11 June 2010

In the Mansions

In the Chungking Mansions, everyone's a foreigner, even the locals. Chinese and Europeans feel equally on foreign turf in the Chungkings. Since most of the shops and restaurants are owned and operated by Indians and Pakistanis, it might seem like they are the only non-foreigners in the Mansions. But by treating them like second-class citizens in someone else’s country, the HK police make sure the South Asians feel like foreigners as well.

The Mansions have long been home to the other type of globalization, the kind you don’t see on TV, the kind corporations are largely uninvolved in, the kind that involves individuals traveling long distances to engage in highly personalized relationships based on interpersonal trust.

I love the Chungking Mansions. I love the delicious, cheap Indian and Halal food. I love the people who stop trying to sell me a copy watch as soon as I cross the threshold into the building. When I need to get something done, cheap, easily and in English, I go to the Chungkings. Want to get your phone unlocked? If you’re Chinese, maybe you go to MK or Sham Shui Po. If you’re not, that shit is gonna pose some serious cultural challenges, so life will be easier if you just head to the Mansions. Because everyone’s a foreigner, it’s just much easier for a foreigner like myself to figure out how things work in the Mansions than in the Village outside. MK is interesting and fun, but MK is confusing. The Mansions make sense. I get it. It’s nice to not be so confused all the time. Like the US where I came from, the Mansions are designed for foreigners, and that means that a large body of cultural knowledge isn't needed to navigate them.

Because many of the transactions in the Mansions are done in English, I’m able to understand a much higher percentage of what goes on in the Mansions than elsewhere in the Village. Here’s my basic interpretation of how the economic game goes down: dude comes from Nigeria, Kenya, India, Pakistan or some other poor country that was once part of the British Empire. He gets a room in one of the guesthouses on the upper floors. He gets some cheap cheap tasty sustinence from one of the restaurants on the first or second floor, then he walks to a cell phone shop somewhere very near where he just ate. He negotiates price. He then moves on to another shop and attempts to play one shopkeeper off of the other, trying to get the best deal he can. He chooses the best deal, and then he buys some cheap empty suitcases and fills them up with as many phones as the airline's baggage rules will let him carry. He then gets on a flight back to wherever he came from, and sells the phones. This might seem like a minor economic transaction, until you consider the number of times this transaction repeats itself throughout the year. It's a large number, large enough that the Financial Times wrote an article last year about the Mansions, calling them "the place where Africa goes to buy its mobile phones."

This other type of globalization is primarily made possible by HK's Indian and Pakistani community. The British first brought Indians to HK as a means of controlling the local Chinese population. It was known at the time that Chinese people fear people with dark skin, so the British figured that Indians would make good security guards. (This was also just a continuation of long-established British colonial policy of playing one colonized ethnic group off of another, first perfected with their use of the Scots in Ireland and then repeated all over the Empire.) So Indians have been here a long time. As a result, many of them speak Cantonese and English as well as Hindi, Urdu, Tamil or some other South Asian language. These language and cultural skills allow them to build personal relationships with Cantonese cell phone manufacturers in South China, used cell phone traders in HK, as well as Indian and African traders.

Unfortunately, some of this fear of dark-skinned people persists in the modern Village, and on the planet. Walking around the Mansions, you see some nervous Europeans with their backpacks on their front, and you see the occasional Chinese woman looking terrified because some dark-skinned guy ogled her the same way 100 Chinese guys and 5 gweilo just ogled her on the MTR ride across the harbor. When I've told local Hongkies that I stayed in the Mansions, many of them are shocked, because they think it's so dangerous. But this is all non-sense. The dudes in the Mansions are businessmen, and they're on a business trip. They're foreigners, and the cops watch them relentlessly. These are not dangerous people. They are dark skinned, and they are not rich, but those two things don't make them dangerous. Contrary to local legend, the Mansions are not full of crime (unless you count fake iPhones). So if you haven't been to the Mansions, check them out, if only for the amazing samosas.


  1. Hands down, best (and cheapest) samosas I've ever had. I can't wait to get some in a few weeks.

    And based on personal experience, the frequency of the ogling inside the Mansion is not any different from what it is outside of it.

  2. Sounds awesome... I've lived in HK for 9 years, but have never set foot in the Mansions before. Gotta head there next time I visit HK.

    Oh, and on an unrelated note, ChungKing Express in an awesome movie!

  3. Anon,

    Yes! ChungKing Express was a really good one!


  4. Wesley,

    By the way, what are those serious cultural challenges you usually face in MK and Sham Shiu Po? And what is so confusing about MK?



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