Event Detail


Chungking Mansions: a Ghetto at the Centre of the World

Professor Gordon Mathews
Tuesday, 15 Jan 2019
Session 1: Drinks Reception 5.30 pm; Talk 6.00 pm. ; Session 2: Drinks Reception 7.30 pm; Talk 8.00 pm.
JC Cube, Tai Kwun, 10 Hollywood Road, Central
The two sessions are full.

In this famous talk, Professor Matthews shows how Chungking Mansions, perhaps Tsim Sha Tsui’s most famous building, has become the most globalised building in the world. With 90 guesthouses and 380 businesses in all, some 4,000-5,000 people reside in a cramped site of less than 5,000 m², rising 17 storeys. There is no other building in the world with the intensity of global interactions taking place under one roof, with Professor Mathews having met people of 130 nationalities within its guesthouses. It is in effect an outpost of the developing world in downtown Hong Kong, iconic of Hong Kong's seedy and dangerous underside, but more recently as a beacon of multiculturalism.

Professor Mathews also discusses the architecture, history and significance of Chungking Mansions, and its curious double role as Hong Kong's shadowy background and international foreground.  Through enthralling candid stories, Professor Mathews also shows the building’s residents’ intricate connections to the international circulation of goods, money and ideas.

Chungking Mansions is replete with contradictions: it has the cheapest guesthouses and meals in Hong Kong, in a dilapidated seventeen-storey commercial and residential structure in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district, while being located on some of the most expensive real estate on earth.  Its design, built to be luxurious in the 1960s, makes it perfect as a place to escape into and never be seen by the police again.  From the start, it had no unified ownership, so rapidly deteriorated, plus making it almost impossible to redevelop.  Its tangled history, first in the 1970s and 1980s as a backpacker mecca and then as a developing-world enclave, has made it a tourist attraction.  Chungking Mansions is now where people from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and other areas seek their fortunes through temporary employment and low-budget transnational trade.

Chungking Mansions is “a ghetto at the centre of the world”, a node of the developing world in Hong Kong.  Many Hong Kong people are afraid to enter the building and during 1993, Chungking Mansions even lost power for 10 days.  Traders, labourers and asylum seekers from all over Asia and Africa reside and work there.  Chungking Mansions are a world away from the headquarters of multinational corporations, however, Professor Mathews argues that they epitomise the way globalisation actually works for most of the world's people.  Chungking Mansions is a world centre of “low-end globalisation”: the transnational flow of people and goods involving relatively small amounts of capital and informal, semi-legal or illegal transactions commonly associated within the developing world.  Professor Mathews postulates that this is globalisation as experienced by most of the world’s people on an iconic site within Hong Kong.  

Professor Gordon Mathews read American Studies at Cornell University, USA, and received his doctorate in anthropology at Yale University.  He has been teaching at Chinese University of Hong Kong for 20 years, where he is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Anthropology.  He has written or edited eight books on topics ranging from what makes life worth living, the global cultural supermarket, the Japanese generation gap, Hong Kong people, to the underground economy worldwide.  He is President of the Society for East Asian Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association.  He has been teaching a class of asylum seekers in Chungking Mansions for the past 10 years.  He published “Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions” in 2011.

Members, guests and others are most welcome to attend this talk, which is HK$150 for Members and HK$200 for guests and others including a glass of red or white wine. This event is free of charge for Student Members.

 The Royal Geographical Society - Hong Kong wishes to express its thanks to Tai Kwun for its generous support with this talk.

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