It’s Saturday evening. The area is chock-a-bloc with tourists and backpackers, shoppers and casual visitors. The tide of traffic at Tsim Tsa Tsui runs thick and fast. But in the hustle and bustle of the weekend crowd, one can hardly miss an essential character of the place—its vitality and vibrancy.
Welcome to Chungking Mansions at 32-44 Nathan Road in Hong Kong.
As one steps into the building’s ground floor, one will be fortunate enough if he is not mobbed by one of the overzealous touts offering bargain price for hotel accommodation. All the hotels housed in the building have touts to lure customers.
With its heady mix of workers from the Indian sub-continent, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and holiday-makers, the 17-storey building with its neighborhood is one of the most culturally diverse locations in Hong Kong. Chungking Mansions had been elected as the “Best example of Globalization in Action” by Time in its annual feature The Best of Asia.
“Whenever I visit Hong Kong, I choose to stay here,” said Martin Waugh, an Australian. The young man from Brisbane has been visiting Hong Kong since 2005.
What exactly is Chungking’s charm? “I love the joie de vivre of the place. It’s so lively out here. You see boundless energy and dynamism all around,” Martin said animatedly. “The place has so many guesthouses which offer cheap accommodation. It’s my girl friend’s favorite place, too.”
“It’s an incredible place. You get to savor the culinary experience of so many different countries here,” said Martin’s girlfriend Margaret, who goes over the heels talking about Indian curry. “Chicken curry, oh! Yummy! It’s just out-of-the-world,” she gushed.
Mohammad Hamid, a trader from Nigeria, comes to Hong Kong quite often on his way to Guangzhou, where he runs a computer equipment business. “Where else will you get such a vibrant place?” he asked standing in the queue to take the lift on the ground floor. “I always stay in the guesthouse here,” he added.
Chungking Mansion has been attracting tourists since it was built in 1961 for the low-rent accommodation in Hong Kong. “You know Hong Kong is the fourth most expensive city in the world. Staying in any hotel in the city will cost you HK$ 500, but here you can get a room at HK$ 150 only,” said Arun Joshi, a Mumbai-based businessman who was holidaying with his wife.
Chungking Mansion is divided into five blocks, and has over 200 shops spreading across the ground floor and the first floor. As one takes a tour of the labyrinthine lanes on the first floor, one can hear popular Hindi film songs coming out from one of the DVD shops selling Indian films. As one goes little further, one gets sweet aroma wafted out of many Indian, Pakistani and Nepalese restaurants.
Apart from staying in cheap hotels and guesthouses, there are other advantages too. Everything is available here—from electronic goods to saloon and money exchanges. In one corner on the first floor, one can see Pakistani saloon doing brisk business. “A haircut costs only HK$40 which is much cheaper than any other saloons in the city,” said Iqbal, a Pakistani.
“I come all the way from Taiko Shing to buy Indian spice every weekend,” said Reena Mathur, an Indian housewife as she was coming out of Maharaja Provision Stores on the first floor. “I also get fresh green chilly and other Indian vegetables here,” she said. The Indian store has been catering to Indian consumers for the last three decades.
Chungking Mansions also serves as a weekend retreat for many Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. “I come here every weekend to buy calling cards. I can call my family and friends in India at a very cheap rate,” said Ravi Kumar, an Indian driver, who meets his friends here every weekend. “We go to Indian restaurant to take samosa or dosa,” he said. “In just HK$15-20, you get a hearty meal which you won’t get anywhere else in the city.”
However, insanitary conditions, age-old electrical wiring and dreary staircases of the building add to the hazards for the residents and shoppers. On February 21, 1988, a fire broke out in the building and a Danish tourist was killed.
The place has its dark side too. It is also known to be a centre of drugs and refuge for petty criminals and illegal immigrants. In an operation in June 1995, police interrogated about 1750 people. Forty-five men and seven women were arrested on suspicion of offences, including failing to produce proof of identity, overstaying, using forged documents, possessing equipment for forging documents and possessing dangerous drugs. In ‘Operation Sahara’ in 1996, 52 men and seven women from 14 countries were held for violating immigration regulations.
However, Chungking’s charm is timeless. It always pulsates with energy and life. Its presence adds to Hong Kong’s vibrancy as a cosmopolitan city. Your visit to Hong Kong remains incomplete, if you don’t walk into that building and savor the unique shopping and dining experience at 32-44 Nathan Road.