The even-floors Block-A lift in Chungking Mansions wasn’t going to stop bleeping, let alone move. Not until the unfeasibly tall man in a suit stepped out. He knew the score and obliged. ‘That was a big guy’ I commented to the African ladies squashed up against me in the tiny space, as we began to ascend.
‘Tall man’ one nodded.
‘Where are you from?’ I asked.
‘Zambia’ said the other.
They stepped out around floor 12, you lose track of these things when you seem to stop just about everywhere on the way. My stop was 16, and then the stairs to 17, the top. The odd-floor elevator didn’t go there, which is why I’d told the Chinese security man controlling the queues for them: ‘The even lift is the best’. He’d laughed. It was 2am and he wasn’t knocking off till 7. A sunny temperament helps working a beat in Chungking Mansions.
The City within the City
Local anthropologist Gordon Matthews once estimated that a fifth of mobile phones in black Africa pass through Chungking Mansions, just down from Tsim Sha Tsui metro station on Nathan Road, Kowloon. Maybe that’s how the Zambian ladies knew about the weather back home. It’s a crazy place, a whole city of up to 10,000 according to some, in a decrepit 1961 mega-block with all the architectural flair of a second-hand filing cabinet. At Chungking Mansions, you can sleep, eat, change money, get a shirt ironed or hair cut, buy pretty well anything you need and a lot you don’t, and meet half the world, maybe even trade with them, all without leaving the building. After two nights in the swish Carlton in Hong Kong Central on the other side of Victoria Harbour, it was quite a change of scene.
My next room was three metres square, half of it the bed and a quarter the bathroom. The plumbing worked most of the time. A single roach popped up every now and then, but mainly kept to itself. That way, things worked out fine. I had my nook in Chungking Mansions and I was snug as a bug in it.
It’s not that I never left the building. Walk up Nathan Road and the Tsim Sha Tsui quarter is as exciting a cityscape as they come- vast flows of humanity channelled in canyons of shopping below a floating matrix of neon-signage, all loomed over by skyscrapers and ads playing on giant LED video screens. Just up the road, at the start of an incongruously tranquil stretch of shady banyan trees, is the Kowloon Mosque, established 1984, which is probably why Chungking Mansions is the way it is. It’s the focal point for Moslems from the Indian sub-continent, and along with the Hindus and Sikhs, that community trades. The sidewalks of Nathan Road are full of men schlapping up business for bespoke tailoring or Rolex watches. The price of a Hong Kong suit may not be as competitive as it was, which maybe explains why the sales pitches are quick and desperate. As for the Rolexes, fake or real, I never got that- why carry an ad for muggers on your wrist?
Hustlers and Samosas
The hustlers are in full strength outside Chungking Mansions, with offers that get a lot more salubrious than just watches or suits. Get through them, pass under the glitzy entrance and you’re in a bustling, seedy double-level bazaar of Indian and African traders. You can wander the vast warren for hours. Electronics and luggage seem to dominate, but there are zones of Indian food stalls, many with seating behind the counters. Halal Foods’ biriani offerings seem to have been lamp-heated all day. I preferred the vegetarian snack outlets, like the Smrat stall (is it connected to Smrat Pure Veg up on level five, one of several tiny boutique restaurants with waiter service? I’ll report next time). On the ground floor, if the view to the market passageways is open enough, you can watch the world pass by- if it’s narrow, there’s always conversation with other diners. Once, a guy leaned over conspiratorially to whisper ‘your food is shit’. It was a strange way to introduce an offer for dope, which I declined, and stranger still since my aloo tikka chaat was the best this side of Southall. The Indians themselves are more likely to be chatting one floor up, where cafés cluster at the top of a staircase and a small barbers pole spins outside Gujurat International Hair.
It’s on the ground that you find the miniscule lifts up to floor after floor of tight-packed hostel accommodation above. Two lifts serve each of the five blocks. Some of the lift lobbies that merge into the market have been marbled but Block A’s is still chaotic and easily the busiest. Still, there’s a Chinese stall selling fruit next to them, and if the monitors with the feed from inside the lifts aren’t enough, the big looped video of bungee-jumping in Macau may help some with the wait.
Upstairs, several hostels fill a floor, and their sheets hang in the central hall space they branch off from. Your view is likely to be the adjacent Chunking Mansions block, up real close, but the piles of rubbish that travellers used to report below are gone. Open the window and the air is Hong Kong fresh- which ain’t necessarily that fresh, but breathable enough. To see rubbish, check out the stairwells, which are the quickest way down, even from 17. Ancient electrical wiring bursting out of open boxes, dodgy plumbing, rat poison warnings and a gallery of multi-lingual graffiti embellish these vertical passages of grot, and there’s usually some theatre as you pass, maybe someone lugging a surrealistically massive case or negotiating a shady deal. Who needs the television perched above the end of your bed?
Block A’s staircase breaks on the second floor, and you need to pass the management offices and Chinese Visa place to descend the final leg to the ground. That comes out in an alleyway that runs all the way out to the backstreet by the Peninsula Apartments, where Indian porters sit and smoke on the sidewalk between wheeling deliveries into Chungking.
The alley has its own convenience shop, the Indian Super Store, which I’m told has been there since 1983. Towards the Nathan Road end, the market spills out into the alley. Over the road is a glass behemoth that crystallises a different Tsim Sha Tsui- the iSquare Mall.
Chunking Mansions vs iSquare
The designer iSquare development is floor after floor of Japanese-looking super-shiney but chic shopping linked by long escalators that climb across its huge glass façade. From its Starbucks, you can look down on the thronging crowds outside Chungking Mansions, and up across the cliff-like front of its surprisingly bland window strips. The whole area is getting trendy as well as expensive.
Chungking is trying to stay in the game, with its own Cke Mall, a floor of glass-partitioned clothes and bags merchants accessed by escalators next to the main entrance. The units are tiny, there’s something a bit tacky and plastic about the place, but it’s very different from the gritty hive of the bazaar below it. At night, LED strips glow across Chungking’s façade.
Night can be when loneliness decides to be company, and in a crowd, it can be hard company to shake off. A brilliant photo shoot by Nana Chen portrays a loneliness in the Pakistanis and Indians of Chungking Mansions, as if they were in a exile, sad and dreaming of home. They may be, but more likely they’re too busy most of the time to get sentimental. Life in Chungking Mansions is compressed, colourful and chaotic. The Indian sub-continent flavours the place, and bemused backpackers, stolid Africans and even the odd Chinese all contribute and rub along fine. The question is, how long before the chemistry is lost? The place has changed before. In British times, it was reportedly beyond the law, part of the dark hive of Kowloon’s mysterious Chinese world. Now, Hong Kong cops patrol the market. A lethal fire in 1988 tightened up safety, and now it’s a no-smoking zone, though you can find cigarette butts on the stairways. Nowadays, the threat is commercial.
Increasingly hemmed in by not just designer shops but location-oblivious hotel chains like Holiday Inn, InterContinental and Hyatt Regency, Chungking Mansions looks like an easy target for developers. The sheer intensity with which it exploits its plot makes it a rent-cow… for now. If that ever changes, part of Kowloon dies.
Sure, there may be other places as up Nathan Road, maybe as far as Jordon Road, where you get a little of the same cultural mash-up, but nothing as immense, immersive or intoxicating as Chunking Mansions.
Here’s hoping it stays just that way.
(all photos © Herbert Wright 2012)