Oct 27, 2011

"The most globalized spot on the planet"

This is part of a review of the book: Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. By Gordon Mathews. University of Chicago Press; 240 pages; $19 and £12.50.
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.”
From the review in the WSJ
In the ethnic mix, one nationality is conspicuously absent. Hong Kong Chinese are largely terrified of the place's reputation for violence and poverty. Mr. Mathews takes pains to show that Chungking Mansions is surprisingly safe, with its security guards, CCTV and relatively few arrests, the police principally target drug dealers, as prostitution is legal and immigration violations are a lower priority, but the stigma has consequences. The shop owners are predominantly mainland Chinese, not locals. Most of the managers are South Asian and a majority of the illegal temporary workers are Muslims from the Calcutta neighborhood of Kidderpore.
See pictures of the place. HT: the always curious Surse Pierpoint. 

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