Chungking Mansions a global business hub

Landmark building is a hub of enterprise with global reach, writes Anne-Sophie Briant

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 5:53pm

Every day around 2pm, the first floor of Chungking Mansions is covered with boxes ready to be picked up for airfreight. Most are heading to Africa. They are filled with the latest models of mobile phones made by little-known brands such as Nasaki, Admet and jFone.

The floor serves as a wholesale clearing centre for ultra-cheap, often used mobile phones made by brands with zero cachet. About HK$8 million of them are sold each week in Chungking Mansions, according to Siby Ismael, a trader, all destined for sale in Africa.

Ismael estimates that about 85 per cent of phones made in China that are sold to central and West African countries go through Chungking Mansions.

Chungking Mansions, a monolithic 17-storey building in Tsim Sha Tsui packed with hostels on the upper floors and a rabbit warren of small shops on the lower, means many things to many people.

To expats who arrived in the city as backpackers, it may have been the first place they stayed in the city. To others it's an eyesore and a fire trap. But to many others the building is a place of enterprise, particularly for African traders looking to source goods in the mainland or Southeast Asia.

Gordon Mathews, author of Ghetto at the Centre of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong describes the Chungking Mansions phenomenon as "low-end globalisation". International traders use the building as a base. They find a ready network of suppliers in the lower levels. They congregate in the buildings, restaurants and food kiosks, and swap information.

For many of the first floor shops, business consists of sourcing products from mainland producers, and then exporting them to the rest of the world. Freight agencies operate within the premises to facilitate such trading.

The complex also serves as an informal bartering ground, drawing in traders who fly into Hong Kong a few times a year and congregate at Chungking Mansions to meet business partners or renegotiate contracts.

Alam Tadjul, chairman of Rass, which exports Bangladeshi garments to Europe and America, is this kind of businessman. He flies to Hong Kong twice a year from his native Bangladesh to meet distributors, who are present in Hong Kong, but who own networks of shops in France, Portugal and Italy. He does business at Chungking Mansions because it's a convenient place to network for cheap sources of garments from the mainland.

Those who trade at Chungking Mansions cite a similar set of reasons. It's an established trading hub centrally located in Hong Kong. It appeals to traders from Africa and South Asia, who share a culture or language. It's also cheap - a typical commercial lease for about 100 sq ft in Chungking Mansions costs about HK$30,000 per month, a bargain in a city with among the world's most expensive retail rents.

Emmanuel Owusu first came to Hong Kong from Ghana to work in construction. He decided to open a Ghanaian restaurant and chose Chungking Mansions for its location. He felt it was too daunting to negotiate a lease with a native Hongkonger in the city outside. But he knew people in Chungking Mansions and found a ready-made community of like-minded traders on the premises. His friends not only found him the spot in the building, but also brought along their relatives and friends to eat on a regular basis.

But the restaurant's location on the 11th floor made it hard to find new customers. Two years ago, he shut his eatery to try another big activity in Chungking Mansions: garment trading. He opened a ground floor shop that sells clothes sourced in Vietnam and Thailand. He uses his Chungking Mansions shop to plug into a network of suppliers and to sell to the throng of tourists who come through the premises each day.

"Business is up and down, and it is very difficult to predict what the next month will bring. It really depends on the flow of tourists, as they are the main buyers," says Owusu, who also supplies two clothing shops in Ghana, which are managed by his sisters.

Chungking Mansions is known among Africans as a point for trading with the mainland. Along with mobile phones, the ground floor sees trade in computers, long-distance phone cards and other low-margin items, many destined for Africa.

Ismael started a trading outfit called Marena Corporation in Chungking Mansions seven years ago. He deals in farming equipment, cooking oil and rice, and recently expanded into garments with traditional African designs. He says he has doubled his sales every year since his business began, in 2005.

Ismael's father opened a trading office behind Chungking Mansions in 1976 that exported women's garments from Hong Kong to Africa. His father then opened an African restaurant in Chungking Mansions in 1992 so he could spend time with business partners, all of whom were based there, says Ismael.

Over the years, watching his father and living among the building's crowds, he developed contacts in the mainland and Africa, which he puts to good use today. He focuses on West African countries. Five months ago he moved out to expand. His business has 50 employees, only five of whom are based in Hong Kong; the rest work from offices in the countries with which he trades.

Ismael is fluent in Cantonese, English and French. His philosophy for living here is that no one should try to change anyone. "You adapt wherever you go to your host's culture, [but] you stay true to yourself and you will go a long way," he says.