Scenes from Chungking Express.

Screen queen

The magical kingdom

Copy watch? Hashish? Restaurant? We’re at the entrance of Chungking Mansions trying to avoid eye contact with the touts, and Christopher Doyle is on his way.

The Hong Kong-based Australian cinematographer arrives with a wide grin, excited to be back at the concrete monolith on Nathan Road’s Golden Mile where he shot scenes for Chungking Express, the film that made his name.

Doyle wants us to interview him in the guest house where he worked on the low-budget classic, directed by Wong Kar-wai, its sequel Fallen Angels, and Peter Chan Ho-sun’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story, but first we have to find it.

He bundles us into a lift, gets out and scouts around, but can’t find the place. “We’re on the wrong floor,” he says, leading us down the staircase, sweating under the weight of heavy camera equipment. It’s not there, either. “I think we’re in the wrong block.”

We eventually find Chungking House De Luxe Hotel in Block A, and the search illustrates how easy it is to get lost in this labyrinthine world within a building within a city.

The landlord coolly allows us to film in the reception area, where wall clocks show the time in India, Nigeria, Mali and South Africa, and brings us chairs and beer, never mind that the Hong Kong clock says it’s only 11am.

“It’s like subconsciousness; you can’t find it until you discover it in a dream”

– Christopher Doyle

“There’s rooms here I’ve done so many films in ... and I still can’t find the bloody places. It’s like subconsciousness; you can’t find it until you discover it in a dream,” Doyle muses. Such hidden places are part of the magic of Chungking Mansions, he says, which is integral to Hong Kong’s rich cultural identity.

“The space here is so eclectic and has so much energy and it’s so unexpected. It’s such a journey ... Chungking Mansions is a living membrane; it moves and it digests people and it spits them out, and that’s the astonishing beauty of this place.”

Doyle helped immortalise the building in all its gritty realism in Chungking Express, named in English after the high-rise slab and Midnight Express, a long-gone kebab takeaway in Lan Kwai Fong that’s now a 7-Eleven. With a shaky camera, no grey scale or balancing of lights, the filming process was as raw as the mansion itself. Wong has said he made the film during a two-month break between editing the more complex Ashes of Time; he wanted to do something simpler.

“The light inside, the light on the terrace outside, is totally different, and that’s how the people are. Some of them are black. Some of them are white. Some of them are actually a little yellow,” Doyle says.

“As a filmmaker, this is a metaphor for our differences, which are united in a space. This is why I love this place, because to me film is about location.”

A lot of its inhabitants were not happy with how the building was portrayed, however, Doyle says, referring to scenes depicting South Asian drug mules in the first segment of the two-part film. It’s a stereotype Hong Kong’s South Asian community abhors. “I thought I might have been banned,” he says, having not returned for many years.

“As a filmmaker, this is a metaphor for our differences, which are united in a space. This is why I love this place, because to me film is about location”

– Christopher Doyle

In the film’s opening scene Takeshi Kaneshiro, playing a policeman, chases a hooded suspect through the heaving ground floor of Chungking Mansions. Nameless resident South Asians were hired as bit-part actors, depicted toiling in cramped and cluttered flats, filling condoms with white powder then concealing them in clothing and luggage, lorded over by a Chinese dealer (played by Brigitte Lin) disguised in shades and a blond wig.

Chungking Express was released in 1994 and won a Golden Horse Award. It scooped four Hong Kong Film Awards the following year, for best film, director, editing and actor, collected by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who played another policeman. Doyle received a joint nomination for best cinematography.

The film also garnered critical acclaim beyond Hong Kong and Chungking Mansions caught the imagination of cinema-goers worldwide. “Numerous, possibly hundreds, of people come and stay here because of my films, and I’m very proud of that because they think it’s an authentic Hong Kong experience, which it is,” Doyle says.

Chungking Mansions was already on the global radar before the release of Wong’s independent masterpiece. The Lonely Planet guide to Hong Kong and Macau put the property on the map as the city’s destination for budget travellers in the 1980s and ’90s. Western backpackers stopped over on an Asian adventure that also swept through Bangkok’s Khao San Road, Kathmandu’s “Freak Street” and Denpasar in Bali.

Hostels, with rooms marginally bigger than their single beds, then cost little more than HK$100 a night. Visitors from the all over the world crossed paths, living alongside tailors, shopkeepers and traders from across South Asia and Africa. Tourists staying elsewhere would venture inside for cheap curries at restaurants such as Khyber Pass, the Taj Mahal and Delhi Mess Club, some of which are still in business.

Chungking Mansions was, and remains, a Hong Kong cultural icon, as integral to the city’s cosmopolitan make-up as its Grade-A commercial skyscrapers named after British colonial-era trading companies.

Yet a reputation for shady commerce has always made many shudder at the very mention of its name. In his book Ghetto at the Centre of the World, Chinese University anthropology professor Gordon Mathews acknowledges Chungking Mansions’ reputation as a den of crime. “In the 1980s, it was a recruiting ground for gold smugglers to Nepal, with notices on guest house walls seeking recruits. Travellers smuggled the gold up their rectums to Nepal, where owning gold was illegal,” he writes.

In 2009, Chungking Mansions featured in the National Geographic channel’s Locked Up Abroad series, in an episode about four young men caught carrying more than 27kg of the precious metal into Nepal.

Gordon Mathews

In his book Gypsy the Gem Dealer, released in June, British traveller Ivor Blimsworth (a pseudonym) recounts his experience as an illegal trader in Hong Kong. “Back in the ’80s, Chungking Mansions was the centre of smuggling, not just the gold runs to Nepal and South Korea but also the electronics and accessories smuggling routes up through northeast Asia that were run by Chinese gangs ... Chungking Mansions was a place of much happening in the way of illegal business activities.”

Nevertheless, academic Mathews also describes the building as a hub of “low-end globalisation” that has been distinctly shaped by Hong Kong. Chungking Mansions is, he suggests, a concrete representation of the city’s historical place as an entrepôt of a once powerful British empire, populated by the nationals of many of its former colonies and beyond.

Ex-governor Chris Patten and his wife Lavender on a 1994 tour of Chungking Mansions. He was the last Hong Kong leader to visit. Photo: SCMP Pictures

Doyle acknowledges Chungking Mansions’ dubious place in popular culture but also its positive side. The beauty, he says, is that there are lessons to be learned living in the multi-ethnic hotpot of humanity.

“Here we have to be the same as each other. The people who come here to trade, for whatever reason ... they dress the way they do, and yet they know that they have to have some engagement with people. This is what it’s about ... we’re all in this.

“It’s not the most luxurious place in the world,” he adds with understatement. “Everyone who is here is here because they need to live, because they have an urgency, they have a sense of purpose, which is very basic. It’s ‘I need to feed my family’, ‘I need to make enough money to make things work’. So we all understand each other.”

Like the former Kowloon Walled City, or older parts of Hong Kong Island, there is a strong sense of community, Doyle says. “This [Chungking Mansions] community is not very Chinese, and I think therefore the hope of a society is that we find a way to work together and live together.”

A plane comes in to land at Hong Kong's former airport at Kai Tak in 1989 while residents of the Kowloon Walled City watch on. Chungking Mansions could join these two former landmarks as a distant memory. Photo: SCMP Pictures

It’s a fragile place that needs to be protected, he says, although he doesn’t hold much hope for the future of Chungking Mansions.

“Of course it’ll be pulled down. What can we say to anybody? What can we say to the Chinese government ... to progress, to Tai O, or all our heritage? We need governance. We need people who can actually say, ‘this is important’. We need the Chinese equivalent of a World Heritage attitude, because of course this is prime real estate, of course it’ll go because people are avaricious and China is ascending.”

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