City's own 'global ghetto'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 September, 2011, 12:00am


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Think globalisation, and the first idea that springs to mind is 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,' says Professor Gordon Mathews, whose new book Ghetto at the Centre of the World probes the international world inside the five blocks of flats on Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, that form the mansions.

The professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who first visited them as a traveller in 1983, has spent the past four years recording stories, conversations and experiences inside Chungking Mansions. Although the building may embarrass Hongkongers because of its dubious reputation, Mathews (below right) says 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 focused in one place like Chungking is unique, he says.

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

About 5,000 people call Chungking home; another 10,000 pass through its cheap, rental stalls and shops each day. Goods made on the mainland - some legal and others not - are sold there.

Many of the sellers and buyers are non-local, so these goods may end up in Africa or South Asia. Mathews says: 'We often think about globalisation in terms of rich people and rich companies; 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.'

Fears over 'dodgy den'

Some people, particularly born-and-bred Hongkongers, see Chungking Mansions as a place to avoid.

They regard the 50-year-old building as a dark den of dodgy goings-on and fear walking 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.

Chungking Mansions has often been compared with Kowloon Walled City, which had a reputation as a place 'where people go in but never come out'.

While there are criminal activities going on at Chungking Mansions, Professor Gordon Mathews says that 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.

Security of the building has improved a lot from the 1980s after the Incorporated Owners of Chungking Mansions have, over the years, made it more respectable, putting in new elevators and CCTV cameras, as well as guards and fire alarms.

Crime rates are lower than in many other buildings in Hong Kong, police say and, although the risk can never be discounted, no one has died in a fire in the past two decades.

One reason Chungking Mansions should not be feared by people in Hong Kong is that it is a safe place. And there is a deeper, more important reason the building should not be feared but celebrated.

The people in Chungking Mansions and the people in Hong Kong at large mirror each other in their values.

Many people in Hong Kong left the mainland decades ago in search of a better life - helping to create over the past 50 years a city that is wealthy and no longer part of the developing world but of the developed world.

So, too, the people in Chungking Mansions. Families in India, Pakistan and Africa have often pooled their money to send a family member overseas to Chungking Mansions to work in a phone stall or a guesthouse, or to buy goods to carry home to make a profit and begin the arduous climb towards affluence.

The Hongkongers of 40 years ago and these South Asians and Africans today share the same dream: that of becoming middle class.

Hong Kong people should be proud, rather than afraid of the building. Yet fortunately, this is already happening.

Mathews says that he recently saw Hong Kong secondary school teachers taking their young students there to ask people in Chungking Mansions such questions as, 'Where are you from? and 'What do you eat for breakfast/lunch/dinner in your country?'

He has also observed non-governmental organisations taking Hong Kong Chinese on tours of the building and sharing meals with African and South Asian traders and asylum seekers.


'Chungking Mansions could not be built today. It is typical of the composite buildings of the 1950s and 1960s - part commercial and part residential. Safety requirements then were not as high as they are today. There were not enough fire escapes; as the number of guesthouses grew in the 1980s, the electrical system was often overloaded'

Dr Lee Ho-yin, the University of Hong Kong's faculty of architecture

'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''

Salina Lam Wai-lung, chairwoman, Incorporated Owners of Chungking Mansions

'Globalisation at Chungking Mansion comes from Southeast Asian mobile phone store owners selling made-in-China mobile phones to African traders, who transport the phones back to Africa'

Professor Gordon Mathews, Chinese University of Hong Kong

The issues

There are two issues surrounding the mansions. The first is that it is a good example of globalisation in action. The second is locals are unhappy about having a prime example of low-end globalisation in their city. Let's look further:

Chungking Mansions is a world centre of low-end globalisation

Professor Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist that has spent years researching Chungking Mansions, calculates that about 20 per cent of the phones in circulation in Africa were bought and sold via Chungking Mansions. He estimates that people of at least 120 different nationalities have passed through Chungking in the past year.

One of the best-selling products in mobile-telephone stores in Chungking Mansions is a prayer phone for Muslims made on the mainland. It is equipped with Urdu software and comes even with a 'mini-sound box' - resembling a scaled-down boombox - to broadcast the call to prayer.

The irony of such phones made in a country that is officially atheist and where no one speaks Urdu is lost on Tony, the Pakistani owner of a mobile phone store in Chungking Mansions. 'Chinese people can even copy Ferraris; this is nothing for them,' he says.

The huge demand in Africa for cheap technology from China keeps traders coming back despite the razor-thin margins involved in the trade. One wholesale trader says a phone he sells for US$30 will give a profit of US$2. But going by the traffic of stuffed bags at Chungking Mansions, it is clear that many still think the costly, tiring journey is worthwhile.

Steve Wong, the manager of a cargo company in the complex with an office in Guangzhou, says he is seeing fewer African customers now as many are going straight to the mainland to cut out the middlemen at Chungking Mansions. But there still are compelling reasons why Hong Kong remains a popular destination for traders.

Guinea-born Muhammed Ali, who has a store in Chungking Mansions after spending 21/2 years trading in Guangzhou, says on top of visa and customs problems, there are trust issues when dealing with mainland companies. 'When you run into difficulties there, there's no one to turn to for help. A contract is just a piece of paper there; it doesn't mean anything.'

If walls could talk...


Chungking Mansions opens at 36-44 Nathan Road, 17 storeys tall and consisting of five blocks of flats, guesthouses, restaurants and shops. On any given night, an estimated 5,000 people stay there and 10,000 visit during the day.

1970s and 80s

The mansions acquire a reputation for cheap accommodation, fire safety problems and dodgy trade as the building deteriorates, becoming a favourite spot for hippies and illegal immigrants.

February 21, 1988

A Danish tourist tries to escape a fire with a rope made of bed sheets on the outside wall of the building, but plunges to his death.


An explosion in the power supply room causes a blackout, leaving residents without water and electricity for 10 days.


Director Wong Kar-wai shoots scenes for his movie Chungking Express there, helping the building gain iconic status in Hong Kong.

October 12, 1994

Governor Chris Patten visits, calling the mansions a 'unique part of Hong Kong and well worth the effort spent on improvement'.

February 17, 1995

An Indian woman is strangled by her Sri Lankan partner inside the mansions.

April 23, 1996

Some 200 police and immigration officers arrest 59 people from 14 countries for immigration violations and drug-related crimes.


The building undergoes significant renovations, CCTV cameras were installed. Now there are 310 monitoring every floor and staircase and 30 security guards patrol the building and a zebra crossing is opened in front of the building to improve safety.


Time magazine calls Chungking Mansions 'the best example of globalisation in action' in its 'Best of Asia' issue.

July 18, 2011

A fire breaks out in a seventh-floor unit that has been divided into five rooms. Three people are injured.

November 11, 2011

Chungking Mansions will turn 50. It is undergoing a HK$20 million renovation, including a cloak of multi-coloured LED lights on its exterior, which is to be unveiled during a ceremony to celebrate the building's 50th anniversary.

These stories are edited extracts from articles written by Jennifer Ngo, Isabella Steger, Annemarie Evans and Gordon Mathews, which were first published in the South China Morning Post