Gordon Mathews – Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong


Many South Asians make their home in Chungking Mansions. It is a place, unlike the rest of Hong Kong, where they can work with their fellow country-men and not suffer discrimination for their non-Chinese ethnicity and lack of language ability.


In a broader sense, most people in Chungking Mansions engage in ethnic stereotyping. Africans, South Asians tell me, are of “low intelligence” and “naive.” South Asians, Africans tell me, “only scheme and think about business.” Pakistanis, Indians say, “always want to fight,” while Nigerians, East Africans say, are never to be trusted.

… …

Chungking Mansions interpersonal relations, if not always overtly friendly, are generally peaceful. People from more or less warring societies in the world over come to Chungking Mansions with competing needs. But they do not fight with each other, as they might in their home countries — or at least if they do occasionally quarrel, the quarrels are soon enough set aside in Chungking Mansions’ universal striving to make money.


All in all, for stores in Chungking Mansions, China is both the source of goods and a distinct threat. Chungking Mansions’ wholesalers represent nodes in between — most of what they sell is made in China and fans out across the globe. Chungking Mansions thus play the same role that Hong Kong itself has long played — it is an entrepot between China and the world.


One point to remember is that despite the occasional accounts of shade goings-on, most of this trade is largely legal. This is why these traders are so accessible. … …The popular imagination of Hong Kong, and perhaps in the Western world as a whole, is that these developing-world traders are surreptitious and in the shadows, but this is not generally the case in Chungking Mansions. Most are quite open about what they do and proud of what they do.


Chinese goods, according to these traders, however much disdained by some traders and customers, have an extraordinary impact. For all the shoddiness of many Chinese goods, they do bring to poor African societies a taste of the world beyond Africa. Even if this taste is copied, flawed, or used, it is nonetheless a real taste of the world beyond.


By and large, police in Chungking Mansions operate under the principle of laissez-faire neoliberalism: as long as the Hong Kong public is not harmed, let business go on inimpeded, since business is the foremost priority of Hong Kong. This attitude is what makes Chungking Mansions possible.


The cosmopolitanism of many Chungking Mansions residents is in distinct contrast to the lack of cosmopolitanism that they may sense among Hong Kong people. Ironically, Hong Kong people themselves have often complained in recent decades about having nowhere to belong to, of belonging neither to China nor to “the West” but being homeless. Few South Asians in Chungking Mansions recognize that they and Hong Kong Chinese at large may suffer from quite parallel senses of forced cosmopolitanism.


It is sometimes argued that we live in “an increasingly global economy in which capital, trade, and investment are mobile but people are held back within the confines of the territorial state.” … …However, Chungking Mansions attracts its traders and merchants from around the world exactly because in its low-end globalization, face-to-face relations are, for the most part, all that can be trusted.


Chungking Mansions represents not just a third-world enclave but a middle- and upper-class third-world enclave of people with money and education far beyond that of most of their fellow citizens at home. The peacefulness of Chungking Mansions not only comes from the ideology of neoliberalism but also from the fact that almost everyone in Chungking Mansions is a comparative success in life, by the very fact that they are in the building.


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