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The spice of Hong Kong: Chungking Mansions

Originally published: Nov 2016

Re-published and edited: July 2020

Chungking Mansion...these words will get you radically opposing reactions depending on which Hongkonger you speak to. Chungking Mansions- the iconic building in Tsim Sha Tsui is either a place to avoid, Filthy and busy or a fascinating exotic place with lots of delicious things to eat. The reality is that it is all those things and more at once.

The sprawling building is composed of five residential towers built in 1961 in TST, Hong Kong. It is located on the busy thoroughfare Nathan Road, not far from a number of exits from Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station and across the road from the towering iSQUARE mall.

Aside from headquartering illicit prostitution rings and drug traders, the building’s maze like structure and minimal upkeep have led to a reputation for being some of the cheapest accommodation in Hong Kong achieving legendary status among fearless backpackers.

While the 17-floor towers have nearly 2,000 guest-rooms housing nearly 4,000 people nightly, the “Chungking Express” mall on the first two floors remains the main attraction for passerby offering what many guarantee, the cheap accommodation in town.

A typical private room within one of the guesthouses in the mansion

After undergoing a massive facelift in the early 2000s, the mall reopened in 2004 with more than 500 stores and restaurants. From curry restaurants to African bistros to black market phone smugglers, the ground floor is a non-stop hive of shopping and scheming. Despite the recent overhaul of the mall, the building’s residential towers maintain their reputation as a dangerous fire trap due to unsanitary conditions, antique electrical wiring, and blocked stairwells.

Even with all of the activities that would rather not be in the spotlight, the building gained a foothold in popular culture via the 1994 drama film Chungking Express and has intrigued academics since the 2011 publication of the book, Ghetto at the Center of the World.

A scene from Chungking Express (1994) Faye Wong & Takeshi Kaneshiro

Chinese University of Hong Kong anthropology professor Gordon Mathews published the book after spending more than 4 years in the Mansions documenting its residents and operations. Mathews estimated more than 120 different nationalities pass through the Mansions each year along with up to 20% of the active cell phones in sub-Saharan Africa having passed also through the building.

However this could actually be an exemplary demonstration as to how globalization unfolds for the most of us normal folk, housing over 4500 people and north of 350 small businesses in its 100 square meter frame the mansions encompass a very unique architecture, history and significance, from its interesting underbelly to its significance as an institution for multiculturalism.

Finally but most importantly, Chungking Mansions’ contains some of the best and closest to authentic international cuisine found in Hong Kong. CNN’s Parts Unknown, hosted by the late Anthony Bourdain, was effusive in praising its food culture, as are some local foodies.

The standout is Sher-E-Punjab (Shop 102, 1/F, Block B; +852 2312 0366), a Nepalese and Indian restaurant that’s open till midnight and is known for its sizeable portions. Other popular options include The Delhi Club (Room 3, 3/F, Block C; +852 2368 1682), Khyber Pass Mess Club (Flat E2, 7/F, Block E; +852 2721 2786) and Turkish kebab house Bismillah (Shop 75, 1/F; +852 2722 5733). Chungking Mansions also has some of the best halal food in Hong Kong, including Syed Bukhara for Malaysian dishes like nasi lemak with egg and fried anchovies (Shop 15-16, G/F; +852 5635 2723).

If you love discovering the international culture of Hong Kong, Cheungking Mansions is definitely worth a visit!

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