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Despite what the name implies, Chungking Mansions isn’t someone’s home and it’s by no means luxurious.
Located in the bustling neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui, in Kowloon Hong Kong, this huge building complex was once a residential complex that has now been turned into a run-down mass of shops, currency exchange shops, restaurants, offices, laundromats and guest houses.
All packed tightly together in one 17 story tall building.
It has a notorious past, often featuring in the news as the backdrop of many unsavoury events, but it’s also one of the most famous buildings in the city.
In short, it’s a dump, but it’s also the best place I’ve ever stayed at. It’s estimated to be home to 4,000 residents, many of which are newcomers, expats and budget travelers looking for affordable accommodation.
What is The Atmosphere of The Chungking Mansions?
The chaotic Chungking Mansions are located on Nathan Road, the longest road in HK. It’s easily accessible by MTR, which is located across the road, as well as by taking the star ferry.
The entrance is small and sandwiched between a mall and other smaller stores. You can easily miss it if you’re not looking for it.
In fact, I walked past it several times trying to find it. And when I did find it, I wasn’t even certain if it was the right place.
I took several steps inside before coming to a sudden halt. This place is crazy! In the first few minutes I saw people from just about every square inch of the planet. It’s well known that Chungking Mansion is where Hong Kong’s ethnic minority community gather, mostly from South Asia countries such as India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as well as Africans and Middle Eastern communities.
In short, it’s a melting pot of cultures.
People were moving around at a fast pace and my eyes needed to adjust to all the commotion. It took me a few moments to even acknowledge the aggressive touts vying for my attention. It’s like the wild west of travel in there.
I almost turned around and walked straight out – Almost. I read everything I could about Chungking Mansions before I arrived so I knew its reputation.
The building is a notorious refuge for petty criminals, prostitution, drug traffickers and illegal immigrants. The police did a mass sweep through the building in both 1995 and 1996, and still to this day there is a police presence in the area.
Don’t let this reputation scare you though. Although it’s busy, chaotic and packed with people, it’s quite safe to visit and most guesthouses will have CCTV, plus there is a security guard.
Though the locals still see it as the sort of “ghetto at the center of the world” in Hong Kong.
So why would I want to stay in a place like this? For one reason, Time Magazine named Chungking Mansions “The Best Example of Globalization in Action” in its annual “Best of Asia” series.
The magazine says there is nothing to be afraid of and I agree. Underneath its gruff exterior lies a unique and amazing place.
Knowing this, I gained my composure and walked into the center of the building. A sign for the hostel I wanted led me to a line for the elevator where I waited and waited.
I waited in a queue for 30 minutes to use the elevator. My pack was digging into my shoulders and I’d long given up searching for staircases (there are none).
The line slowly dwindled down until I was next. In the meantime I looked at an official-looking poster on the wall with “Reward” written in big letters at the top.
It read, “Found in the mountains of Kowloon. He was gagged and tied with electrical tape and left for dead. 3000 Hong Kong Dollar reward for information leading to arrest of his killer(s).”
Underneath was a picture of a Middle Eastern looking man.
The elevator door finally opened again, I crammed into the tight space with about five other people and went to the 14th floor to find my hostel. It was a hostel in the loosest sense of the term.
Beds were crammed into closet sized rooms and the communal showers were disgusting.
Some rooms don’t even have windows, and don’t expect a double bed – you’ll have a bunk bed with just enough space to get into your bed and nowhere to put your bag.
If you’re lucky to have a private bathroom, it’s often a wet room and doesn’t have a separate shower, so water will always spray over the toilet when you’re showering.
At night, the front desk operator cheered so loudly at the soccer matches on TV that I woke up several times each night.
I guess I shouldn’t have expected much from Hong Kong’s cheapest hostel.
I now know what Time Magazine was talking about with “globalization in action”.
What To See In Chungking Mansions
Chunking Mansions is an interesting place to see even if you’re not staying there. In fact, I spent most of one day just exploring the place. The main floor is a shopping mall of assorted little retail stores selling trinkets and cheap knock-offs of brand name goods.
Just one floor up is a multitude of restaurants. They’re easy to find due to several touts with flyers aggressively vying for your attention. If you tell them you want to eat there, they’ll escort you all the way to your table.
I was reluctant at first to eat there due to the unappealing conditions of the hostel, but I had read about how world-class they are so I gave them a chance.
The food is fantastic. I ended up eating at about four small family-run restaurants and it was some of the best food I’ve eaten anywhere.
The whole of the ground floor is filled with the aroma of spices. They have a great selection of mostly Indian, Pakistani and Nepalese cuisine.
This was by far the most fascinating unsanitary fire-trap I’ve ever stayed at and I even felt sad saying goodbye to it days later when I left. As I was trudging off to my next destination Macau, I saw two timid backpackers at the entrance nervously talking to each other.
I could tell what was going on. They were debating back and forth about if they wanted to stay there or not. I made my choice to continue inside, would you?
Chungking Mansions, although chaotic and a little sketchy if you’re not used to it, is a vibrant and multicultural hub.
This iconic building is perfect for travelers who love to mix with different cultures, try world cuisines, and have unique experiences.
From its bustling ground-floor shops to the diverse range of African, South Asian, and Middle Eastern restaurants, Chungking Mansions is definitely a sensory overload of sights, sounds, and flavors.
You certainly need to see it to believe it.
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