Last month in December 2011, I paid another research trip to Hong Kong. Due to my short stay, I was not able to visit many places nor meet  friends as much as I hoped for. One place that I happened to pass by was Chungking Mansions, which is one of the unique landmarks in Hong Kong. First opened in 1961 as a trendy living place for the relatively affluent at the time, it is located on Nathan Road, Kowloon, not too far from the waterfront. The following note was actually prepared when I paid an earlier visit back in May 2011, accompanied by a colleague of mine Surajit who now teaches in Abu Dhabi University. (Hence, my thanks to him for the informative discussion at the time)

View Larger Map on Google Map for the location of Chungking Mansions

Its first two storeys are used as malls accommodating various stores (currently dominated by south asian restaurants, electronics/gadget shops and DVDs), and other upper floors are residential. The building complex has five towers, and I hear each tower has 18 floors: other than the ground floor, lifts take people up to the 16th floor, and there is yet another 17th floor which is not reached by the lift system. The rooftop has connection to other towers so that people in the tower’s middle section can be evacuated more easily in case of fire.

Over time, the affluent moved out to the island side or other more luxurious places, and succession took place, with South Asians filling in the vacancies. Many floors nowadays accommodate cheap guesthouses for backpackers or others who require lower-end accommodations. Initially, malls were filled with textile-related shops, gradually replaced by electronic stores, mostly specialised in mobile phones. My colleague Surajit who took me there last May 2011 says one researcher estimated that about 30 percent of mobile phones in sub-Saharan region come through Chungking Mansions shops. Perhaps they operate as middlemen, while the manufacturing is done in mainland China. Malls also have numerous South Asian restaurants and corner shops.

The mansion is also home to many asylum seekers, who claim asylum and wait here until the process is complete. Surajit says the asylum application is sent to the UNHCR Sub-office at Hong Kong, and when failed, another application can be submitted to the Hong Kong Governnent, but I will have to check about the exact process at a later date.

It is speculated that many mobile phones sold in the mansion shops are thought to be fakes with different grades and quality. Also, when I took a picture of shops and traders inside the mansion on the ground floor, the sales people were shouting, apparently complaining at me. I was told that many people working there are having issues in one way or another, which make them less comfortable with their pictures taken.

Though the building seems deteriorating, it has not been subject to definite plans for redevelopment. One likely reason was the presence of a large number of individual property owners in association, whose number is thought be more than 700. This makes it difficult to implement redevelopment as potential developers who would want to pursue this have to strike 700 individual deals with owners. This situation may change, as the building is now more than 50 years old, and the Hong Kong government has eased the regulation for compulsory purchase early in 2010. The relaxed regulation allows a developer to apply for a Compulsory Sale Order if it owns not less than 80 percent of the undivided shares. However, it may also be the case that the task of the area’s redevelopment is beyond any one developer’s scope, and may require a collected effort by a consortium.

In any case, the socio-cultural and economic significance of the building complex warrants a closer follow-up in the next few years, if not a decade.

ps. If anyone wants to know more about the history of Chungking Mansions, the following two sources appear to be worth pursuing. One is a PhD thesis by my colleague Surajit mentioned earlier.

    • Mathews, Gordon (2011) Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. University of Chicago Press. See my review of this book here.

ps2. Also, thanks to Surajit above who supplied me with this information, there is an award-winning student documentary (15 minute running time) that presents a well-documented ethnography of Chungking Mansions. It’s a good example of how visual images can combine with an in-depth study of a place to provide an insight into ‘otherness’, crossing the boundary to transform oneself from an outsider to an insider.