper than most places in the city centre, making its stalls affordable for those with low start-up budgets for business. Goods made on the mainland - some legal and others not - are sold there. Many times, both sellers and buyers are non-local, so these goods transacted through Chungking Mansions may end up in Africa or South Asia.

The reputation of the building was sealed in 1994 after Wong Kar-wai portrayed it as a dark, mysterious place in his classic film Chungking Express.

'We often think about globalisation in terms of rich people and rich companies, where in fact, globalisation is really mostly about individual traders bringing back 700 phones in their luggage, or bringing clothing and furniture across borders in containers,' said Mathews.

Apart from a small number of heroin addicts and some sex workers, Mathews says Chungking Mansions is quite safe. Security was upgraded with 310 CCTV cameras monitoring every floor and staircase and 30 security guards patrolling the building.

Its reputation for drugs, triads and danger notwithstanding is dated, and Chungking has evolved into a culturally rich place.

'[People] are trying to make a little bit of money [selling copy phones], but are looking for a better life for their children,' Mathews said. 'They want their daughter to be a doctor, a lawyer, a reporter. The Chungking dream is the same as the Hong Kong dream.'