March 21st, 2007

Chungking Mansions

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Interior Space by Patrick Donovan

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Chunking Mansions. Photo by Sebastian Lewis

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in Hong Kong was a post-SARS drive to clean up the city’s image. The city seems cleaner than on my last visit. Trash cans are everywhere. Infrared-activated hand-cleaning machines shoot out antiseptic spray every hundred feet. Posters warn of HK$1,200 fines for spitting and littering.

In a way this is unfortunate. One of the things I like about Hong Kong is that it’s not Singapore. There’s something reassuring about a city with a bit of grit and disorder.

Luckily, one place still exists that symbolizes this grit: the Chungking Mansions. This leprous rat-infested slum is an institution. It was raised to legendary status as the scene of shady drug deals in the movie Chungking Express. Anyone who spends time there walks off with a certain filthy stigma.

A cluster of Indian touts stand outside at all times of the day trying to lure you in with “cheap suit,” “best curry,” and the occasional “jiggy-jiggy massage.” The entranceway seems innocuous enough with its generic souvenir stalls and rip-off moneychangers. Delve a little deeper into the bowels and you enter a claustrophobic sewerlike maze of cracked bathroom tiles, concrete, rusted metal vents, and frayed electrical wires hanging from the ceiling. The stench of curried sewage and an acrid humidity soon envelops you.

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Photo by Matt Jacobs

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Photo by Christopher DeWolf

The Chungking Mansion’s entrails are the most cosmopolitan place in Hong Kong. In addition to the thousand varieties of cockroaches and rodents, hundreds of poky Indian/Nepali snack bars with one or two faded linoleum tables jostle for space with cheap linen shops, Sikh tailors, Pakistani barbers, Filipino tattoo parlors, Chinese acupuncture dens, cellphone shops, pirate CD stores, and lots of fake Rolex vendors. There’s also a contingent of Africans wandering around, haggling with wholesalers, bargaining over containers of cheap goods to ship back and resell at a higher price. Others seem to loiter in the corridors all day slapping people on the back with friendly greetings. The upper levels are a mixture of sweatshops, housing for illegal immigrants, and cheap backpacker hostels with closet-sized 4-bed dorms.

I love the place, but who knows how much longer it will survive. If they don’t tear it down in the drive to Disneyfy Hong Kong, this massive fire hazard and eyesore will probably end up collapsing onto itself.


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2 comments

  1. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Oh man, Chungking Mansions. Laine and I ducked in there to take a walk around. It was full of little stalls selling Bollywood DVDs and VCDs, Indian food, fake watches. Aside from the security guard, Laine was the only Chinese person in there! People crowded around the few elevators that would take them upstairs. On the way out, passing through some dark, wet passage, a big cockroach scurried in front of Laine. She shrieked and jumped back while an African guy behind us chuckled and grinned.

    March 22nd, 2007 at 1:34 am

  2. Stephen C says:

    Chungking Mansions is globalization in action and one of the most amazing places on earth. The day that it disappears will be a sad day for Hong Kong.

    October 15th, 2007 at 11:20 pm