The title of this book refers to a large apartment building in Hong Kong's expensive Tsim Sha Tsui district called Chungking Mansions. Although it sits on a prime piece of real estate, surrounded by luxury hotels and shops with names like Gucci and Prada, Chungking Mansions is most definitely not a luxury place. Rather, it is a microcosm of what author Gordon Mathews calls "low-end globalization."
The building itself began as cooperative apartments and is still managed by an owner's association. But it is a remnant of another time, before the neighborhood around it became a tourist and shopping destination. Over time, owners of the apartments inside the Mansions began to convert their homes into unlicensed `guest houses' where backpackers and others of modest means could stay while they experienced `Asia's World City,' as Hong Kong now brands itself.
From a physical standpoint, Chungking Mansions is a weird place. On one hand, it is a typical aging apartment building of 17 stories, with multiple elevator banks and commercial space on its ground floor. What is untypical is that this ground floor contains scores of tiny shops run by entrepreneurs from developing nations such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Ghana and India. Many sell mobile phones wholesale, which traders purchase in bulk and take back home to sell at profits that can turn them into rich men in their own countries. If they get lucky. On the upper floors apartment owners quietly convert a two bedroom apartment into a warren of, say, 10 guest rooms, each of which is rented by the week, usually for cash in advance.
A host of supporting services have sprung up to accommodate this international cadre of globe trotters and traders, particularly the latter, who travel to Hong Kong several times a year to purchase inventory. There are Indian barbers, Halal food vendors, Malaysian music sellers and many other shops that provide traders and vendors with the accoutrements of home. On Sundays, female domestic workers, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia may come to spend their one free day a week with a boyfriend who lives in the Mansions or to relieve a shopkeeper for a couple of hours to (illegally) pick up some extra money. This makes the Mansions an intersection of cultures, beliefs and dreams carried by people from all over the world.
And this intersection is what so interested Mathews, an anthropologist at the local Chinese University, that he spent a decade doing an ethnographic study of the Mansions and its significance as a portal through which we can view an aspect of capitalism that often goes unrecognized. Ambitious people the world over are seizing the opportunities presented by globalization to raise their standard of living and provide a better future for their children. And what is especially intriguing about the Mansions is that it illustrates how people from rival nations, such as India and Pakistan, are willing to set aside cultural differences in the interest of profits.
Mathews quotes one Pakistani man, who said to him, in reference to his Indian neighbors, "I do not like them; they are not my friends. But I am here to make money, as they are here to make money. We cannot afford to fight."
I am reminded of author Thomas Friedman's Golden Arches Theory, which goes something like this: Two nations that both have McDonald's in their territories have never fought a war. That's because both are so embedded in the global economy, as symbolized by the presence of McDonald's, that they can't afford to be at odds else both will be seriously harmed. Although this theory has proved false on several occasions, Friedman makes a valid point. Even if ethnic hatreds sometimes trump economic self-interest, sometimes conflicts are indeed kept in check by a mutual desire for economic gain.
While I am no fan of war, this is unsettling to me -- the prospect of becoming one world under profits. Nevertheless, at least within the riotous diversity of Chungking Mansions, profits seem as good a way as any to keep the peace. And it is certainly characteristic of Hong Kong, a city I've lived in for the past couple of months while working on a summer project.
Hong Kong is capitalism on steroids, which is what enables Chungking Mansions to exist in the first place. This Special Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China has one of the most open immigration systems in the world coupled with extreme laissez faire economic policies. This makes Hong Kong nearly unique as a First World city that is open to Third World traders. Smart, ambitious people who are shut out elsewhere can come to Hong Kong to make their fortunes. And that is why some people, including me, embrace the idea (if not always the fact) of the Mansions. It is good to know that there remains in the world a frontier of sorts, less tangible than the wild west, perhaps, but just as formative for the settlers who flock there.
If you are at all interested in the shape of things to come, read this book. It is full of fascinating portraits and tidbits that have something important in common -- each is full of hope.