Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong Paperback – Jun 30 2011
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"Hong Kong's Chungking Mansions is the most notorious flophouse in Asia. . . . The shabby tenement is today as much about global commerce as tourism. What the building should be renowned for, argues Gordon Mathews in his fluid and enjoyable field study "Ghetto at the Center of the World", is the ingenious way 'low-end globalists' eke out profits from petit arbitrage. . . . It reads like a first-rate business book."--Wall Street Journal
"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 rundown 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. The resulting account is as informative and revealing as it is entertaining."
--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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
L. A. Starks, Author of 13 Days: The Pythagoras Conspiracy
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