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Chungking Mansions: Hong Kong's Squalid Underbelly?

Chungking Mansions: Hong Kong's Squalid Underbelly?

Picture of Stephanie Chang
Updated: 7 January 2016
Entering Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui is to see a wholly different face of Hong Kong. A far cry from Hong Kong’s glitzy business district, Chungking Mansions is, to some, a place teeming with life and the face of globalization. To others, it is the squalid underbelly of the city.

Nestled in the heart of the bustling, ultra-modern skyscrapers that define Hong Kong’s city center, Chungking Mansions is a barely concealed anomaly in the city. This vast, labyrinthine ‘shopping center’ — if the term does it justice — teems with life. Entering the mansion is like crossing the threshold into another world. Inside, it swarms with people pulling, jostling, urging visitors to buy products including knock-off phones, watches, electronics to name just a few of the offerings. Inside, one is also met by a mishmash of languages ranging from Arabic to Malay to any number from the Indian subcontinent and Africa. Chungking Mansions is a veritable Babel in the heart of Hong Kong. This intense hustle and bustle is represented by Wong Kar-wai in the now classic film Chungking Express, which depicts the sordid underbelly of this cultural meeting point in Wong’s distinctive style.


Although vastly different from any other part of Hong Kong and considered a gritty eye-sore by many native Hong Kong residents, Chungking Mansions is also wholly a part of and defined by Hong Kong’s unique place in the global movement of goods and people. According to long-time academic researcher Gordon Mathews, Chungking Mansions exists as a link between the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world because of the unique blend of three factors. As Matthews states, ‘Chungking Mansions is cheap; Hong Kong allows easy entry; and southern China, just over the world’s busiest border, has become everyone’s manufacturer of choice’.


Chungking Mansions, then is not an anomaly but rather an extension of Hong Kong’s identity as a global center for commerce. Money is king for the peddlers, small stall keepers, petty merchants who make their livings inside. Here, people from all over the world rub shoulders; money is their common language and common bond that cuts across national feuds. Mathews cites what one Pakistani says of the Indian traders: ‘I do not like them; they are not my friends. But I am here to make money, as they are here to make money. We cannot afford to fight.’


Watch the trailer for Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express:

By Stephanie Chang