Spruced up, but still the same Chungking
Back where it all began
Den of vice, city of lawlessness; fire trap and health hazard. If ever there was a place in need of an image makeover, Chungking Mansions is it. So long the haunt of illegal immigrants and petty scammers, drug pushers and assorted itinerants, the sordid underbelly of Hong Kong may have cleaned itself up in recent years, but the essence of the place remains the same.
I’m not sure what drew me back there towards the end of my stay in Hong Kong, but I felt me and the Mansions still had unfinished business to settle before I could truly put those four years to bed. It was where I started in Hong Kong, and for the sake of some kind of closure, it was always the place I was likely to finish. I’d spent a couple of months in there, on and off, while I was sorting things out after I first arrived, and I wanted to see what had changed.
Since that first brush with Chungking back in 2009, the most obvious change is in the look of the place. Gone is the iconic facade of air-cons, hanging laundry and guesthouse signs that once faced Nathan Road, replaced by the far more commercially acceptable sight of 600 LED lights flashing away every night. It may have lost some of its ‘old Hong Kong’ charm, for the building’s owners, the renovations are all part of rehabilitating an image that at its worst, could have spelt the end of it.
HK$19 million of renovations
Nobody wants their building to be known as a hooker-riddled drug den. But in the 80s and 90s, this is exactly what Chungking Mansions was in danger of becoming. There were fires, deaths, robberies and drug deals occurring; not to mention power cuts and even a counterfeiting ring operating successfully somewhere on the premises. And with the tragedies and police crackdowns occurring with increasing frequency, it reached the point for Chungking where it was a case of shape up or shut down. The recent facelift is just the latest in a series of renovations aimed at improving a reputation that has proven hard to shake.
It has been the first significant makeover since the building opened in the 1960s, and at a cost of HK$19 million, it didn’t come cheap. That the figure was shared amongst the 900-plus businesses that inhabit Chungking Mansions may also account for the rise in prices that seems to have occurred since my last visit. Whereas the first time I visited I could be confident that with all the touts hovering around outside I could bargain down as low as $100 for a ten-by-six foot room of my own, four years later, I had a hard time finding anything close.
That didn’t stop me trying of course. Being quoted upwards of $250 at the first time of asking wasn’t enough to shake me from my target. But after being taken to four separate guesthouses, each of which would go no lower than $150, I realised I would have to realign my expectations if I was to avoid sleeping on the streets.
That I did, eventually, end up only paying HK$100 a night, had more to do with my willingness to share a very cosy “deluxe twin” room with a random Chinese guy I met ten minutes earlier than the existence of anything resembling 2009 prices. But in the brave new world of Chungking 2014, beggars, it seems, definitely cannot be choosers.
It’s not only the cost of the renovations that are pushing prices up however. While previously it was those in search of rooms that held the upper hand in the bargaining stakes, it seems a shift in balance has taken place that has handed the advantage back to those with rooms to sell. With all the mainland tourists I encountered as I stepped inside, it isn’t hard to fathom why. But while the owners are no doubt thrilled by their change in fortunes, for the cheap and cheerful travellers amongst us, the search for true Hong Kong accommodation budgetary is becoming more and more elusive.
Yet while the hookers may be gone (or less conspicuous), and the drug dealing may be gone (or less conspicuous), there is still enough of the old Chungking to satisfy those in search of more than just a cheap place to stay. Away from the shiny new facade and the ground floor lobby, the stairways are still dark and piled with rubbish, loose wiring still sprouts from cracks in the walls, and you still get offered drugs every ten steps within a 300 metre radius.
But Chungking Mansions wouldn’t be the same without that certain splash of “colour” travellers have come to expect. There may no longer be the sense that you are walking into certain peril when you step off Nathan Road into the “ghetto at the centre of the world”, but still, the Ritz-Carlton it ain’t.
I spent three nights in our “deluxe twin” room before my new best friend went back to Guangzhou, and for an eight-by-eight foot box containing two single beds, a table, a broken fan and a dodgy TV, as well as the two of us and all our stuff, it was as good as could have been expected. The all-in-one shower/sink/toilet combination was safely located in the corridor rather than in the corner of the room as during my first stretch in Chungking, and for $100 a night, we could have done a lot worse.
Downstairs in Taiwan guesthouse it was a similar story. Discounting the cockroach that ran across my face while I was trying to get to sleep on the first night, and the couple of bedbugs I saw crawling across the sheets of the bed below me the following morning, for a $120 a night, ten bed dorm in a room only just big enough to fit them, it was certainly passable for another four nights. But then again, if your expectations are hardly reaching for the stars at the outset, there’s every chance that a cockroach-ridden sweat-box will turn out to be a pleasant surprise. And so it proved.
In truth, Chungking Mansions has come a long way from the notoriety of its heyday. With its 208 closed-circuit television cameras, round-the-clock security, and generally more wholesome appearance, it’s a place still very much entangled with its own infamous past, striving for some kind of respectability in a world where corruption and vice are not exactly seen as selling points for a business such as this.
There are still the tiny rooms with tiny bathrooms; still the haggling and rip-offs; there are still the Indian restaurants, the money changing shops, the fake mobile phones and that same global crossroads, not-quite-Hong-Kong feel. But that’s exactly what the place is all about. Hong Kong’s very own heart of darkness may have become a little brighter in recent years, but it has managed to retain much of what makes it unique. And let’s face it, Chungking just wouldn’t be Chungking without it.
Get involved: Stayed at Chungking Mansions recently? How was it for you? Let us know in the comments below.