21st Century
The Future
World Travel
Books & Film
Original Fiction
Opinion & Lifestyle
Politics & Living
Film Space
Movies in depth
Kid's Books
Reviews & stories

The International Writers Magazine: Hong Kong in Chungking

Chungking Mansion
Tracey Doxey

One of the aspects of travelling and moving around is the element of pre-booking accommodation and modes of transport.  We have travelled the length and across the bottom of China entirely by train except for the bus from Chengdu to Lijiang, which seems a distant memory.

From Sheffield to Hong Kong, our chosen route has been about 25,000 km. Our accommodation choices for Hong Kong were limited due to price and we settled for Chungking Mansions. The reviews on the site were good and for the healthy cost of around £50 per night - this is cheap, we booked it not knowing anything about the place.

ChungKing Mansions (see pic) nestles in prime location on Nathan Road and it is exactly as the guide books and hostel pre arrival email warned.  On arrival, because we have so many bags, it’s obvious that we are going to stay inside and there is an immediate swarm of Indian men touting  their ‘quality hotel’. You have to actually physically push past them, then, when inside the building’s ground floor itself, there is a myriad of multi cultural nationalities, food stalls, money exchange units and a mixed up melting pot of things to buy form the small shop unites - so much so that the initial first impression leaves you breathless and without any real understanding of what you have got yourself into and where you are.
As we’d received a warning email from the hostel before arriving, about the touting offers,  we weren’t that surprised and refused all of the offers for accommodation.  They unnerved me a little anyways. 
We had to go to block C, at the back, lift 6 and up to  the 15th floor.  There were long queues for the lifts and each time the lift arrives, the same thing happens whereby it is crammed to busting and the door won’t shut. The lift sounds a little bell to tell all that it won’t leave until the overloading is sorted.  The lifts are small metal boxes which will take 10 people - this is vividly shown in full Technicolour on a CCTV monitor above the lift which always shows what is happening inside. When it’s our turn, we cram into the lift with a back pack and wheelie back each taking up room for 5. Our initiation into the building comes when 4 more people tried to squeeze in and loudly announced, “move your bags.”
“To where?” was my answer, so I was shown and the bag was physically oiked ridiculously under my body and the person squeezed into the space by the door only 10 inches wide.
This was our rudimentary welcome to Chungking.
We arrived on the 15th floor to a random small desk and an Afro-Caribbean guy asking my name and requesting 2500 HK dollars for the room. I wasn’t keen on handing money over to a man standing by a makeshift desk even though he had produced my email booking form from a pile from underneath a ledge. I asked him his name and if he was the receptionist who had emailed me but he wasn’t that person. He asked us to sign in the checking in sheet (makeshift word table document) and I did it. He kind of conned me by saying floor 7 was fully booked and we could have a new room on 15th - it was all new, so as we didn’t mind,  I said it didn’t matter. 
Every day I live and learn - NEVER  say it doesn’t matter because, actually, it always does.
Along the entirely tiled corridor, we  were given a room on the right hand side, no bigger than the interior of  a large square car with white tiles from floor to ceiling - very much like a prison cell.   When I saw the window and it was blank and white, I realised that it was decorative and gave us a view of the plaster that separated our room from the next . We were bang in the middle of the block with a view to nowhere. It had 2 beds in an L shape,  one with its head to the foot of the other and the tiny space in between for me and Chris to stand up next to each other and nothing more.  I seriously felt sick and claustrophobic and felt my soul leaving.  Chris showered in the shower room no bigger than a toilet with a shower head above but I wanted to run.  It felt and sounded as if I was on a ship. The room looked to nowhere and the extractor  fan (not air con) was blowing hard but there was no space to send the air  and it  buffeted around and created that ships chimney sound with a repeated low boom noise.
 I sat on the bed feeling  sea sick and noticed through our open door that the woman exiting her room  opposite to ours had REAL windows and that you could see the outside -  so I leapt up and  asked the man at the reception  if we could have one.  Chris couldn’t believe it, as he was exiting the shower, I exclaimed,  “we’re moving and how can you unpack so much in 5 minutes? “ whilst wildly trying to repack stuff to get out as quickly as possible, claustrophobia and a sense of doom building. 
Eventually, the ‘hotel’  moved us 3 floors down in the building to the ‘Lucky Hotel’. Lucky Hotel, is a 7 roomed 'hotel' that was once an apartment.  All of the hotels in ChungKing mansions have evolved from residential apartments.  We were greeted by the ever cheery, Henry, who manages the ‘hotel’ and we now have a room with two windows.  The room is still the same size as the first one  -  you can shower whilst sitting on the toilet, the entire level  below is being completely  renovated and ripped out with pneumatic drills and I can’t hear a thing over the noise but I don’t care and I feel happy because we have 2 windows and I can see the sky and we have a view.
There’s so much life happening here that it should be a very exciting four days. I just have to check out where the fire escape stairs are and then I’ll feel okay.

It’s Saturday morning, 9.48. The sun is shining onto and through our thin minty coloured curtains and sheds a long beam of light into the room. We’ve been here three days now and have our bearings in the City.  Our two single beds are pushed together by the window which faces the side of the building. Every morning, a pigeon visits me and sits on the extractor  box tilting its head to see inside our  space. Chris is lying flat on the bed with his ear drops in his left ear to fight the infection that has built up over the last three weeks, he has skindruff because  his entire back and shoulders are peeling from the sun burn - slivers of skin lie all over the place.  I’m playing Jose Gonzalez on the laptop and everything is good. I realise that I have relaxed into travelling. It’s taken three months. Chris body-wiggle-dances horizontally on the bed because he can’t move his head - a bit like my old  happy dog when she rolled on the floor with a wet ear from having a bath -  I couldn’t feel happier. As I watch and laugh, he says that he will look back when he is old and remember these as some of the happiest times of his life. I also realise that this moment is touching real and good because my grin is enormous and I am calm. I realise that we have travelled a really long distance and learnt many tiny life skills that have built up to this moment.  I don’t want to bother doing anything outside of this room in a hurry because everything is here and has built up to this one understanding in the moment.  What isn’t here, I know exists waiting outside, to be learnt or understood or seen.
What more could I want on this Saturday morning in Hong Kong?

Since moving into Chungking mansions, I’ve done a little research. Yes, back to front, I would agree but better late than never. 

Facts - taken from Wikipedia
The building was completed in 1961, at which time Chinese residents predominated. Now, after more than four decades of use, there are an estimated 4,000 people living in the Mansions.
Chungking Mansions is 17 stories tall and consists of 5 blocks, A, B, C, D, and E.
There are two elevators in each block, one of which serves even-numbered floors, the other one odd-numbered floors; there is often a queue for this lift.
The price of a flat in the Chungking Mansions ranged from HK$4,000,000 to HK$10,000,000 as of August 2007.
The mall was closed in 1998. In 2003, the first and second floors were acquired by a developer for approximately HK$200 million, and spent HK$50 million on renovations. Under the new building plan, the 50,000-square-foot second floor was divided into 360 small shops measuring 50 to 500 sq ft each and resold. The new 'Chungking Express' mall was relaunched at the end of 2004. Chungking Mansions contains the largest number of guesthouses in Hong Kong in one building, with 1980 rooms in total.
The age of the building, the diverse ownership, and management structure are the cause of the building's reputation for being a fire trap. The unsanitary conditions, security, ancient electrical wiring, block staircases contribute to the hazards.
Anthropologist Prof. Gordon Mathews revealed that there are people from at least 120 different nationalities who have passed through Chungking Mansions in the past year.
With this lively mix of guest workers, mainlanders, local Chinese, tourists and backpackers, the Chungking neighbourhood is one of the most culturally diverse locations in Hong Kong. Chungking Mansions was elected as the 'Best Example of Globalization in Action' by TIME Magazine in its annual feature The Best of Asia,  although racial tensions are known to boil over occasionally.
It is also known to be a centre of drugs, and a refuge for petty criminals, scammers, and illegal immigrants. For example, in a Police swoop in June 1995, about 1,750 people were questioned, 45 men and seven women from various Asian and African countries were arrested on suspicion of offences including failing to produce proof of identity, overstaying, using forged travel documents, possessing equipment for forging documents, and possessing dangerous drugs.  In 'Operation Sahara' in 1996, 52 men and seven women from 14 countries were arrested for violating immigration regulations.
The Chungking Mansions served as one of the filming locations for Wong Kar-wai's movie, Chungking Express.
One personal fact is that I will never do again is to go to see ‘copy handbags’ that are offered by the same indian men who offer accommodation at the front of Chungking. Patti wanted a channel 2.55 which I looked up on the internet and then was able to recognise. Believe me, they exist in these mansions but after my experience of going through the labrynth and up in a tiny lift with an unknown person leading the way to a double metal locked door room, it wasn't a comfortable experience and I won’t be doing it again.  

After my brief introduction to our initiation into Chungking Mansions, I’ll mention only one other place in HK that we have visited because it’s very different to any other place I’ve visited in China and is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighbourhood - it’s Tin Hua Temple

Image Joss Sticks in the Temple

After my brief introduction to our initiation into Chungking Mansions, I’ll mention only one other place in HK that we have visited because it’s very different to any other place I’ve visited in China and is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighbourhood - it’s Tin Hua Temple
A small temple hiding by Nathan Road and shrouded by high rises. There is a restful garden both at the front and back where there are ancient Banyan trees and men huddle underneath.  

The temple’s entrance is open to the sky in a courtyard shape and hung from all four ceilings of the quadrangle are many many coil incence sticks with huge tin bases. All of the coils are burning and the air is heavy with drifting ribbons of smoke and the scent. The entire temple is shored up with bamboo scaffolding.   A young couple move backwards and forwards from the alter carrying paper baskets full of folded hell money to burn for a dead ancestor. Their entry into the room where the offerings are burned, to the side of the main temple and on the right, is foretold by a man banging the bell and the drum which hang to the side of the door.

At the back to the left are cabinets full memories of the dead. They line the shelves in what appears to be marble tablets or red paper books. Each tablet or book has a photograph of the dead ancestor, some have very old HSBC red envelopes taped to them which I assume contain money for the afterlife. They all look beautiful, suspended in time both in their death and in living on the shelves. They all live quietly side by side with watchful eyes.
An old man sitting by the entrance seems irritated by me watching the couple carrying their offerings and he surprisingly turns the radio on, very loudly.  After the offerings are made to the ancestors, the man takes the fortune sticks in the drum, kneels on the centre cushion, prays and asks his personal question to the deity in front. On shaking the box, a bamboo stick will extend itself more than the others. The stick is the answer to the question asked and is taken to the fortune box - the number on the stick is found to correspond with a folded paper that will predict the answer to the question asked. 

I watch and wait, after he has finished and is leaving, I ask in Mandarin if he can speak English, he can and explains the act of the sticks.  He encourages me to have a go. I take it seriously and ask my question, a stick emerges, it is ‘wu shi  liu ‘- 56 and I go to the fortune box and am handed my prediction. My paper is transcribed by the man to a woman who translates it back to me in English. It goes something like this:  My life is already arranged for me.  If I feel sad or tired - don’t worry it will pass. There was nothing bad foretold for me.
© Tracey Doxey November 2008
See my blog:

More travel moments


© Hackwriters 1999-2008 all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibility - no liability accepted by or affiliates.