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.
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.
Tags: Exploring the City, Hong Kong