It’s been called the The Ghetto at the Center of the World, the Unofficial African Quarter of Hong Kong and has been compared to the Star Wars Cantina where rough characters from all corners of the globe converge in an uneasy alliance.
I called it home sweet home for 3 nights.
Chungking Mansions, a hulking block-wide building located right near Victoria Harbor in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Hong Kong is a hub of cheap rooms, electronic shops, money changers, ethnic restaurants and the meeting spot of for people of different nationalities trying to make a quick buck.
“Budget” and “Hong Kong” usually don’t go hand in hand. So to create a budget place, you give up space. And this building is crammed with teeny, tiny rooms and apartments. It is estimated that 4,000 residents live in the building, and there are an additional 90 hostels and guesthouses with 1980 rooms. There are also an additional 140 shops,a hundred-something businesses and 2 malls. My room had a bathroom, and a small window, but felt like a tomb. It was the width of a bed with a tiny path for walking. The furniture (two small tables) were cut in unique ways to fit into the room and still allow the door to open. But it was cheap.
Throughout it’s 50 year history, Chungking Mansions have had it’s share of notorious crimes. The building is basically a death trap as it has old wiring, few exits and is dangerously overcrowded. It also used to be quite unsafe with drug dealers, illegal criminals and thieves. Many a persons (including several travelers) have died at Hong Kong’s most notorious address.
But these days while it feels sketchy, it is actually much safer. There are more than 200 CCTV cameras in the building which are actually monitored by a security team. And the few (teeny, tiny) elevators are manned by a guard and also have videos in them (that you can watch while you wait, it’s kinda cool). In my time there I only saw one fight, and one arrest.
In fact, the most annoying thing is the hawkers. While a decade ago Pakistani gangs roamed the hall demanding protection money, these days they make more money selling mobile phones. The second you get off the elevator all of the Hong Kong hustle and bustle slams you in the face. “Massage?” “Tailor?” “Cell phones?” “Best Indian food in Chungking Mansions!”
The hawkers spread out for over a block and if you are carrying a backpack or luggage they fall upon the “fresh meat” trying to convince you to go to their guesthouse. And they are persistent. You have to fight your way through them.
“Don’t worry, I remember you, I won’t bother you,” said one guy on my second day hawking tailor services. He actually got a smile and laugh from me. That is until I returned later in the day and he said, “Hey, I remember you. Remember when I thought you were Canadian, but your not right?” Um, no, that never happened. Sorry buddy.
The Chungking Mansions are also one of the most ethnically diverse area in the world. One anthropologist estimated that people from 120 different countries pass through there every year. Most people, especially people from African countries, are there to do business. It is estimated that 20% of the cell phones in sub-sahara Africa actually pass through the Chungking Mansions, and very few Chinese actually live or work in the building.
As most of the people the common traveler interacts with tries (very forcefully) to sell things they aren’t exactly helping with international peace, love and understanding. “I don’t want to sound racist BUT….” was a sentence I heard quite a bit (usually from white young travelers.)
But why am I bothering to write this. Statistically, if you are going to Hong Kong you will probably end up here and you can see all the madness and craziness for yourself. Even if you don’t stay here, you should come just to experience the insanity that is the Chungking Mansions.