Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions: “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore”

HONG KONG —Just a five-minute walk from the five-star Peninsula Hotel where we’re staying sits the one-star Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road—well-known as one of the cheapest accommodations in Hong Kong, among other things.

I’d long been wanting to check it out. It was featured in Wong Kar-wai’s well-regarded 1994 film Chungking Express, and in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown about Hong Kong that intrigued me.

This place met our expectations as a one-of-a-kind experience — a bazaar, food court, guest quarters and foreign exchange office (among other features), all wrapped into one.

It was anything but homogenous Asian culture (which was more evident on a previous visit to Tokyo, even Shanghai). People from all over the world, and all walks of life, were milling about.  And it was mysterious, including some of the food in the stalls, which looked like “mystery meat,” despite some favorable reviews. As Dorothy would put it: “Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

“A gathering place for traders, small-time entrepreneurs, travelers looking for cheap accommodations, and migrants from around the world, it has gained a reputation as a seedy enclave, where dodgy underground transactions are conducted in dark corners,” said Bourdain (now deceased) in a May 2018 episode about Hong Kong.

“But for many of its occupants, Chungking Mansions is a place of opportunity. Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have come here, finding cheap rents and opening businesses—restaurants, DVD shops, and trading companies among them—and have built new lives and communities there.”

Added the South China Morning Post; “To Time magazine, it’s ‘Asia’s best example of globalisation in action.’ Chungking Mansions in Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, is a warren of shops, cheap guesthouses and places to eat spread across five blocks. A popular destination for visitors on a budget, the mansions famously featured in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express.” A special report in the newspaper is here.

The 17-story building in Kowloon, built in 1961, epitomizes the “melting pot” of Hong Kong, a mix of old and new, along with being a gathering place for the city’s ethnic minorities, including South Asians, Middle Eastern people, Nigerians, Europeans, Americans and others.

Chungking Mansions has a resident population of about 4000 and an estimated 10,000 daily visitors. More than 120 different nationalities – predominantly South Asian and African – pass through its doors in a single year.

A standard single room goes for as little as 300HK or about $38.  According to Lonely Planet, “Though standards vary significantly, most of the guesthouses at CKM are clean and quite comfortable. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that rooms are usually the size of cupboards and you have to shower right next to the toilet. The rooms typically come with air-con and TV and, sometimes, a window. Virtually all have wi-fi and some even offer daily housekeeping and luxuries like toothbrushes!”

Another review — “the smallest room I’ve ever stayed in” — is here. The conclusion: “For me personally, I doubt I would stay again. My decision has more to do with the size of the rooms rather than feeling unsafe.”

(A notice on Chungking Mansions’ website offers this warning: “We remind visitors before choosing please confirm the guesthouse has obtained the Government License for legal purposes. In addition, we provide services supervision on our members and we recommend visitors to choose our members.”)

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose works include Chungking Express,  shares his thoughts on Chungking Mansions here. He concludes: “As a filmmaker, this is a metaphor for our differences, which are united in a space. This is why I love this place, because to me film is about location.”