Home to the world
Aug 20th 2011 | from the print edition
THE walk down Nathan Road to Kowloon’s promenade along Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong takes the sightseer through a hyper-modern commercial avenue, overhung with LED signs and trimmed banyan creepers, to the stately Peninsula Hotel, the futuristic Hong Kong Cultural Centre and one of the most celebrated skylines in the world. Every year the avenue is more lustrously paved with the gold of a million spendthrift tourists from mainland China.
Chungking Mansions, which stretches from 36-44 Nathan Road, comes as a shock of otherworldly proportions. Teeming, crumbling and motley in the extreme, it is a structure to attract or repel the people of Hong Kong, like the Spaceport Cantina in the original “Star Wars”. Pushtun touts, Nigerians slinging fake Rolexes and a flock of Indian prostitutes in garish saris congregate at its maw. Inside, a glittering and stinking confusion of shops, food stalls and dormitories is piled on itself in an impossible jumble—17 storeys high and covering most of a city block. Is it even a building? The “Mansions” is a singular noun, but most people who live and work there speak of its five blocks, A to E, their lifts connecting only at the dim and claustrophobic bazaar on the first two floors. South Asians and Africans: people from at least 129 different countries have thronged to this warren to trade, talk, eat, pray and fornicate, all in a context of mild lawlessness and constant flux.
Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, spent his every free moment from 2006-10 absorbing this place in an effort to bring analytical light to its darkest corners. The clarity reveals a marvel. Hong Kong Chinese, which make up 95% of its neighbours, tend to regard the place with a kind of horror, as a heart of darkness that just happens to be located in the heart of their city. This is partly a matter of racism, but mostly it reflects their vague awareness of the criminality that makes the building hum. Mr Mathews starts with the assumption that “whereas the illegalities in Chungking Mansions are widely known, the wondrousness of the place is not.”
It turns out that there are three buildings, more or less. They have become what they are, a trading centre for the still-poor world, for three reasons: Chungking Mansions is cheap; Hong Kong allows easy entry; and southern China, just over the world’s busiest border, has become everyone’s manufacturer of choice.
There are drugs—heroin, mostly shot up by a few dozen Gurkhas on the dole who sleep in an alleyway—and there is sex. But these are footnotes. Mobile phones and cheap textiles are where the real money is. Mr Mathews identifies Chungking Mansions as “a central node in low-end globalisation”, by which he means “the transnational flow of people and goods involving relatively small amounts of capital” and informal transactions that mark “the developing world”. The model might be a Tanzanian trader who travels to Hong Kong for a week to source a few hundred used phones imported from Europe, “refabbed” over the border in Shenzhen, specially packed to disguise their counterfeit batteries and then brought back to Africa as extra luggage—facilitated by undocumented labour. His coffin-sized room costs less than $20 a night and the trip nets him $400-1,300, if nothing goes wrong. He makes multiple trips a month.
Mr Mathews’s book is an exercise in ethnography, the discipline of describing individual lives in detail. It sings in the chapters where the author and his researchers transcribe the personal stories of the traders, shopkeepers, asylum-seekers and Hong Kong policemen who inhabit this stupendous building, making side trips to Kolkata and Lagos along the way. Every gritty question is answered; at times it reads like a how-to guide for low-end globalisers. Academic language rarely intrudes, aside from the odd “transgressive other”, and the self-disclosure peculiar to field anthropology has a charm, as Mr Mathews deploys it.
He plainly loves the place. He credits Islam and neoliberalism as the forces that keep its many people living harmoniously in close quarters. “Ghetto” might be a misnomer, unless one allows a cosmopolitan and bourgeois ghetto. Chungking Mansions turns out to be “a staunch bourgeois enclave of chamber-of-commerce capitalism, albeit with a few corners cut”. Everybody is there to do business. The multicultural frisson is no more than a happy by-product.
Like Hong Kong itself, Chungking Mansions exists to fill a gap between different kinds of economies, the middle-income and low-income. Its residents are the arbitrageurs of goods and labour. In this way it is like the Hong Kong of old, and a living map of the former British empire too. The likelihood is that it will end some time soon (either as a result of Chinese traders cutting out the middlemen, the legal pressure of too many asylum-seekers or because mainland Chinese buy out the building). Unmentioned goes the fact that Hong Kong too is likely to pass into history, its special role withering as China integrates more fully with the rest of the world. Chungking Mansions is already becoming more “normal” as the world outside grows everywhere more exotic.
from the print edition | Books and Arts