The Chungking Mansions are an infamous melting pot of seedy underground activities and vices nestled into one of Hong Kong’s busiest areas.
The sprawling building is composed of five residential towers built in 1961 in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. Aside from headquartering illicit prostitution rings and drug traders, the building’s labyrinthine structure and minimal upkeep have led to a reputation for the cheapest accommodations in Hong Kong, giving the twisting building a legendary status among fearless backpackers. While the 17-floor towers have nearly 2,000 guest-rooms housing nearly 4,000 people nightly, the “Chungking Express” mall on the first two floors remains the main attraction for passerby.
After undergoing a massive facelift in the early 2000s, the mall reopened in 2004 with more than 500 stores and restaurants. From curry restaurants to African bistros to black market phone smugglers, the ground floor is a non-stop carnival of shopping and scheming. Despite the recent overhaul of the mall, the building’s residential towers maintain their reputation as a dangerous fire trap due to unsanitary conditions, antique electrical wiring, and blocked stairwells.
Even with all of the activities that would rather not be in the spotlight, the building gained a foothold in popular culture via the 1994 drama film Chungking Express and has intrigued academics since the 2011 publication of the book, Ghetto at the Center of the World. Chinese University of Hong Kong anthropology professor Gordon Mathews published the book after spending more than 4 years in the Mansions documenting its residents and operations. Mathews estimated more than 120 different nationalities pass through the Mansions each year along with up to 20% of the active cell phones in sub-Saharan Africa having passed also through the building.
All of the academic and high-art representations aside, the most accurate description of the Chungking Mansions comes from The Economist’s 2011 analogy which equated the towering den of vice to the Mos Eisley Cantina, the fictional intergalactic pirate haunt from Star Wars. Apparently in space, people can hear you scheme.