After my little jaunt to Taiwan, I made it a point to stop in Hong Kong for night because a) I’d always wanted to see the place and b) I have some friends there. The night before I left Taiwan, I was seized by a fit of planning, and decided to go online and book a hotel (yes… every once in a while I will do such a thing). The first thing I notice is that hotels in Hong Kong proper are ridiculously expensive… $200 USD a night and up… not in my budget (Hong Kong itself is just an expensive place in and of itself). However, in perusing the map of potential hotels, I notice that there’s a bunch of cheap places to stay (circa $20 USD a night) just across the harbor on what’s known as the Kowloon side. Now, Kowloon is just a short train or ferry ride from central Hong Kong, so I figure, for the price, I’m staying over there (Kowloon is across the water from Hong Kong Island, but it’s still part of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and not part of mainland China). I click, I book… done and done.
The next morning I land in Hong Kong and find my way to the metro stop nearest to the hotel. I know the address, and have an idea of where it is based on google maps, but I can’t seem to find it. I do what I do when I’m a bit lost… I ask for directions. I notice an Indian man at a small shop and ask him (figuring that there’s a decent chance this guy would speak English). He looks at my address, wobbles his head and points at this:
The sign up above says Chungking Mansions, as does my address, so I head in wondering what I’m in for. I cross the threshold and realize that I’ve entered another world entirely. Behind me is Hong Kong… it’s clean, bright, shiny, orderly and new… everyone is dressed sharply in business suits and most people look Chinese. Inside is… well… inside is different. First off, I can see straight ahead for what seems to be a couple hundred yards. It’s an indoor street about 10 feet wide. Both sides are lined with shops… currency exchanges, jewelry, electronics, restaurants ad infinum… a different one seemingly every 5 feet. The entire street is lit by the dull greenish glow of insufficient fluorescent lighting, and although not dark, it’s definitely gloomy. Looking up, one can see all sorts of pipes, ducts and conduits hovering just below the steel girders supporting the floor above, which adds a subterranean feel to the place. The hallway itself is packed with people, but in contrast to Hong Kong outside, everyone here is either Indian or African. People are moving quickly… you can sense that business is getting done, and there’s the feel of hustling in the air. Everyone is seemingly talking on two mobile phones at once. My heart rate picks up a bit just from catching of whiff of the energy here, and scenes from Blade Runner start popping into my head.
I head further in. I notice passageways branch off perpendicular to the one I’m on. Some are similar to the one I’m on (i.e. lined with shops. Some are much narrower and look more like maintenance access. The air in the place has a certain mustiness to it… a combination of sweat, mold, air conditioning and deferred maintenance, with just a hint of curry. I see an elevator bank off to my left that says Block A. I notice my address says Block D, so I ask the guard for Block D and he points me in the right direction. I find Block D. Two elevators, the one on the left goes to the even floors, up to 16. The one on the right goes to the odd floors. It’s only then do I realize how massive this place actually is… there’s at least five blocks (I saw the sign for Block E on the way to D), one of which contains a 16-story building, all connected on the ground floor into one giant, city block-sized superstructure. I shake my head in amazement.
I take the elevator up to the reception area (on the 16th floor). I notice that several of the floors contain hotels (each with a different name of course, some of which I remember from my internet search the night before), but everyone is directed to go to the same reception area. I arrive and check-in. There are several white backpackery-looking folks milling about. Everyone working at the hotel appears Indian (or South Asian or some sort). I am led down to my room on the 8th floor. On the way down I get to witness a baggage transfer which consisted of one guy putting every bag possible into the elevator, and then climbing (literally) in on top of them (myself and the guy leading me downstairs are crammed in the corner of the elevator and surrounded by stacked luggage). When the elevator stopped at the correct floor for the bags, the guy on top of them climbed down and, with the help of another guy on that floor, unloaded everything. Upon reaching the 8th floor, I was led out of the elevator and into a hallway. We knocked on one of the doors (no sign) and were greeted by another Indian man. He showed me through the door, which led to another hallway, which had about 8 doors off of it (yes, a door off the main hallway that led to another hallway with the hotel rooms… like a hotel within one apartment on a floor or 8 apartments). One of those doors was my room, which, although small, was actually quite nice (single room, en suite bathroom, with a/c). I cleaned up a bit and headed back out to explore this place… too excited and curios to sit down.
I wandered around my floor, up and down the stairwells, explored another tower block and the ground floors. As suspected, the place was massive. 5 tower blocks with approximately 20-story buildings each, and the first three floors were all connected with each other (all of which contained shops). The upper floors contained a massive number of cheap guesthouses and private apartments, all sprinkled in with what I’m assuming to be illicit businesses as well. The first three floors had all the chaos of a developing world bazaar… hawkers shouting, knock-off goods everywhere, tense negotiations, etc. while the common areas of the upper floors look like what one would imagine the hallways in Cabrini Green appeared. Strangely enough, given how either Indian or African the whole commercial part of the building was, I felt a strange sense of familiarity. I sat down for some Indian food (a welcome treat after all the Chinese food I’d been eating) and just had some fun contemplating how a place like this came into existence.
In a fun note… while Chungking Mansions is a whole world unto itself, apparently another world within a world type of place known as Kowloon Walled City used to exist a bit further away. Kowloon Walled City was a bit more eccentric due to a historical quirk that no administrative agency had any authority over it… so you can imagine what kinds of things went on there. You can read more about it here. It was demolished in 1994.