A fortunate place

The secrets and truth inside Chungking Mansions

Chungking Mansions launched as a beacon of prosperity in jet-set era Hong Kong. The building’s fame slid into notoriety soon after, and it has lived for 55 years in the spotlight. Many Hong Kong people avoid it, given its reputed sleazy underbelly, or know it only as a multi-storey souk offering exotic flavours and a cheap bed for an hour or more.

But it may disappear from the landscape within a decade, according to those who keep it running.

As the building approaches its November 11 birthday, it is facing an uncertain future. With this project, the South China Morning Post aims to test the myths that surround this building against reality.

What we found has been described as an ecosystem and as a ghetto. An Indian trader remarked to the Post that after staying inside Chungking Mansions for a month, the only thing that he couldn’t find within its walls was “peace of mind”.

Efforts to clean up its image have lifted the building out of its gangland dominated past. And while problems remain, the importance of this building to Hong Kong and those who visit the city remains clear in the stampede of foot traffic that passes through its doors every day.

Designed for function without flair, the building’s heritage remains formally unrecognised or protected. The value of Chungking Mansions is in its people, not its materials. And the materials of Chungking Mansions themselves are, some say, reaching the end of their lifetime.

A product of his environment: resident and Chungking Mansions administration worker Dennis Cheung Ka-yuen.

Chungking Mansions opened in November 1961 during an era of rapid growth in industry, immigration and jet-age tourism to British Hong Kong.

Soon after, the second floor became “The Hongkong Shopping Mart”, catering to tourists with high-end needs, while the basement hosted nightclubs with magicians and hostesses making it a magnet for visiting sailors.

Safety has always been something of an afterthought here, with the building’s rabbit-warren design making it a potent fire hazard.

In 1966, its first major blaze broke out, filling halls with thick smoke and forcing many of its 6,000 residents onto the street – still more blithely ignored the sirens.

The fire caused millions of dollars worth of damage. Dozens more costly blazes were to come.


The history of a building

By the mid-’70s Chungking Mansions was already getting an as-yet-unshaken reputation as a discount Xanadu where pleasures of the flesh lived cheek-by-jowl with hippie-trail backpackers. A 1978 Lonely Planet review helped spread the word.

Enter the ‘80s and Chungking Mansions was known for all the wrong reasons. It had become the centre for gold-smuggling rings and European prostitution, and a hangout for the city’s triads.

More global exposure came in 1994 with the release of the arthouse hit Chungking Express, directed by Wong Kar-wai and shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle. The Incorporated Owners of Chungking Mansions initially refused to let the film be shot at the building, fearing reputation damage. But, as treasurer Wah Chun-fat later recalled, it started a flood of movie makers to use the building in future productions.

"To the great director Wong Kar-wai, it is your shot of 'Chungking Express' [which saved] Chungking Mansions."

– Wah Chun-fat

Wah said on the building’s 50th anniversary he would like to “pay tribute to the great director Wong Kar-wai, it is your shot of 'Chungking Express' [which saved] Chungking Mansions”. And since the turn of the millennium, the building has become festooned with cameras - monitored CCTV.

Crime has decreased, but the notorious building’s image didn’t quite turn squeaky clean. Today illegal activities, from teenage drug parties to the dubiously named “compensated dating”, still go on there.

Chungking Mansions’ role as a comfortable zone for traders and refugees from Africa and the sub-continent can not be ignored, whether it’s the tastes of Nigeria being dished up by Mama Africa or a cheap guest house providing shelter for those fleeing the horrors of home. Chungking Mansions has been generous and flexible. We hope to share some of its secrets and its stories.

Use the interactive 3D model below to find out more about this storied Hong Kong institution.

Next chapter: Moneymaker