Chungking Mansions, a drab monolithic concrete box along Nathan Road in Hong Kong is a haven for illegal immigrants and drug dealers.
I only found this out when I was in relative safety back in Manila but perhaps the gang of South Asians glad handing each other in the lobby in between offering cheap suits, watches, and drugs to passersby should have been a warning sign.
Maybe the white guy passed out on the pavement like a veteran home from Khesanh or Basra or a thousand other hellish places that lead a man to seek oblivion should have rung some warning bells.
The fistfight that almost erupted between an African trader and a Chinese man in the impossibly narrow elevator really should have clued me in. But my girlfriend and I were young cash-strapped Filipinos with one mission and one day to do it: Let’s get gritty.
There was no better place to do that from than the melting pot for Hong Kong’s underclass. In 2007, Time estimated that around 4,000 people lived in Chungking Mansions, with 10,000 more doing business in the guest houses, curry stalls, money exchange booths, and drug dens spread throughout the building’s 17 floors every day.
Our home was Chungking House, a backpackers’ hostel. For HK$200 (an additional HK$10 gets you unlimited Internet access), our two-bed room with a private shower was spartan. Two beds and free blankets that we dared not use, a TV showing five Chinese channels, a Pakistani one, and BBC.
There was a basic unheated shower and the drain on the sink was clogged with toothpaste caps left behind by previous guests. The smell of char siu pork and curry from an entire floor of curry shops and food stalls downstairs wafted in through the window as both advertisement and air freshener.
There was a common dining area in the lobby, just a dining table and plastic chairs. There is no room service and you are likely to get knifed for even suggesting that the manager owes you anything more than a clean room and his silence.
With just two elevators to service 17 floors (and a cast of thousands), getting out of Chungking Mansions means either waiting for an elevator that isn’t full or walking down four flights of dimly-lit stairs decorated with Cantonese graffiti and the dust of the ages.
Once at street level, you duck out through a side door that opens into an alley. “Kuya, bili ka na (Brother, buy something),” a Filipina selling trinkets and souvenirs along the alley. She does this half-heartedly. Anyone cheap enough to stay at Chungking Mansions probably has no money to splurge on refrigerator magnets of the Star Ferry.
For backpackers, Chungking Mansions is a perfect home base. Cheap and with access to the crowds on Nathan Road, it’s easier to plug in to the main line and see beyond the Symphony of Lights, the Avenue of the Stars, and the shopping. Hauling shopping bags up to your room is a risky proposition at best, anyway.
Tourist traps like the market on Jordan street and the Ladies’ Market are within walking distance but as with any journey, it’s the trip and not the destination. Along the way are noodle shops, pharmacies, and holes-in-the-wall not on the tourist maps given away at Hong Kong International.
Off the tourist grid, you learn things that matter. That plastic bags in Hong Kong are biodegradable and start doing so the moment you put things inside. Your typical plastic bag self destructs within 30 minutes. Or that HK$30 is the invisible line between good food and poison. We had a lovely dinner of roast duck and Tsingtao beer at a road side eatery for HK$80 along Jordan. In Tung Choi, we paid HK$29 for a serving of instant noodles with chunks of meat and the runs.
You learn that members of the Hong Kong Police Force are rude when you ask them for directions while they are in pursuit of a petty criminal. They will come back, however, to direct you to the nearest pay toilet once the chase is over.
And, really, isn’t that what travel is about? Sometimes we get so caught up in looking for the best department stores and collecting enough souvenirs for people back home that we forget that just beyond Heritage 1881 with its Tiffany’s and Ermenegildo Zegna and English high tea is a city full of people and places just as part of the Hong Kong experience. We get caught up with buying mementos that we forget about the moments they are supposed to represent.
Although staying at a budget bed space isn’t an option for everyone, anybody who travels could use getting gritty every now and then as a respite from the meetings, convention centers, and full-service hotel rooms.
We spent Halloween in front of Chunking Mansions, walking around and watching Hong Kongers and tourists straggling in from pricier and cleaner parties in Wan Chai and Lan Kwai Fong across Victoria Harbor.
From within the throng of plastic devil horns and superhero suits, a man in a gorilla mask asked us how to get to a party on Hanoi street—a small side street off Nathan—and we pointed him in the general direction. He would find it or find something else just as interesting. The gritty always do.
(A shorter version of this piece was published in the July 2010 issue of China Business Philippines)