Depending on which Hongkonger you speak to, Chungking Mansions is either a place to avoid or a fascinating island in the sea of multinational chain stores that dominate Tsim Sha Tsui, offering both colour and variety, as well as a range of exquisite overseas cuisines. The reality is that it is both of those things at once.
The sprawling complex’s divisive reputation among locals owes much to the colourful and at times seedy past of the labyrinthine 17-storey building complex that opened on Nathan Road in 1961. At that time, Chungking Mansions was the tallest building in Tsim Sha Tsui and represented a bold new type of residential living in the city.
In its early years, it gained shops and restaurants, and was hailed as a cutting-edge mixed-used development. By the 1970s, however, poor management and neglect led to Chungking Mansions becoming a refuge for questionable businesses and even more questionable characters, and the building’s more notorious reputation was born.
Even so, Chungking Mansions became a bustling haven for newcomers to Hong Kong. The building was an unofficial hub for Africans, Indians, Pakistanis and many others who had moved east seeking their fortune, as well as backpackers looking for cheap accommodation. (It still is, with room rates typically ranging from HK$100 to HK$300; the hotels are listed on all the major booking sites for that added bit of assurance.) With the newcomers came their languages, cultures and cuisines, and Chungking Mansions became a melting pot for more adventurous tourists and curious locals.
By the 1990s, and with the installation of CCTV, Chungking Mansions had shed much of its nefarious image. Visitor numbers spiked after it appeared in director Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s dreamy 1994 classic Chungking Express, and the building had something of a renaissance, wooing film fans and foodies as well as backpackers attracted by the cheap and cheerful accommodation.
Today, in a city strewn with mega-malls, luxury hotels and apartments, the shabby, chaotic Chungking Mansions stands out as something of an anachronism, but its idiosyncratic charm makes it one of the most interesting places in Hong Kong.
How to Get to Chungking Mansions
Chungking Mansions is on the busy thoroughfare Nathan Road, not far from a number of exits from Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station and across the road from the towering iSQUARE mall. To the south are the plush environs of The Peninsula hotel and the tourist hotspots on the waterfront, including the Cultural Centre and the revamped Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade; while to the north is Kowloon Park.
The main entrance is at 36-44 Nathan Road, where you’ll be greeted by people touting the building’s restaurants, shops and tailors, and one or two peddling the odd fake luxury bag or watch. Chungking Mansions is actually five connected blocks, each with its own life on the ground floor. The first two floors contain shops and restaurants, with the upper floors containing the mini hotels and homes of residents.
Where to Eat
The massive complex contains some of the best and closest to authentic international cuisine found in Hong Kong. CNN’s Parts Unknown, hosted by the late Anthony Bourdain, was effusive in praising its food culture, as are some local foodies. The standout is Sher-E-Punjab (Shop 102, 1/F, Block B; +852 2312 0366), a Nepalese and Indian restaurant that’s open till midnight and is known for its sizeable portions.
Other popular options include The Delhi Club (Room 3, 3/F, Block C; +852 2368 1682), Khyber Pass Mess Club (Flat E2, 7/F, Block E; +852 2721 2786) and Turkish kebab house Bismillah (Shop 75, 1/F; +852 2722 5733). Chungking Mansions also has some of the best halal food in Hong Kong, including Syed Bukhara for Malaysian dishes like nasi lemak with egg and fried anchovies (Shop 15-16, G/F; +852 5635 2723).
A few restaurants in Chungking Mansions, particularly the African places, are unnamed as they cater more to regulars and residents. This might put off newbies but they’re worth a visit if you’re in the mood for discovery.
What to Buy
Travellers could find something useful among the plentiful shops offering currency exchange, mobile phones, international phone cards and all manner of gadgets and accessories – but you can also pick up unique trinkets, a quick feed and more. In the Indian shops, you’ll find henna, spices and definitely-not-good-for-you snacks and sweets, as well as fabrics and ceremonial dresses. Similarly, the African shops offer products from back home, although not as many clothing options.
Chungking Mansions by the Numbers
The number of storeys that make up the five connected blocks of Chungking Mansions
The number of years Chungking Mansions has been open for business; established in 1961, the building had its most recent face lift in 2011
The number of nationalities that live and work inside Chungking Mansions, according to a 2011 report by anthropologist Gordon Mathews, with healthy representation from Africa and South Asia
The estimated resident population of Chungking Mansions, according to Matthews
The estimated number of people who enter and leave Chungking Mansions daily