18 November 2019
Chungking Mansions got a facelift in 2011 to mark its 50th anniversary. Photo: Zhajiangmian Lup
Chungking Mansions got a facelift in 2011 to mark its 50th anniversary. Photo: Zhajiangmian Lup

Things you probably didn’t know about Chungking Mansions

Last month was the 53rd anniversary of the completion of Chungking Mansions.

Many mainland Chinese know it from Chungking Express, a movie by Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-wai which explores the paradox of a densely populated metropolis where people are lonely.

Europeans and Americans know it only as an inexpensive place to stay and a growing number of people from Africa treat it as a place of business.

A 2013 survey by the Hong Kong Baptist University found that more than 70 percent of the 4,000-plus occupants of Chungking Mansions are from outside Hong Kong.

Besides Africans, there are numerous Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese and Bangladeshis.

Travelers from more than 130 countries and territories check into the 17-story building each year and on any given day, its mobile population tops 10,000.

Many compare Chungking Mansions to the former Kowloon Walled City, a dense, largely unregulated Chinese enclave during the British colonial administration.

But unlike the Walled City, which was notorious for crime before it was demolished in 1993, Chungking is being hailed as a perfect example of low-end globalization.

In the past decade, it has been home to an increasing number of visitors from the mainland.

They have been largely responsible for the thriving business of its commercial tenants such as Sa Sa, Chow Tai Fook, Mannings and Café de Coral.

Chungking is a microcosm of entrepreneurship, with deals made and goods delivered in cramped diners and subdivided flats.

Within its walls, garments, watches, mobile phones and other electronic products change hands. Most come from mainland China.

Two in 10 mobile phones sold in sub-Saharan Africa pass through Chungking Mansions, according to Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology in the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

It’s common to see moustached Sikhs or sari-clad young women speaking fluent Cantonese. They are likely second or third-generation tenants.

Backpackers looking for cheap accommodation beat a path to Chungking Mansions, aided by extensive references in travel guidebooks and websites (Lonely Planet is one).

It has more than 160 guest rooms. A HK$200 (US$26) suite is the best of the lot but a youth hostel-style bunk bed with a shared bathroom costs only HK$50 a night.

It is said that many English training centers in Guangdong recruit backpackers and jobless foreigners who live in Chungking Mansions as temporary language tutors.

On top of cheap accommodation, Chungking has more to offer.

There are numerous stalls selling everything from groceries and garments to electronics, artifacts and tourist souvenirs.

Perhaps most notable among its many attractions are the authentic Indian and Pakistani restaurants.

Nabela Qoser, a Pakistani TVB news anchor who speaks Cantonese as fluently as a local, visits Chungking almost every month for beef karahi, her hometown favorite.

Chungking has not always been as we know it.

When it was built in 1961, it was among the tallest buildings in Tsim Sha Tsui district. It was an upmarket residential estate commanding panoramic harbor views.

Actress Cherie Chung, a cultural icon in the 1980s, lived there for more than 20 years.

Chungking Mansions became a vertical shantytown in the 1980s after it was struck by fire several times due to poor building management.

Then crime added to its notoriety, with rape and burglary being frequently reported.

Chungking Mansions has escaped a trend that saw many of its neighboring properties change hands many times over thanks to its 920 independent owners.

Such a sprawling ownership structure has sheltered it from developers who balk at the cost of a buyout.

In 1999, its owners agreed to set up a maintenance fund after a 10-day power outage. In 2011 they gave the building a facelift to mark its 50th anniversary.

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Traders, illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and backpackers co-exist in the relative safety and comfort of the 17-story building. Photo:HKEJ

Islamabad Club restaurant offers authentic Pakistani dishes and a place to do business. Photo: Bloomberg

A typical stall selling goods sourced from China. Chungking stores cater to all kinds lower-end consumer needs. Photo:

A bunk bed costs about HK$50 a night but transients also have a choice of a HK$200 suite. Photo: internet

EJ Insight writer