If you’re in Hong Kong and you need a cheap room for the night, 300 counterfeit Samsung phones, someone who can speak Swahili, or a curry, you go to Chungking Mansions.

It’s a labyrinth: 17 storeys, five different structures and two malls, crammed full of people from every corner of the world – 10,000 of them passing through every day – who flock to Chungking Mansions in search of a deal, an adventure or a fortune.

For the Pakistani mobile phone dealers who made a mint buying used mobile phones in the US and selling them in Kinshasa, it’s a shop with a constant stream of customers from all over Africa. For the Hong Kong woman who started out hawking phone cards on the street outside, and built one of the biggest businesses in the building, it’s a symbol of achievement.

It’s a place to broker deals for the Somali businessman who specialises in splicing different products together, manufacturing in China and selling in Africa’s biggest markets. The combination solar-powered lamp and mobile phone charger? That was him. His new money spinner is abalone: fished off the coast of Mogadishu where nobody eats it, and sold in Hong Kong and Seoul where it’s a delicacy.

To Ann Chang, who owns a hardware store in a back alley, the building is the best location in Hong Kong, right under almost 100 decrepit hostels in desperate need of plungers and locks. It’s an empire for the tight-knit Indian family who own a string of grocery stores, guesthouses and trading companies, all in Chungking Mansions. For the family from Afghanistan who had to leave because making a living meant defying the Taliban, it’s a refuge.

But for its 900 owners, Chungking Mansions is a goldmine: prime Hong Kong real estate on a street choked with tourists, steps from the laser light show of Victoria Harbour, the US$500-a-night Peninsula Hotel and the Louis Vuitton store that always has a queue outside. They’re renovating the building, hiking rents and planning a future that may not include the people from every corner of the world who arrive with almost nothing, intending to leave with a fortune.

Yepoka Yeebo