It’s been referred to by various names. “Ghetto of the world” and “den of inequity” are a couple that come to mind. Time magazine called it the best example of globalization in action. Most of Hong Kong’s locals, however, will never venture into the place even though they may walk past it a thousand times.
But whatever moniker you choose, there is no other place in the world quite like it. Chungking Mansions is a 17-storey dilapidated commercial and residential building in the heart of Kowloon’s ritzy tourist and shopping district, Tsim Sha Tsui.
Originally built in 1961 as a luxury residence for Hong Kong Chinese, the building has undergone numerous transformations over its 50 plus years. At the building’s opening, flats sold for around HKD 30,000 (USD39,000) for a 1,000 square foot unit. These days, they would go for millions. In its early years, it was inhabited mainly by Chinese, some of whom were community leaders and celebrities.
But as other parts of Hong Kong developed, the local Chinese moved out. Chungking Mansions now has the largest number of guest houses in Hong Kong in any one building, with almost 2,000 in total. It’s been said that on any given night, some 4,000 people are estimated to be living in the Mansions from over 130 different nationalities.
Temporary workers and restaurant owners from India and Pakistan, African traders, and Chinese merchants live together and do business in a relatively harmonious melting pot.
It’s been estimated that around 20 percent of all cell phones sold in Africa come from Chungking Mansions. But trade is now migrating to smartphones and laptops. Gordon Matthews, an anthropology professor at Chinese University and author of a book on Chungking Mansions, “Ghetto at the Center of the World,” says the building is now a platform for “low-end globalization,” a phenomenon where people from developing countries gather in a developed city like Hong Kong and do business by bringing higher-end goods back to their home countries.
In his book, Matthews concludes that Chungking Mansions is not a place of darkness and desperation, as it sometimes seems, but rather a beacon of hope for many. It’s also a peek into the future of life on our shrinking planet.
Pictures in this slideshow were taken in October 2013.