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Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong [Paperback]

Gordon Mathews

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Book Description

June 30 2011

There is nowhere else in the world quite like Chungking Mansions, a dilapidated seventeen-story commercial and residential structure in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district. A remarkably motley group of people call the building home; Pakistani phone stall operators, Chinese guesthouse workers, Nepalese heroin addicts, Indonesian sex workers, and traders and asylum seekers from all over Asia and Africa live and work there—even backpacking tourists rent rooms. In short, it is possibly the most globalized spot on the planet.

But as Ghetto at the Center of the World shows us, a trip to Chungking Mansions reveals a far less glamorous side of globalization. A world away from the gleaming headquarters of multinational corporations, Chungking Mansions is emblematic of the way globalization actually works for most of the world’s people. Gordon Mathews’s intimate portrayal of the building’s polyethnic residents lays bare their intricate connections to the international circulation of goods, money, and ideas. We come to understand the day-to-day realities of globalization through the stories of entrepreneurs from Africa carting cell phones in their luggage to sell back home and temporary workers from South Asia struggling to earn money to bring to their families. And we see that this so-called ghetto—which inspires fear in many of Hong Kong’s other residents, despite its low crime rate—is not a place of darkness and desperation but a beacon of hope.

Gordon Mathews’s compendium of riveting stories enthralls and instructs in equal measure, making Ghetto at the Center of the World not just a fascinating tour of a singular place but also a peek into the future of life on our shrinking planet.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (June 30 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226510204
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226510200
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.2 x 1.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 363 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #168,210 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

"In this wonderful book Gordon Mathews takes on an intriguing project: daily life as it is lived, articulated, dreamed, denied, regretted, and defended in a rather run-down but very public building in Hong Kong. The residents of Chungking Mansions are economically blocked from the rest of the city and often racially discriminated against, so how do such marginalized people survive, much less prosper? This is the conundrum at the heart of Ghetto at the Center of the World. Mathews tackles it by providing a vivid description of the people who live their lives in the building's dimly lit hallways, restaurants, and shops, and by analyzing the larger material and political forces at work." -William Jankowiak, author of Sex, Death, and Hierarchy in a Chinese City"

About the Author

Gordon Mathews is professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Global Culture/ Individual Identity: Searching for Home in the Cultural Supermarket and What Makes Life Worth Living? How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds, coauthor of Hong Kong, China: Learning to Belong to a Nation, and coeditor of several books.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The island of Chungking Mansions July 17 2011
By PeeJ - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Chungking Mansions is an infamous building in Hong Kong. It is a labyrinth of exotica, adventure , and otherness. In many ways it is a shadowy unknown place to many who live in Hong Kong and the countless travelers it attracts yearly. What is for sure is that we want to know more about it. Specifically more about the eclectic array of people that walk and work in its corridors each day. This fine work by Gordon Mathews satiates this curiosity quite fully.
Exploring the history of the building, its many personalities, the goods and businesses that pass through, and the new transformations, Gordon Mathews produces a landmark text. This work is particularly compelling because it addresses some misconceptions about Chungking Mansions, namely its safety and criminality and redresses these issues. It shows us that the building is intricately placed in what Mathews terms `low end globalization'. Millions of phones sold in this building sold by Pakistani tradesmen can be traced to the streets of Lagos. Illegal workers support their families in Calcutta by washing dishes or handing out flyers for the many restaurants in the building. Sex workers save money to start businesses back in their home countries. The most contemporary feature of the building is the rise in African traders passing through, this phenomenon is explored in detail and provides context for the transformations visible in the streets around Chungking Mansions.
Another important contribution this text offers is that of acknowledging asylum seekers in Hong Kong and showing their particular struggles in the territory. Many of these asylum seekers who have fled torture or the threat of political assassination frequent Chungking Mansions and contribute to an understanding of the place as a bourgeois location. The truth being that whilst the building is populated with people from disparate parts of the world, they are often the middle class entrepreneurs of their countries, and many of the businesses in Chungking Mansions themselves can be comfortably profitable.
Mathews is astute in pointing out that the fortunes and future of Chungking Mansions are tied to global caprices. Changes in visa regulations, the Olympics, and even 9/11 have changed the people and business practices that occupy Chungking Mansions. These factors reconfirm another important point that the author makes, whilst Chungking Mansions is in Hong Kong, it is not `of' Hong Kong. As such this book will tell you much about the building, much about trade with China, and much about low end globalization, it will tell you less however about Hong Kong. After all Chungking Mansions is an island of otherness in this city, a ghetto at the center of the world.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, Readable, Worthwhile Sept. 15 2011
By J. Ubois - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Mathews' work is the product of the best kind of obsession. His ability to put life in CKM into a broader context, to build rapport with people, to notice detail, to run a team of student researchers (some of whom I imagine are now well equipped to go on to do their own work), and to report so clearly on what is happening makes the book a pleasure to read. Ethnography's often done these days, but rarely so well. And it's combined here with a kind of awareness of global issues that is really thought provoking.

The chapters on cell phone trading, the vignettes of the traders and their businesses, and how his research has affected lives inside CKM are particularly interesting.

As an aside: back in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, I spent a fair bit of time living in CKM, and can say the author really caught the spirit of the place.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Snapshot of 'Low-end Globalization' July 24 2012
By B. McEwan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating look at one of Hong Kong's quirkier corners March 26 2012
By Stephen Doyle - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I used to live in Hong Kong and eat at the Indian places in Chungking Mansions. I also had a lot of friends who stayed their too. Mathews does a great job describing what has to be one of the most unique urban features in Tsim Sha Tsui. He really does a good job drawing out the true dimensions of what the place is all about. I read it before a recent trip to Hong Kong and it really got me in the mood for my journey. I also read Hong Kong 97, A Corporate Satire. This is another book that discusses the gritty side of life in Hong Kong.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book. April 19 2012
By M. Ross - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book has a ton of information in it. It reads more like a text book on the "behind the scenes" financial marketplace that thrives in the Chunking Mansions and its little realized effect on the worldwide marketplace and the effect the worldwide marketplace has on it.The writer forms some relationships during his stay in Hong Kong but they were more of a professional relationship not so personal. I realize its a documentary on paper.It is well written. I personally am obsessed with The Chunking Mansions and the history and inner workings....the people that live there,some all their lives others looking to escape from the "outside world". It is not what I expected but none the less I did enjoy it. I read it from cover to cover. I do recommend this book to anyone interested in the financial workings of this dangerous and mysterious place.
..........Rosco
ARRAY(0xbabf54b0)

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