Chungking Mansions

Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong KongGhetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Mathews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A group of Hong Kongers enter the Chungking Mansions, in search of “real curry” perhaps.

They huddle closely together, unused to being the minority. Some of them stare openly at all the foreign faces, none of which are white. Others carefully avoid eye contact, especially the girls, unused to such open scrutiny. Unconsciously, they clutch their purses closer, not knowing that travelers from various corners of the world freely leave thousands of dollars on counters while they carefully count out the payment for, say, a shipment of copy mobile phones.

The Hong Kongers weave their way through narrow corridors lined by tiny shops, mostly catering to Africans and South Asians, and worry about the dangling wires overhead. They find the staircase near the back of the building, clear of junk which may have once been constituted as fire hazards. On the second floor, they find the Indian restaurant their friends told them of. They relax a little once they enter that small quiet world which was outfitted for the comfort of Hong Kong costumers. They are served by a quiet Indian girl who speaks beautiful English. Her relative, perhaps a husband, brother, or cousin, occasionally comes of the kitchen to stare at the TV, which was broadcasting the muted tones and bright colors of a comedic love story on the Indian subcontinent.

The curry was superb, the Hong Kongers all agree, definitely much better than the stuff they were served in Hong Kong restaurants. Of course, they do not know that the cook greatly altered his recipes to please the mild palates of Hong Kong Chinese.

They pay the bill, and the quiet Indian girl hopes that they enjoyed their meal and would come again. Of course, they reply, but wonder if they really wanted to risk the dangers of Chunking Mansions again, only for a meal.

They finally leave Chungking Mansions and re-enter the bright, familiar world of Hong Kong. On the sidewalks of Nathan road, they heave a collective sigh of relief and loosen their grips on their wallets.

~

Hong Kong people do not understand Chungking Mansions at all, but this book offers an insightful explanation of the building and its important place as a threshold to the developed world for the South Asian and African middle class. (Rnadom fact: The author estimates that about 20 percent of the mobile phones used in Sub-Saharan Africa had gone through Chungking Mansions.)

It is also a very well written book in that it is able to capture and retain the interest of even those who spend too little time reading non-fiction. It usually takes some effort for me to read non-fiction (okay, LS, put down this fantasy book for a while to finish a chapter of that history book), but this book was so interesting that I staid up quite late a few nights reading it. ;)

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