Reading: Gordon Mathews — Ghetto at the Center of the World

I once stayed a night in Chungking Mansions, when a flight from Canada arrived too late to catch even the cross-border bus to Guangzhou. I was given the address by a woman at the information booth just past the exit gates from customs, and probably told to make certain not to get off the city bus one stop too early. Someone was waiting for me, amidst the hysterical confusion of touts, and led me into the depths, up an elevator and to a small guesthouse, run by an older Pakistani man. My room even had a window, from which I could see the street below, washed in rain, with a throng of bodies like no other.

Another time, after a climbing trip on Hong Kong island, I went with a group for dinner in a Pakistani restaurant. Once more up elevators and along corridors. As we departed, I glimpsed through another door momentarily opened and saw groups of serious islamic men eating their own dinners around wooden tables.

I stayed there because of course living in Guangzhou and having a fascination with the Pearl River region how could I not hear of this place with the dangerous reputation — especially given my taste for Wong Kar-wai’s films. Were I to get stuck again in Hong Kong now, I’d likely stay there again, given at least it’s a name I know.

There is a compulsion in accounts of globalisation and the developing world to make the story about us, we who live in the global north, who either speak english, are of european descent, or both. That there could be a parallel yet predominantly disconnected globalisation, a flow of trade, people, ideas and culture is often seen as irrelevant or incomprehensible to the central narrative, if even addressed.

Gordon Mathew’s anthropology of this building, Ghetto at the Center of the World — Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong appealed to me for more than just what goes on in the confines of its seventeen stories and five separate blocks. As he points out in the introduction, the history and culture of the building is also one of low-end globalisation. This is not a narrative of the developed world’s arrangement with China in providing cheap, off-shore manufacturing, but rather that of a globalisation in which Europe and America are at best ancillary nodes on multiply-layered and discrete trade routes that span from Africa to South-East Asia by way of Dubai, India, and Guangzhou, and more often simply don’t occur at all in the narrative.

I’ve already spent much of the morning perched on the windowsill in the sun, having knocked off half the book in a sitting, which should give an idea of how fascinating I find the topic and book.