Beacon of Hope

Post Date: Aug 15th, 2011 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

Gordon Mathews writes in SCMP, Aug 13, 2011

Many people in Hong Kong regard Chungking Mansions with fear. Indeed, several weeks ago a columnist in this newspaper echoed the call often heard in the early 1990s that Chungking Mansions should be torn down. But the building has significantly changed from what it was 20 years ago. At that time, the building really was a hazard, with a Danish tourist dying in a fire in 1988, a week-long electrical blackout in 1993, and South Asian gangs demanding protection money from businesses.

Today, the building is quite different. This is largely because the Incorporated Owners of Chungking Mansions have, over the years, made it more salubrious, putting in new elevators and CCTV cameras, as well as guards and fire alarms. Crime rates are lower than in many other buildings in Hong Kong, police say, and although the risk can never be discounted, no one has died from a fire in the past two decades. I stayed in Chungking Mansions one or two nights a week from 2006 to 2010 for my research as an anthropologist. I found that the biggest risk I faced was not from fire or crime in Chungking Mansions, but rather that of being run over by a taxi on Nathan Road. This is one reason Chungking Mansions should not be feared by people in Hong Kong: it is a safe place. But there is a deeper, more important reason the building should not be feared but celebrated. The people in Chungking Mansions and the people in Hong Kong at large mirror each other in their values. I have often observed (using the down-to-earth ethnic designations I sometimes hear in Chungking Mansions) the “yellow” and “white” people emerging from upscale bars and restaurants on Nathan Road late on Friday and Saturday evenings and passing by the “brown” and “black” people sitting outside Chungking Mansions: the two groups eye each other with mutual incomprehension.

But, if they were to talk, a remarkable parallel might become apparent. Just as many people in Hong Kong escaped from mainland China decades ago in search of a better life in Hong Kong, creating over the past 50 years a city that is wealthy, and no longer of the developing world but of the developed world, so, too, the people in Chungking Mansions. Families in India, Pakistan and Africa have often pooled their money to send a family member overseas to Chungking Mansions to work in a phone stall or a guesthouse, or to buy goods to carry home to make a profit and begin the arduous climb towards affluence. The Hongkongers of 40 years ago and these South Asians and Africans today share the same dream: that of becoming middle class.

When I have travelled to Kathmandu, Calcutta and Kampala, and mentioned Hong Kong, the response I have heard is, “Chungking Mansions!” The building serves as a beacon of hope through much of the developing world. I estimate, based on my surreptitious surveys of phone stalls in Chungking Mansions and their sales, that 20 per cent of mobile phones now used in sub-Saharan Africa have passed through the building. Chungking Mansions is a major global hub of what I term “low-end globalisation”, globalisation involving not transnational corporations with their billion-dollar budgets and batteries of lawyers, but that of African traders returning to their homelands clutching luggage filled with a few hundred phones, of South Asian temporary workers bringing home to their family a few thousand dollars of needed money and extraordinary tales, of asylum seekers wondering when, if ever, they can go home, and of travellers from across the globe closely counting their pennies and staying in the one place in Hong Kong that they can afford. I have counted, from guesthouse logs, 129 different nationalities in Chungking Mansions; in terms of cross-cultural interactions, Chungking Mansions is, I conjecture, the single most globalised building on earth. It is a place in which globalisation is largely peaceful. As a Pakistani said to me about Indians: “I do not like them. But I am here to make money, as they are here to make money. We cannot afford to fight.” Yes, there are counterfeit goods for sale; yes, there are illegal workers; but, all in all, the building is a paragon of bourgeois capitalism.

Hong Kong people should be proud, rather than afraid, of this building. Fortunately, this is already happening, to a degree. I recently saw Hong Kong secondary school teachers taking their young students there to ask denizens of Chungking Mansions such questions as “Where are you from?”, “What do you eat for breakfast/lunch/dinner in your country?” And I have observed non-governmental organisations taking Hong Kong Chinese on tours of the building and sharing meals with African and South Asian traders and asylum seekers. Hong Kong people may be gradually coming to understand the value of Chungking Mansions, as a place where the world’s ethnicities and nationalities can work together peacefully to try to make a better life for themselves. Chungking Mansions represents a site where globalisation really works. In a world full of bloody ethnic and religious struggles, the rest of us have much we can learn from it.

[Gordon Mathews is an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His book Ghetto at the Center of the World, now available in Hong Kong bookstores, discusses Chungking Mansions in a global perspective]

Beacon of Hope