on 28 October 2011
Gordon Matthews does a fine job in telling us everything there is to know about a building hardly anyone in Hong Kong knows a lot about. I have been to Chungking Mansions a number of times but mostly for a nice Indian meal. I would never dream of staying there or purchasing any of the items on display.
The author examines all possible aspects of Chungking Mansions starting off with the history of the building - maybe complex is a better word - and who owns it and how it is run.
Chapter Two talks about the people who use Chungking Mansions and it is incredible what a variety of people use Chungking Mansions. I was amazed to find that it is such a popular place with Africans and South Asians. Also up until I read this book it didn't know that it was possible to be an asylum seeker in Hong Kong.
Chapter Three deals with the variety of goods passing through Chungking Mansions and here again I was amazed at the variety of goods and the techniques used. The Gold smuggling operation made me smile because I didn't think anyone would volunteer to do it this way.
Chapter Four describes how the Authorities and the Hong Kong Police deal with the illegal activities in Chungking Mansions.
Chapter Five deals with the future of Chungking Mansions and even the author agrees that the Mansions will eventually have to be torn down. As of now the Mansions are 50-odd years old and by far the oldest building in that part of Hong Kong. And even though it is the most decrepit building in this area every time I go there it strikes me as the most globalised spot on earth or as the author puts it an "exotic third world in a safe first-world city" I would rather be sorry to see it go.
About the only complaint I have is that the writing style is a bit dry at times, but this may well be the result of the anthropological nature of the author's full-time profession. Else as I said before, this is an excellent study on all aspects and life in Chungking Mansions.
on 1 February 2012
I found this thoroughly enjoyable and interesting. Gordon Matthews convinces us that the famous (and sometimes, unfairly, notorious) Chungking Mansions is indeed one of the most important and revealing buildings in the world. His style of writing is warm and personable, and he makes for a very pleasant companion as he leads us through the ramshackle malls and corridors of a unique high-rise complex, and introduces us to the remarkable lives of the people who live and trade there. He represents the people he studies with unfailing sensitivity and respect (including those marginalised by drug addiction or the sex industry).
It's also a lively account of the pleasures, and occasional risks and ethical dilemmas of committed ethnography. No doubt as inspiring for students of anthropology - as it was for me, as a tourist with an amateur's interest in Hong Kong, it's academically rigorous, and a perfectly engaging holiday read.
What particularly struck me in Matthews' accounts of the interactions of the small-scale traders, in what he calls `low-end globalization', ie. the suitcase entrepreneurs who travel huge distances from every continent on often tiny margins of profit and loss, is the importance of everyday friendliness and informal trust. Certainly he refers to racial and cultural conflicts, but one has a vivid sense that the success of so many deals of this kind relies on the readiness of traders, often from entirely different cultural backgrounds, to befriend each other over a cheap curry and a cup of tea for the purposes of a shared modest profit. One even hopes that the cold-hearted masters of large-scale multi-national capitalism might learn from this.
on 30 May 2012
This is a book for people who has actually been to, or are planning to pay a visit to ChungKing Mansions or those who are generally interested in micro towns. Fascinating on how a building has somehow managed to turn itself into an important trading hub for those passing through from many foreign countries, and houses so many people from different aspects of life - Chinese guesthouse workers, travellers passing through, africans trading goods, pakistanis selling mobile phones, drug dealers, asylum seekers... Baring in mind this mix of backgrounds the place doesn't really have a seedy feel one might think. When I visited the 17 storey building first hand in 2011 I didn't feel any less scared or vulnerable than walking in London. We even saw some monks who resided in ChungKing's residence because it is the cheapest accommodation around that district; a district completely surrounded in 5star hotels and designer brands. Reading this book definitely gave me a different outlook when visiting ChungKing Mansions, to me it wasn't a place crammed with criminals but an important trading hub and employment resource from fraught souls trying to earn money to send home to their families.