Hong Kong: Chungking Crazy


how big were the rats in Hong Kong?
trap dimensions 5″ x5″ x 18″

When I think of Hong Kong, my first memory is always of Chungking Mansions. Not only was it my first home in the territory, but also it is known for its raunchy inhabitants— even by lowly backpacker standards, which is saying a lot. I wasn’t doing much after college graduation (political science degree, you know) and decided that I might as well be doing nothing in Hong Kong and have a little adventure.

I was just 22, but I had already been to Hong Kong a couple of times and studied Mandarin Chinese, so it didnít really seem like such a stretch. I arrived in Hong Kong with $1,000 cash, one night’s hotel reservation and a deadbeat boyfriend (who promptly told me upon landing that he had no money, so I gave him $500 approximately half my wad.)  

About the boy: I was dating this guy for about 6- 8 months before I left California. When I told him of my plan to take off, he said he would come along. I was like, “OK, why not?” Now, I’m thinking that the fact we had this conversation at a nudist beach may have colored the outcome a bit, but who really knows?
The first night we stayed at a YWCA in Kowloon. My mum, Sam, insisted on this reservation, saying that I’d be tired and disoriented after the 15-hour flight and would need a place to sleep. She was right, as usual, and this time I actually listened and sacrificed a whopping $75 for the reservation.

Walled CityThe next day, refreshed, we headed out to explore some backpacking hostels and selected the Garden Hostel, based on its cheerful name. For the record, there aren’t a lot of gardens in Hong Kong. We were greeted at the Garden Hostel by rat traps the size of a Malibu Barbie Beach House. Seriously huge grey cages— I actually wasn’t sure what they were at first.

The place was filthy and filled with unsavory types. We had to keep a close eye on our suitcases and only stayed a couple of days, moving out as soon as I landed a job teaching English. 

Once I was gainfully employed as an English tutor and making $1.10 an hour (under the table), we upgraded to Chungking Mansions. These hovels are infamous throughout Asia, mostly because they were the cheapest place to stay ($15 a night) and known as a firetrap, with several deaths to its name. The place was a true tinderbox, with overcrowding (4,000+ residents), no regard for building codes, and exposed wiring at every turn.  Now, I was a little wiser after the Garden Hostel experience and spent quite a few hours selecting a cleaner place to live (comparatively speaking, of course). Chungking Mansions had 5 blocks: A-E. I only looked in A block, reasoning that if there was a fire I had a better chance of getting out if I was closer to the street entrance. I never ventured beyond C block the entire time I was there, which was about 4 months. Wikipedia: ChungkingMansions

chungkingmansionstodayOur first room was 7×7, with a double bed, small cabinet and TV. It was so small we both couldn’t stand up at the same time — one person had to be sitting on the bed. We shared a bathroom with a family of like 14 kids (Pakistani? Bangladeshi?), all living in one room.

They were very friendly but with their dinner simmering over an open flame every night, I knew it was only a matter of time before we all went up in smoke. The bathroom we all shared was one tiny stall, where you could sit on the toilet, shower and brush your teeth in the sink all at the same time.

I actually quite liked the convenience of it all and now that I think about it, this may have been the start of my fascination with mini-living.  After about 3 weeks at Chungking Mansions, we were able to upgrade — this time to a room with a window. This was a bit of an extravagance and involved quite a debate about whether or not we should splurge. But a window! Fresh air! It had to be done.

The first night in the new room, I sidled up to the window to peek out. It looked directly down on Nathan Road, one of the main traffic arteries in Kowloon and I watched the masses of people far below. Not even 10 minutes of gazing and I heard shots. Gunfire! There was a robbery in one of the jewelry shops on Nathan Rd. and as I peeked out my treasured window, I actually saw the thieves sprinting away down the street. Maybe the window wasn’t such as good idea after all. I backed away, a little heart-broken.

Hong Kong  SkylineMy favorite recollection of Chungking Mansions was after I had been living in Hong Kong almost a year and out of hostels about 6 months.

I got together with a college friend of mine who grew up in Hong Kong and was from a very well-known and wealthy Hong Kong Chinese family.

We met up in Kowloon and were walking down the street when she said that we needed to cross to the other side.

“Why?” I asked.

She said that her father wouldn’t let her walk in front of that horrible building: Chungking Mansions.

“I used to live there,” I cried!

Our conversation pretty much died after that, because, really, could we have had anything less in common. 

This entry was posted on Sunday, April 19th, 2009 and is filed under Asia Pacific.

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