Born and raised in the virtual monoculture of rural Fujian, Wong Yung-koon could hardly have imagined the polyglot melting pot of Chungking Mansions. Yet the 85-year-old, who came to Hong Kong in 1946, has spent more than half his life living and making a living at the Tsim Sha Tsui landmark.
'Chungking Mansions is my whole life,' says Wong, who is an institution at the 50-year-old building. For five decades he has watched the backpackers come and go, the African traders pack their wares for sale back home, and now he rarely ventures far from the building.
It's a far cry from the Fujian hometown he left at the age of 12 to become a rice worker under a shifu, or master. 'Back then, in China, people could not really travel anywhere,' he says. 'But we all knew that Hong Kong was rich and prosperous.'
Eight years later, Wong followed his dream to the British colony, arriving to live with his brother. From his brother, Wong learned the trade that would sustain him for much of his life - buying and selling antiques, curios and jewellery. Through his interaction with customers, the resourceful young man began to master English.
Wong's long association with Chungking Mansions began in 1962 when, a year after the complex opened, he opened his first curio and jewellery shop on the ground floor, next to the lift for Block B.
It proved to be a good decision, with the small shop providing Wong and his family a decent living. 'Business was good. Not too much, but enough to live on.'
In 1970 he moved his wife and five children into a flat in Block D, for which he paid HK$75,000. 'I remember when Chungking Mansions opened, apartments sold for HK$30,000.' In 1980 Wong bought another flat for HK$450,000, this time in Block C, and moved his family into it, renting out the other one for up to HK$2,000 a month.
Wong has never been tempted to move away. 'There are so many nationalities here. People outside think it is a dangerous place but I always feel very safe. I would greet my neighbours, but we were never really close,' he admits. 'I just mind my own business, you know.'
The building's poor safety record does not worry him. 'I remember there was a fire in the 1960s, but it was in the basement of the building and I had not moved in yet,' he says. And he has forgotten the power cut that left thousands of people without water and electricity for more than a week in 1993.
In 2001, Wong found that selling curios and jewellery was no longer profitable so he switched to selling shoes. 'Nobody buys antiques anymore.'
The shoe store, called Yung Wah, is now run by his son and daughter-in-law and Wong spends his days in retirement following a strict routine. After exercising in Kowloon Park, he has his morning dim sum at Mu Dan Ting on Hankow Road, then watches television at home until lunch. After lunch he wanders the corridors and shops of Chungking Mansions until dinnertime.
He knows the place like the back of his hand and believes the complex is so big and complicated that it would be virtually impossible for anyone to buy all the flats and premises and redevelop the site into a mall or hotel. 'There is no place like this in Hong Kong.'
Wong said someone tried to buy up flats about 20 years ago but eventually gave up - and 'with today's prices, it is impossible'.
In the meantime, Wong follows his recipe for eternal youth: projecting a happy demeanour and enjoying four beers a day - two with lunch and two at dinner.