IT stands at the lower end of Nathan Road, a stone's throw from the
luxury and splendour of the Peninsula Hotel.
During the daylight hours it does not look too obtrusive amid the
frantic bustle of Tsim Sha Tsui. But when darkness falls, Chungking
Mansions takes on a faint but unmistakable atmosphere of menace.
The steps and doorway that are often quiet during the day are thronged
by a seething mass of humanity from a dozen different nations.
Nigerians and other Africans sit side by side with Indians and Chinese
as tourists and shoppers pass by.
Anyone entering the green-painted portals of the building is suddenly
engulfed by a pushing, shouting crowd of youngsters from the Indian
sub-continent, all trying to thrust forward cards advertising the
culinary delights of a dozen different restaurants and exotic curry
Visitors who are sufficiently determined to thrust their way past this
distraction find themselves in an echoey corridor where men hang
around in groups, and queues stretch outside the rickety-looking
lifts. Giant fans rotate above, slicing the hot and fetid air.
Venturing further forward, the visitor finds him or herself in an
extraordinary emporium of shops and stalls that hums and throbs in a
busy atmosphere. More than one observer has described the view as
looking like a scene from Blade Runner, the cult 1982 science-fiction
film directed by Ridley Scott.
Here one can buy anything from fruit, vegetables and takeaway food to
fabrics, traditional Chinese clothes and exquisite watercolour
Side corridors lead off to wet and stinking alleyways outside the
building, where cats prowl amid rubbish bins filled to bursting with
refuse. The more squeamish might feel inclined to pinch their nose to
avoid the smell.
Returning inside, the curious visitor can either take the lift or, if
bold, climb the stairways to the upstairs floors. Chungking Mansions
is divided into tower blocks, all served by lifts or stairs.
The upper floors are given over to a bewildering rabbit warren of
guest houses, small, businesses, workshops and stores, many of which
are still active at night, turning out legitimate goods or fake
products and imitations of luxury brands.
Chungking Mansions seems to exist in a time warp, a reminder of bygone
days. Yet, almost unbelievably, when it was built in the early 1960s,
it was intended to be a development of luxury flats and apartments.
When it failed to take off, the building abruptly went downhill,
turning into a complex of guest houses and small businesses.
In many cases, no one is really sure who owns the lease to which
property, making it almost impossible to determine who is now
responsible for its upkeep. It is no surprise that crime and illegal
practices flourish in some parts of the complex.
Naturally, the whole building is one gigantic firetrap. It is such a
mind-boggling network of corridors, stairways, grilles, passages and
exposed pipes and wires that it would come as no surprise to see much
of it go up in a massive conflagration beside which other fires in
Hong Kong, such as the 1996 blaze in Jordan's Garley Building which
killed 40 people, would pale in comparison.
Yet Chungking Mansions has its surprises.
Those who can bear the smelly stairways and lifts without losing their
appetite can find in the mass of Indian, Nepalese and Pakistani
eateries and "messes" some of the finest curries and other foods
from the Indian sub-continent that they will ever taste.
Accommodation in the numerous guests houses, while scarcely luxurious,
is often reasonably-priced for the budget travel backpacker who has
just arrived in the territory after weeks spent exploring the jungles
and temples of South-East Asia.
Indeed, many a traveller whose first experience of Hong Kong was a
Chungking Mansions guest house, has stayed on in the territory for
years, often making their fortune in the process.
The familiar image of the almost-penniless new arrival who makes good
in this city of opportunity still holds true today!
If Chungking Mansions ever disappears under a redevelopment scheme,
Hong Kong will have lost another priceless piece of its heritage.
Of course, it is no bad thing to see the eradication of centres of
criminal activity and other low life.
But to see an entire institution vanish would be yet another blow for
a city that has suffered the loss of much of its familiar past.
If the building itself is demolished, hopefully many of those
energetic and entrepreneurial restaurant owners and business owners
can be persuaded to stay in a new building a safer, cleaner
environment but one which preserves at least an echo of a classic
piece of bygone Hong Kong.
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