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.
The trading mall in Chungking Mansions is an eclectic jumble of Asian and African restaurants, laundries, money-changers and Pakistani and Indian grocery stores.
Two different malls, a duty-free store and a camera shop are packed into the first three floors of Chungking Mansions. The new façade is part of an attempt by the building’s owners to pull away from its seedy reputation.
Despite its somewhat seedy reputation, Chungking Mansions is surrounded by some of the most valuable real estate in the world. Even the alleyways around the building full of businesses.
Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world. In the past, Chungking Mansions attracted such a range of people because of its cheap accommodation and low rents.
Stores in one of the malls in Chungking Mansions sell everything from Chinese-made African-style print fabrics to consumer electronics.
During Ramadan, a group of Muslim men break their fast with an Iftar meal behind Chungking Mansions.
Around 5000 people stay in Chungking Mansions every night, and another 10,000 people pass through the building every day.
Ann Chang, owner of a hardware store in an alleyway behind Chungking Mansions said that last year, her rent doubled from HK$15,000 to HK33, 000 (£2,700), mirroring a trend seen all over Hong Kong.
The building is home to dozens of wholesalers selling everything from Chinese-manufactured smart phones to basic, Pakistani-made mobiles, mostly to traders from Africa. Much of the merchandise passes through Hong Kong’s port, which is the third busiest in the world.
Darham Singh’s family owns several businesses in Chungking Mansions. Along with this Indian grocery store, they run a guesthouse and a shop that sells Chinese-made garments wholesale.
A stationary store in Chungking Mansions which has looked the same for over 40 years, according to its owner. The building is full of stores and restaurants frozen in a previous era, offering glimpses of a very different Hong Kong.
The 17-storey building is actually made up of 5 separate blocks sitting on a two-storey platform. The platform has been chopped into retail space, and the blocks above are a jumble of 100 hostels and guesthouses, restaurants, illegal cafes, clubhouses and apartments.