All the world comes to Chungking (Cheung Fun)
HONG KONG– Whoever has been to perennially pricey Hong Kong on a low budget has spent at least one night there: Chungking Mansions, “the world’s most globalized building,” offers rooms at unbeatable prices at 36-44 Nathan Road, right on the point of Tsim Sha Tsui, one of Hong Kong’s most densely populated areas.
But defining the reality of this address isn’t easy: A bit disreputable, active day and night, sometimes chaotic, it’s a spacious building with 17 floors that you can access via five different elevators – from A to E in descending order of presentability. The first two floors are dedicated to commerce, the others divided into mini-hotels, restaurants, offices and mini-mini apartments, which are then divided and subdivided and rented out to merchants coming from Africa or the Indian sub-continent who need somewhere to spend the night for next to nothing. According to the security staff estimates, when the doors close at 11 p.m. each night, some 4,000 people sleep here.
Once, it wasn’t a safe place. But now that Chungking Mansions is about to celebrate 50 years of business, the tales of theft, arson and fighting between gangs are a distant memory, still told just for the thrill of it.
Prostitution, however, is still present: the ladies of the night who smile in the corridors are Philippine, Indonesian, Chinese and African. However the Chungking Mansions Owners Association (about 900 people), presided over by Selima Lam, have done everything possible to make the building more salubrious.
Gordon Matthews, a Hong Kong-based anthropologist and author of Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, estimates that you can find some 130 different nationalities at any moment of the day or night. Vacationing tourists coming from Europe, the USA, Russia, and Japan are side by side with a hundred of others from all over the world, here in this trading capital to work, do business and exchange goods.
Low-end globalization here doesn’t include McDonald’s or the omnipresent luxury goods shops, as if in the duty free of some planetary airport. It’s a type of globalization made up of merchants like Filos, from Calcutta, who buys clothes made in China at Shenzhen, right on the border of Hong Kong, in order to sell them in India. For him, the building is his own personal hub: just over 100 euros a month for a tiny room inside an apartment sub-divided into micro-rooms, which are managed by 67-year-old Abdul Kureishin.
Teens from the mainland
Filos spent 25 years as a ship’s cook, and now buys Chinese cell phones and memory cards for India. Everything is within reach: Cross-border wholesalers and forwarding agents just inside Chungking Mansions. “I’ve been going back and forth for 16 years,” says Filos. “Chungking Mansions is cheap, and has the best Indian restaurants in Hong Kong: Taj Mahal, Delhi Club, Khyber Pass.”
For Sany, who comes from Ghana and has a hip-hop clothes shop that’s especially popular with Chinese teenagers who come here at the weekend, even the Mali restaurant on the 17th floor isn’t bad. His wife is from Hong Kong and would like to live in Ghana, but Sany will have none of it. “Our leaders sold the national resources before we were even born, and the economy is completely stalled.” Better, he says, to be at Chungking Mansions.
Then there’s Jehangir Khan, who sells a specialized produce: a cell phone that contains 2 SIM cards, a digitalized Koran, interpretations of the Koran, its translation in 25 languages, prayer times according to the day and time zone, and Islamic songs and music videos. “All made in China,” Khan boasts. The brand is Iqra Technologies, a company based between Hong Kong and Shenzen, which shares the digital Koran market, along with Enmac, developer of this religious-digital novelty.
In the name of business, arguments are avoided, not even Indians and Pakistanis bicker. Another particular quirk: no one specializes in a single market. For example, cell phones are still doing well – according to Mathews, 20% of the cell phones used in sub-Saharan Africa pass through here. But now, due to the financial markets’ volatility, Chungking Mansions has seen dozens of currency exchange shops spring up, turning some healthy margins. Because the low-end of globalization works day and night, and can smell every new trend on its way.