I was feeling frazzled when I stumbled off an evening flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong. I had come to spend a month in Chungking Mansions, a plan that had me apprehensive. People had told me it was a center for all sorts of risky business and my curiosity had prevailed over caution. But now I wondered how I would find my way through the labyrinthine hallways that I’d seen in the movie Chungking Express,and whether I would end up sharing my bed with hungry insects. I tried not to think of advice given to a friend before she stayed in that notorious spot: “Bring a gun.” She had moved to a hotel farther up Nathan Road only a few days after she had checked into a Chungking Mansion guesthouse.
Deciding I needed a little pampering before I faced my destination, I swerved away from the Airport Express signs and headed off in search of a taxi queue. I’d changed a substantial sum of money to Hong Kong dollars before I’d boarded the plane; it would be an expensive indulgence but I would be living the Spartan life soon enough. I deserved that taxi, I told myself.
I wasn’t a neophyte traveler. I’d gone alone to cities in Southeast Asia and China, and had always been successful in finding my way from airports to my destination. So it was with no trepidation that I joined a crowd of travelers heading down an exit hallway that I was certain would lead me to a taxi stand. When a shabbily dressed man approached me and asked me if I wanted a taxi, I was more than happy to hand over my suitcase and follow in his wake. Just like Bangkok, I thought, taxi queues are for chumps.
The man led me across a parking lot to a large van. In Thailand this is a common form of public transit and although I’d looked forward to the privacy of a taxi, at least the additional passengers who would ride with me would help defray the cost of the fare. I climbed in, the man tossed my suitcase on the floor beside me, and then slid the door shut. I was the only person in the vehicle aside from the man in the driver’s seat. As the door clicked into place, he started the engine.
“How much?” That this was a question I should have asked several minutes earlier was a fact that struck me with full force. There was no reply, and the driver pulled onto the open road without picking up any other fares.
I began to feel incredibly stupid, How many times had I read about naïve tourists being taken for a ride in New York City, one that ended in a demand that approximated a small fortune? But I was in Asia, I consoled myself, not Manhattan. The most I’d ever been overcharged in Bangkok was twenty dollars—Hong Kong, of course, would be more expensive, but certainly not up to New York standards.
I made myself relax and began to enjoy the lights of the approaching city that gleamed on the dark water. The driver broke into polite, pleasant taxi conversation and I responded with a sense of relief.
He proudly identified the neon extravaganza that was Nathan Road and waved at a building that we passed, “That’s Chungking Mansions,” he told me. “Stop here, please,” I said. He kept going.
We pulled into a dimly lit, empty street and parked near an ATM. The driver pulled out a laminated card with rates printed on it; this much for a passenger, so much for a bag, another sum for the privilege of using a highway tunnel, and the final amount being the fare to Kowloon. When the numbers were added up, the sum was substantial and I tried a feeble attempt at bargaining. He laughed.
“That is the rate. If you don’t have enough, we can use the ATM.”
He was no longer smiling and neither was I. The phone I had played with at the beginning of our journey, hoping he thought I was texting a local contact, was useless. I hadn’t yet bought a SIM card for Hong Kong. I opened my bag and pulled out my Hong Kong dollars.
The fare he demanded wasn’t quite as much as the money I had with me, but it was about $200 US dollars. As pleasantly as I could, I asked, “May I have one of your business cards?”
“Why? You want to use me again?” He smiled as he handed me a card with a name and number that I was certain would be useless.
And of course it was. When the Nepalese tout who greeted me at the entrance of Chungking Mansions looked horrified at the amount of money I had lost and tried to call the printed phone number, it didn’t exist. “What did the man look like?” When I gave him a description, he said, “He’s done that before to many people; they paid him more money than you did because they didn’t know. Here, give me your phone.”
He led me to a place where I could buy a Hong Kong SIM card and then put his number into my contact list. “Call me if anybody gives you any more trouble,” he said. He took me to a guesthouse where I was given a clean bed in a quiet room and suddenly Chungking Mansions felt like a place where I would be comfortable and safe—just so long as I took public transportation to get there from now on.
For years after that, I stayed in Chungking Mansions when I was in Hong Kong, always for a month at a time, and the only thing that ever made me frightened during my visits was the possibility of a fire. The wiring was often visible, tangled in terrifying clumps above the entrances to guesthouses, and kitchen carts filled with cooked food came from the upper floors to the ground floor food stalls every morning. Although I loved the smell of curry and freshly baked naan that drifted into my room at night, the thought of propane tanks and open flame being used somewhere close to my bed did nothing to make my sleep tranquil. I never stayed higher than the ninth floor and had my escape route down the staircase timed to the second.
It was the ugliest spot I had ever spent time in. The windows I insisted on having gave me a view of grey, mildewed concrete walls, windowsills strewn with garbage that was eaten by pigeons, and clothing suspended from air conditioners, drying in air that smelled like wet mops. The stairway was blotched with the red stains of spit from betel chewers and the windows on the landings often sported tiny holes that looked as though they had been made by bullets. The food gave me Delhi Belly if I ate it for more than two days in a row. My rooms were always clean with walls of immaculate white tile, but were so small that I took my morning shower only after putting towels under the bathroom threshold to keep rivulets of bathwater from trickling under my bed.
But there was an honest sense of community in Chungking Mansions that appealed to me. Many of the people who worked there lived in the place and at that time, most of the people who stayed there were repeat visitors from third-world countries who had come as traders, business people. They left pushing carts stacked high with bags and boxes that had been swaddled in duct tape, on their way home to Africa and the Subcontinent. When they returned to Chungking Mansions, they were greeted as friends and surrounded by colleagues as soon as they came in from the street. They would stay in the same guesthouses they had used for years, chatting in the reception area with people from other countries, all of them using English as their common language. The long lines standing in wait for the building’s elevators were convivial spots and at night the hallways on the ground floor were boulevards where passing men clasped hands in greeting and stopped to form small clusters of conversation.
High stacks of brightly printed fabric from African countries gave welcome splashes of color to shops that sold bolts of cheap Chinese cloth, glass cases filled with Indian pastries gleamed like displays at Tiffany’s, and on the floor above, shops sold Bollywood videos, packaged temple offerings, sticks of kohl, and wizened vegetables. Bob Marley’s face stared into the stream of passersby from a stall that sold hip-hop clothes and at the end of a corridor that led from the building to Nathan Road, an old man had racks of paperback books attached to the wall, along with postcards and an impressive collection of skin magazines. At the end of the corridor was a newsstand where the proprietor usually was in the company of a cat. Behind him were stacked cages, each holding a feline; I never found out why.
It was a self-sufficient urban village where I could find laundries, meals that had flavor, drinking water, newspapers, phone cards, toilet paper, and a stunning collection of cosmetics and shampoo in the adjoining building that paid homage to Wong Kar-Wai’s classic film by calling itself Chungking Express. If I had been able to wait until eleven o’clock, I could have had tiny cups of dark, lethally strong coffee at a Turkish food stall. And I could do all of this in English. I could have spent my entire Hong Kong visit without ever leaving this place if it hadn’t been so dark and crowded. As it was, I had to go out all day, every day to keep from going stir-crazy and even then my claustrophobia set in after the first month.
Hong Kong is a city where every need can be filled, but this is difficult for people like me who come with a small supply of cash and don’t know the territory or the language. Local friends would lead me to a small counter in a busy shopping mall where they conducted a transaction in Chinese for whatever I happened to need at the moment. I soon learned that I could do that on my own at a small counter, but in English, in Chungking Mansions.
No matter where I stayed, whether it was halfway up a hillside in the New Territories, in a Shenzhen hotel room, or an Airbnb apartment in North Point, I ended up on the ground floor of my first home in Hong Kong. It was where I bought my SIM cards, exchanged currency, had luggage repaired, and in a pinch, could always find a place to sleep. But each time I returned, I found a different place.
Nathan Road had been discovered by tourists from the mainland, who came with their wheeled suitcases that they filled with everything from instant noodles to finery from Chanel. They clogged the aisles of the international supermarket that was across the street from Chungking Mansions, heaping their grocery carts with cans of baby formula, boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and packages of disposable diapers. They stood in line at Cartier and filled the seats of every Starbucks for miles around. And because, like me, they saw no reason to spend a fortune for a place to sleep, their headquarters became Chungking Mansions.
Although the rooms were still cheap by Hong Kong standards, guesthouse prices were soon jacked up to meet the growing demand. Rumor had it that one place had rooms that commanded a nightly rate of 200 U.S dollars. One night, on a weekend, when I came looking for a room after ten o’clock, I ended up paying 100 U.S. for a room that in the past would have topped out at under 50, even during Chinese New Year when prices reached the stratosphere.
Food stalls began to disappear on the ground floor, replaced by rows upon rows of currency exchanges, all proclaiming their rate for RMB, and shops that sold luggage on wheels. The hip-hop clothing store was gone, relegated to a higher floor, and the fabric shops had been condensed to single counters in shops that sold cheap phones and SIM cards. The hallways were thronged with Chinese travelers; the clusters of men who had spent hours in deep conversation were no longer in evidence. In the corridor where there had been books and cats now there were neither. The old man who had once sold me a copy of The Help when I was desperate for something to read now had wheeled suitcases lined up against the wall. “Business is different,” he said.
“Yes, so much change,” the man who sold me a SIM card on a recent visit agreed with a tinge of bitterness to his tone. The guesthouse where I had always stayed had empty chairs in the reception area, chairs that in years past always had held people who were busily packing merchandise into cartons and black garbage bags.
To reach the guesthouse, I stood waiting for the elevator in the company of only one other person, a Nigerian who chatted with me in English accented with French. Suddenly we were joined by two others, men with Subcontinental origins who stepped in front of us, close to the elevator doors.
“What kind of people are you, to step in front of a lady,” the Nigerian snapped at them, “We were here first and you push ahead like that. Who do you think you are?”
“Calm down,” he was told, “there are only four of us here. No one is being pushed out; we’ll all get in the elevator. No problem.”
“But you are so impolite. Do you think you’re better than this lady--or me?”
“It’s okay,” one of the men said quietly, “Be cool. Chungking Mansions is for business, not for fighting.”
As we all stepped into the elevator without bloodshed, I knew the code of this community was still in place and just for a moment, once again I felt at home.