Among other things, Hong Kong has a reputation for being one of the safest places in the world. That is unless you find yourself spending a night in the notorious Chungking Mansions. Alone.
You might be wondering how I ended up in what is known as the ‘Ghetto at the centre of the world’ given its reputation? Well the answer is simple. I didn’t do my research.
While a lack of research can be an enthralling way to travel from day to day, I soon learnt it can also come back to bite you in the bum.
One quick look on Google and there’s enough horror stories to make even a cockroach recoil and sprint in the opposite direction.
What I didn’t know is, Chungking Mansions is an amalgamation of guesthouses, electrical shops, food stalls, foreign exchange offices, but is also where you go for prostitutes, drugs, or illegal passports.
Obviously I wasn’t privy to any of this before booking, I just saw a cheap place to stay in what is an unfathomably expensive city and clicked ‘book now’. I know what you must be thinking, how stupid can one person be? And the answer is, impressively stupid.
In my defense I did do some initial planning. I read a review of budget-friendly places in Hong Kong on the Guardian and selected one they’d listed in Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon. I figured if I liked the place I would extend my stay, and if I didn’t at least I was only going to be there for two nights.
In my mind, I was being extremely sensible.
But that decision proved to be the wrong one. Of course it was. After my two nights were over I asked the receptionist if she could extend my stay only to be told they were fully booked. Bollocks. It was a weekend; how did I not anticipate this? Naturally, I’d gloss over the event of this scenario by hoping for the best. Now I had to face the music.
Because check-out time was drawing near, I didn’t have much time to look around on the internet so I logged onto the Agoda app and searched for the nearest accommodation to me since I liked the area where I was staying.
A lot of the places cropping up were advertised at horrifically expensive prices, money I simply didn’t have. Clearly they had been hiked up for the weekend. I took a few screen shots to evidence my dismay. For a bed in a 4-bed hall prices were coming in at £583, and a night in Chungking Mansions was still rocking in at over £100 a night.
In the end, I narrowed down a few hotels and guesthouses which all seemed to be located in a place called ‘Chungking Mansions’. I was a little perplexed to see so many hotels located in this one place calling itself a ‘mansion’ but I wasn’t concerned enough to investigate further before picking one of the hotels at random since there were all near clones to each other.
Chungking Mansions wasn’t far from where I already was which reassured me that it must be okay because the area I was staying was very nice and more importantly, I felt safe. If anything, it was in an even more desirable location on Nathan Street, the most popular street in the whole of Tsim Sha Tsui, the Oxford Street of Hong Kong.
However, at no point did I consult Google for more information about where I was spending the next following nights. I just packed up my bag and left it with the hotel receptionist to put in storage, and told her I’d be back in the evening before heading to my new accommodation.
I spent the whole day sightseeing. The city had exceeded my expectations. In my imagination I thought it was going to be a concrete jungle obsolete of soul and character but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s multifaceted, you just have to be willing to explore.
Sure, Hong Kong is a mecca of skyscrapers, but there’s also parks, beaches and mountains thrown into the mix.
It was during the late afternoon that I received a phone call from my friend to see how I was getting on, and before ending the conversation I said I was going to be staying at Chungking Mansions.
It wasn’t long afterwards that my phone began ringing again.
My friend had called back but this time the tone of his voice was different.
“Chungking Mansions! Are you crazy” He bellowed down the phone.
“Huh, what do you mean? What’s wrong with it?” I replied confused.
“People have died in there, it’s not safe. The whole building is a health hazard and it’s a hub of criminal activity!”
“Didn’t you check out the reviews before you booked?”
“Kind of, a review on the Agoda app said it was ‘a paradise among chaos’’’
“What about the other reviews?”
“Look, I’ve messed up, but I’ve paid for it now so I have to go. I can’t afford to book elsewhere”.
“Please will you promise me one thing?”
“No matter how busy the queue is for the elevator, please do not get the stairs inside Chungking Mansions”
“It’s where all the drug dealers hang out”
I’d be lying if the conversation hadn’t made me weary, but I told myself my friend was over-reacting and had read too much junk on the internet.
After sightseeing it was getting dark so I decided the time had come to head towards my accommodation and stop delaying the inevitable. I collected my bag and walked over to Chungking Mansions. Immediately I realised I’d walked past the building the day before when a man had tried to sell me a suit which I politely declined.
Upon entering a cacophony of sound, sights and smells hit me like a ton of bricks. The entrance didn’t lead to a reception as I had imagined. This was a full-blown indoor market that sold anything and everything.
I looked at my address, where the heck was Block E? I walked further into the building complex, waded through crowds of people and scanned my eyes to the side of the walls and spotted a sign for Block C. Below the sign, I was looking at something I feared – a huge queue for the elevator – and in the queue was a security guard patrolling the length of it.
You know shit is real when there’s a security guard leading up to the block of guesthouses. But better to be safe and in the queue than take the stairs and risk rubbing shoulders with drug dealers and whatnot.
But I was searching for Block E so I carried on further into the complex, pretending not to register the men swooping up beside me to whisper words into my ear. I never caught a full sentence but I can only presume it was an offer for something illegal, otherwise they wouldn’t have been so clandestine in their approach.
Trying my best to simply hold my shit together I wasn’t prepared to get my camera out which is a shame because this place is packed with character and shows a revealing side to globalisation. But doing the job for me is photographer Bennett Cain from NegativeSpaces.com who has taken a series of compelling photos.
© Bennett Cain
Finally, I spotted a sign for Block E and to my relief there wasn’t a queue for the elevator. Maybe the review was right, it really was paradise among chaos. I had made it without so much as a graze on my knee.
Or so I thought…
Once I got up there I soon realized each block led to a variety of different guesthouses so I had to navigate which one I’d signed up for. Reportedly each night there are 5000 people sleeping within the cracks and crevices of Chungking Mansions. It’s difficult to fathom but when you see the size of the rooms and corridors you’ll soon realise how it’s all possible.
There’s no such thing as health and safety. You don’t even want to think about what might happen if a fire broke out. On one occasion when this did happen a Danish tourist was killed after he became trapped inside.
Whilst thinking about the sheer scale of this place I found Cynthia’s Inn, the name of the guesthouse I was staying. After pressing the buzzer I envisaged being greeted by a little old woman called Cynthia, but now that would have been far too idealistic, wouldn’t it?
Instead a slim Indian man with a moustache opened the door and ushered me inside to his tiny reception.
After signing my name on a register he looked at me, smiled, put his hand on my arm and said, “Don’t worry, you’re safe here”.
That was it. Now I wanted to panic.
Telling me that I’m safe without giving him a prompt to do so is for him to openly admit that being here is like sitting on the precipice of my own grisly murder case.
But appreciating the gesture for the kindness it was intended to be, I managed to muster an expression of thanks whilst pretending I didn’t know what he could possibly be referring to – I mean, this place was a dream.
And it was going to get even better.
Checking in consisted only of writing down my name and address, at no point did he ask to see my passport or check if I was who I said I was. It’s therefore no surprise that this place is a magnet for illegal immigrants.
Before asking where my room was he handed me a set of keys and said, ‘These are your keys, you’re staying in another block so I’ll call my nephew to take you”.
My memory flashed back to the huge queue I’d seen as I walked into the building. There really is no escaping some things after all.
His nephew appeared. Sorry, I mean his ‘nephew’, and we jumped into the elevator together.
We joined the end of the queue and soon after two Australian guys got in line behind us. Just one quick glance and I could see they were high as kites. I tried to keep myself to myself but every time I spoke to the young man escorting me to my room, dumb and dumber realised how entertaining it was to begin imitating what I was saying. I wasn’t ready for an altercation so I pretended they were invisible the best I could.
Between the mess of the evening, I enjoyed a minute of happiness when the security guard threw the Australian guys out of the queue after they stole an onion bhaji from one of the stalls running parallel to the elevator. Whoever said having munchies is a bad thing, is totally wrong.
After about twenty-five minutes of waiting in line we made it upstairs. I followed him past several doors running down a long corridor until he stopped at a door at the far end and punched in a few digits into the lock before it clicked upon.
The door opened onto another narrow corridor that had 5 or 6 different rooms. It was laid out like my old university dormitory, only much dingier.
He stopped on the corridor and asked if I had Whatsapp, since there wasn’t a reception in this block and also no telephone, he said I needed to use Whatsapp to let him know if I needed anything.
I give him my number and then it was around this point that he started to give me a few compliments. Now was not the time and especially not the place for someone to be hitting on me.
The best part came when he pointed to my room, and then he pointed to the one next to it which we were standing in front of, and he said, ‘And this is my room”.
Brilliant. Things could not get any better.
I told him thank you for everything and scrambled into my room, locking the door behind myself.
What had I got myself in to? And more importantly, what exactly was this place?!
Before arriving I decided I would drop my bags off before going out for dinner, but that was out of the equation, there was no way I was going out for food if it meant using that elevator again.
All this might seem dramatic, I don’t blame you for thinking so, had I been with a friend my experience of Chungking Mansions would have been very different and I wouldn’t be writing any of this. Instead of feeling scared I would have been laughing at the situation. But safety in numbers was something I didn’t have.
Once I’d endured the ordeal of getting to my room I was too scared to even contemplate leaving for the pursuit of food so I jammed one of the single beds up against the door and crossed all my fingers and toes that I’d make it through the night without any unsolicited visitors.
The room itself was tiny, worse than I expected in every conceivable way. The towel was wet and stray hairs greeted me on the bed and in the bathroom.
Calling it a bathroom is an extremely generous assertion when you consider it was the size of a shoe box. The toilet and sink was positioned almost directly under the shower so you could effectively brush your teeth whilst having a shower and going for a crap. I’m sure none of you decent folk would choose to do that, but if you wanted to test the theory, you’d find I speak the truth.
What disturbed me the most were the holes in the ceiling, whilst I was having a shower I glanced up and I had a vision of the young man next door spying on me like Norman Bates. But the last thing I wanted to think of was a scene from a horror movie so I scrubbed my body like I was trying to erase the thought.
If there’s one thing that brought comfort to my mind it was a random sticker of Buzz Lightyear on the wall.
But Buzz wasn’t going to get me out of this situation. There was no way I was going to spend longer than a single night in this place so I turned to my facebook page and put out a plea asking for help with alternative accommodations. A few minutes later the angel that is Megan from MeganStarr.com put me in touch with one of her friends called Kam who gave me some tips.
That night was a long night. I slept in my clothes just in case anyone did try coming into my room in the middle of the night. These aren’t things you need to do in safe places or when you’re travelling with friends but when you’re by yourself in Chungking Mansions, there’s no such thing as being too safe.
My paranoia wasn’t helped by reading articles online about the rape victims of Chungking Mansions before I slept. I also learnt that Indian and Nepalese prostitutes are held against their will here.
I questioned why the police don’t get more involved but I was told that it’s safer to have something like this in the open where it’s easier to monitor instead of closing this place down, only for it to relocate and for the corruption to continue under a deeper layer of Hong Kong’s underbelly. It’s sad, but true.
In the morning I raced outta the building quicker than I could say my own name. Sadly, I didn’t stop to see whether or not the best Indian curry can be found inside the maze of Chungking Mansions as claimed, but I do remember thinking it’s nowhere near as sinister in the daylight compared to nightfall. And that’s why I would recommend you visit Chungking Mansions during the day. Socially, it’s a fascinating place, I just don’t advice any females to stay the night alone. Even if you have a black belt in karate.
The following evening, I met up with Kam and immediately she drew me into her crowd of friends as though I was an old buddy she hadn’t met up with in years. Spending an evening with her was exactly what I needed after still feeling the sting of the night before.
Kam made light of the situation by saying everywhere else you go will now feel like paradise, and she was right. Everywhere did feel like paradise.
I hope one day I can repay the favour to Megan and Kam. You guys helped a girl in need and I won’t forget it!
Have you had the pleasure of staying in Chungking Mansions before?
1st photo © worksthatwork.com