Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Mathews (University of Chicago Press)

Seventeen stories, three-tower blocks rising from a massive plinth, owned by 920 share-holders, containing a transient population of at least 129 different nationalities who come looking for a cheap place to sleep in the middle of Kowloon’s Golden Mile—this is Chungking Mansions. Avoided by local Hong Kong Chinese, immortalized by Wong Kar-wai in his art-house movie Chungking Express, occasionally used as a setting for Western mystery writers (most recently Michael Connelly and Jo Nesbo), this is more a town than it is a building, housing a community of what Gordon Mathews terms “low-end globalism.”

An American anthropologist who has lived in Hong Kong since 1994, Mathews became drawn to Chungking Mansions in 1983 when he stayed there while traveling. In 2006 he began his project to discover the building’s “role in globalization” and its “significance in the world.” No ivory-tower denizen, Mathews spent “one or more nights a week” in Chungking Mansions guesthouses  as well as “every available moment” for a period of three and a half years. The result of his research is true to his subject and is amazingly readable—his book sparkles with life that is rarely found in an offering from an academic press.

Mathews knows his territory and shares it generously. Chungking Mansion’s history, from an upscale apartment building to a center for “Western hippies and backpackers” to a business center for entrepreneurs from all over the planet is well laid out and the often mysterious details of its present incarnation are carefully explained. Travelers who have wondered about the evening crowds of Africans at the nearby 7/11 or the function of the middle-aged sari-clad women who cluster in the same area during the day will find their curiosity satisfied in these pages. (Unfortunately, to protect the unlicensed premises, Mathews fails to divulge where the elusive African restaurants are in the upper floors of Chungking Mansions.)

People have learned to trust Gordon Mathews and he safeguards that trust by giving pseudonyms to the people who have granted him candid interviews. “I was born here in Hong Kong—I am a Hong Kong person,” a Sikh shop owner says, “I feel like an outsider…but when I enter this building..I feel like I’m home. All countries can enter here. Outside is difficult, but Chungking Mansions is home!”

And all countries do enter here—represented by people who come to do business, along with a number of asylum-speakers. Chungking Mansions is a world-center for inexpensive mobile phones that are made in China and transported to Africa in carry-on luggage, as many as 700 phones per trip, bringing ‘an average profit of US $500 per trip.” Clothing manufactured in mainland China, tires from used cars, DVD players, computer accessories—luggage carts heaped higher than a man’s head are wheeled out of Chungking Mansions regularly. Gold and gems come in from Africa—one man would arrive with a full set of gold dentures and leave with sparkling white ones. These are not poor men and women, except by Hong Kong standards, which are high enough to make many visitors feel poor. Most of the traders who fill Chungking’s elevators are middle-class and higher in their home countries and most of them use English as a common language.

Aside from being an intriguing portrait of a fascinating corner of the world, Mathew’s book challenges accepted definitions of globalization. Multi-national corporations are in some ways being supplanted by cheap knock-offs traded by entrepreneurial individuals. Only a minority of the world’s population can afford Nokia; the rest will happily accept Noklia, if the price is right—and it usually is. “Low-end globalization,” Mathews says, “is not the world’s past; it is, in at least some respects, the world’s future.”

“I predict,” he continues, “that what Chungking Mansions is today, much more of the world will be tomorrow.” And that prediction, at least as Gordon Mathews’ book portrays it, is one to look forward to.~Janet Brown