HONG KONG – Sometimes spoiled by salacious headlines, Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions have big mouths and a global appetite.
The densely populated 17-story building, which is home to around 4,000 residents of 129 countries and served for 60 years as a hub for trade and currency exchange, is a unique icon of Hong Kong.
After going through several iterations over the past six decades, the urban monolith was initially known for its culturally diverse residents and notoriously gruesome accommodation. But the stories of exotic food have gained momentum over the years, with many hungry Hong Kongers scouring their way in search of tastes primarily from North Asia and the Middle East.
Speaking about his 1994 film “Chungking Express”, director Wong Kar-wai once called Chungking Mansions “a legendary place where relationships between people are very complicated … This highly populated and hyperactive place is a great metaphor for the city. “
Those who enter and make their way through the maze of labyrinthine shops on the lower floors of the building will see colorful currency merchants with illuminated signs, a myriad of styles of clothing on sale, electronics, hair dye, candy. and marked beads of all kinds of languages.
A luggage store crowded with suitcases is reminiscent of an earlier era, before COVID grounded the international. Before the pandemic, Chungking Mansions received around 10,000 visitors per day. By these standards, today’s hustle and bustle seems a bit muted.
While for newcomers who experience Chungking Mansions for the first time is an assault on all senses, perhaps it is the smell of the food that draws more people here these days than any other. something else.
Most restaurants have found ways to accommodate Hong Kong’s changing dining restrictions, with at least one winning a contract to provide halal meals at the city’s mandatory quarantine facilities. In block E on the seventh floor, the Khyber Pass Mess Club opened in 1991 by Iqbal Mohammed in a former jewelry factory, offers traditional Indian and Pakistani cuisine.
At the time, Mohammed recalls, there were only two restaurants in the whole building, with everything else, mostly factories and mahjong clubs. “Before, all stores sold watches,” he says.
After friends urged him to create a space for halal food, Mohammed says he chose Chungking Mansions for purely practical reasons. “Because the rent was cheap back then,” he said. “It looked like a second United Nations building, because many people come from all over the world.”
Over the years, the mix of people has grown even larger. “After I opened, mostly Indians, Pakistanis came and they brought Chinese friends,” Mohammed said. “Then Chinese friends told other friends about it. They told a magazine, they interviewed us, and then we became popular.”
Mohammed believes that the key to this longevity lies in good quality ingredients and expertise. “We have a very good chef who makes around 500 chapati every day,” he said, noting that the pandemic has drastically reduced daily traffic by up to 70%.
Selina Ip, who runs Paul’s Kitchen – a budget-priced restaurant named after her husband that offers Pan-African and Filipino cuisine – says the pandemic provided an opportunity to further refine her recipes before dining restrictions regulated by the government does not tone down. She also credits the loyalty of her customers, who filter into the restaurant as she speaks.
Founded in 2016, Ip said its first goal was to create a place for Hong Kong’s African diaspora to taste familiar flavors and feel a sense of community in a city where some foreigners are more welcome than others.
“In Hong Kong there is still a lot of discrimination – even my husband experiences it,” Ip said. At Paul’s Kitchen, his customers have found a sense of community where they can speak freely when the going gets tough. “It’s like home,” she says.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle in attracting new customers, people who come in just for food, has been overcoming Chunking Mansions’ less-than-salty reputation.
“When I first came here I felt uncomfortable because I heard a lot of negative things,” Ip said. “Sometimes my clients come here and they don’t feel comfortable, so I told them to just call me and I’ll come and get you.”
Gradually, people learned to feel more comfortable and started to bring their friends with them. Now offering speed dating, Paul’s Kitchen has even become a place where hungry customers can meet their soul mate.
“We use our heart to run the business. I want to make it a home,” Ip said. “I want people to understand more cultures, and since they accept more cultures … they aren’t afraid, they don’t discriminate, because the world is so big, we have to love each other.”
Gordon Mathews, professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that when he began researching his book “Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong” in 2005, the reputation of building was rather dark.
“People thought Chungking Mansions was a pretty dangerous place, and crime was rampant there,” Matthews said. “There was maybe a little bit of truth, there were definitely more sex workers there than a few years later,” he said, adding that the police at the time told him that the building “was probably as secure as most other buildings. in Hong Kong.”
As vloggers and certain types of tourists still flock in search of a shocking experience in the details, it has calmed down somewhat, Mathews says.
Today, the space is increasingly seen as a unique part of the city and a widely adopted place. In October 2019, during the protest movement, when a pro-democracy activist was attacked by attackers wielding hammers, information later revealed that the attackers were of South Asian descent.
At the time, some feared the protesters would target minorities in retaliation, but instead nearly 1,000 supporters of the protest movement gathered at Chungking Mansions to support the building’s restaurants and the town’s ethnic minorities. .
“One thing I love about Chungking Mansions is that the people are so generous. I remember the night when all the buses were closed due to the protests and I couldn’t get home, so I was unexpectedly stayed in Chungking Mansions, ”says Matthews. “I went to a restaurant when I was 11 that had just closed and the owner quickly gave me a free meal. He didn’t have to, but that’s the kind of thing that happens.