Chungking Mansions is more likely to be viewed in an unflattering light by locals, thanks to the 17-storey tenement block’s seedy reputation of housing a motley mix of people and trades and all their absurdities, a no-go place almost like another Kowloon Walled City.
That said, the somehow dilapidated Tsim Sha Tsui complex commands rising fame among visitors.
When celebrated film director Wong Kar-wai’s metaphoric masterpiece Chungking Express amazed global audiences two decades ago, Jeffrey Andrews, a Hong Kong-born Indian teenager, was a teacher’s headache with failing grades.
Hong Kong-made Indian
“I almost dropped out when in secondary school… I once spent two years mingling with triad members, usually in the dark alleys in Tsim Sha Tsui around Chungking Mansions, and almost ended up in prison… But I had the luck to have a clean slate, no recordable offenses, during my years of running wild,” Andrews told the Hong Kong Economic Journal in fluent Cantonese.
“My life was a mess until seven years ago when my mum helped me land a job at a refugee center right inside Chungking Mansions. The job was an inflection point. Then I enrolled at a night school and spent four years completing courses to be a qualified registered social worker.
“I still get phone calls from cops at the Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station now and then, but don’t get me wrong. They ask me to help whenever there is an ethnic minority involved in a case, and I also go there for liaison or discussion, usually for my clients who are in Hong Kong seeking non-refoulement.
“I’m grateful that I was given a second chance and now I want to help my compatriots and other South Asians in Hong Kong, and try my best to make a case that ethnic minorities are law-abiding good citizens just like everyone else.”
Chungking has always been at the center of Andrews’ life and career. It’s his spiritual home, even though not so many locals have a positive regard of it.
“You can say we like to view Chungking through rose-coloured spectacles, but it’s our comfort zone, away from the almost ubiquitous discrimination that we can never escape either at school or work. This is the very place we feel at home…
“There is a Pakistani shop owner, once a gang leader that used to boss us around and spent a few years behind bars, but after rehabilitation, he now runs a cellphone reselling business here and controls a big market share in Africa.”
The two are still friends, and occasionally they go back to the nearby alleys, where hunky chaps from rival triad groups once slashed at each other, yet both of them feel their peccant past is so strange and long gone now that they are living their lives anew.
“And had it not been for Hong Kong, I wouldn’t have made friends with a Pakistani… I would be called a traitor back in India.”
Andrews’ only fear is that Chungking, the very microcosm of ethnic minority Hong Kong, may one day come tumbling down. “Some parts of the building are in disrepair, and decorations and alteration works are always going on. Chungking may collapse even if the government won’t want to tear it down for redevelopment.”
While Chungking has long been a sanctuary for the city’s South Asians, Hong Kong itself is also a port of refuge for throngs of asylum seekers, first for the Vietnamese boat people throughout the decades to the 2000s, and now to numerous non-refoulement claimants, with an increasingly mixed composition of origins and backgrounds.
The cloak-and-dagger movie plot may happen at any time at Andrews’ refugee center inside Chungking, now a hive of activity for merchants and sightseers.
Hong Kong does not grant asylum to anyone. People whose non-refoulement claim is substantiated by the SAR government will be referred to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for recognition as refugees and then sent to a third place for resettlement. There are a few who have obtained Hong Kong residency.
Some families have been able to move to America or Europe through Andrews’ help. He got the good news earlier this month that an African mother of three has been granted asylum by Canada.
“She came to us for help four years ago to bring her left-behind kids to Hong Kong, but initially we said we could do nothing…
Andrews followed up the case and helped these young kids with their education, as well as their applications for refugee status to the SAR government, the United Nations and Canadian authorities.
Friend and client
His first client also left a deep impression on him, which has led to a lifelong friendship.
“He is a Sri Lankan and when he was 16, his parents used their life savings to send him abroad when the insurgent army was recruiting child soldiers to battle the government. But he was abandoned in Thailand while on the way, where he was forced to work at a sweatshop until he accumulated enough money to leave. He was cheated by a smuggling syndicate and became stranded in Shenzhen…
“I helped him find a school where he was able to put his talent to good use, especially in coding. His case was recognized and he settled down in the US three years ago, and now he works at Microsoft.
“He drove 16 hours to meet me last year when I was in the US to attend my sister’s wedding. ‘You once took a sampan to Hong Kong but now you drive a sedan to see me in the US’, that was what I said to him.”
Andrews is turning 32 this June and now he is dating a Filipino girl. Recently, he was happy to take part in a ViuTV Cantonese variety show for a heartening root-finding trip back to his hometown in India.
But back in Hong Kong, his second hometown, knowing many ethnic minority youths, and refugees alike, are scraping by on the very bottom rung, inspires him to do more.
“The situation is improving but if we do not act now, the entire generation of them, their lives, will be wasted.”
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 6.
Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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