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Chungking Mansions

Home to the world

Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. By Gordon Mathews. University of Chicago Press; 240 pages; $19 and £12.50. Buy fromAmazon.com, Amazon.co.uk

THE walk down Nathan Road to Kowloon’s promenade along Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong takes the sightseer through a hyper-modern commercial avenue, overhung with LED signs and trimmed banyan creepers, to the stately Peninsula Hotel, the futuristic Hong Kong Cultural Centre and one of the most celebrated skylines in the world. Every year the avenue is more lustrously paved with the gold of a million spendthrift tourists from mainland China.

Chungking Mansions, which stretches from 36-44 Nathan Road, comes as a shock of otherworldly proportions. Teeming, crumbling and motley in the extreme, it is a structure to attract or repel the people of Hong Kong, like the Spaceport Cantina in the original “Star Wars”. Pushtun touts, Nigerians slinging fake Rolexes and a flock of Indian prostitutes in garish saris congregate at its maw. Inside, a glittering and stinking confusion of shops, food stalls and dormitories is piled on itself in an impossible jumble—17 storeys high and covering most of a city block. Is it even a building? The “Mansions” is a singular noun, but most people who live and work there speak of its five blocks, A to E, their lifts connecting only at the dim and claustrophobic bazaar on the first two floors. South Asians and Africans: people from at least 129 different countries have thronged to this warren to trade, talk, eat, pray and fornicate, all in a context of mild lawlessness and constant flux.

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