Deep in Hong Kong’s core, 17 floors of a run-down building full of transients provide a key to understanding globalization from the bottom up. Gordon Mathews’s Ghetto at the Center of the World (University of Chicago Press, 2011) paints a detailed portrait of life in and around Chungking Mansions, a single property with two common retail/galleria floors with a basement, and three independent towers that rise above them. The building is full of cheap guest houses, retail space devoted to electronics, and—one can euphemistically say—informal transactions. The book takes a penetrating look at the building’s residents, businesses, and interconnected international flows of people and commerce—all of which have generated strong interest in academic and business circles as globalization creates a growing need to understand such organic structures, which can provide a framework for modeling a new urban paradigm.
On any given night, 4,000 people stay in Chungking Mansions. Guest-house logs document as many as 129 nationalities and include the fullest range of backgrounds—entrepreneurs, temporary workers from south Asia and sub-Sahara Africa, asylum seekers, Indian sex workers, and Tibetan heroin addicts, among others.
Chungking Mansions embraces this extraordinarily diverse nature and develops a unique character to exploit it. This is in part driven by the building’s typology—with its labyrinthine feel, the breakdown of apartments into a multitude of rooms—and partly by the building code requirements (or lack thereof) that have shaped it through the years. But the critical elements that generate such a diverse dynamic lie in its convoluted ownership involving more than 900 different shareholders, which segments the building management into a complex mosaic of permutations—some of them formal, some decidedly informal.
Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, crafted this research project through several years of visits, interviews, searches through records, and tracking of the travel patterns of the business commuters that populate Chungking Mansions. Through his systemic and candid insight into the life of the building, a narrative unfolds with a complex layering of transient communities, international trade, and local hybridization. Mathews’s academic approach offers a thorough analysis of low-end globalization, while his personal narrative describing his research and years of involvement with the people of Chungking Mansions gives a fresh feel for the place.
Occasionally a slight frustration emerges from reading the case study because it is challenged by how much information about the building’s informal activities can be documented. However, the insights are profound and engaging, and the complex dynamic that is unveiled through the work deserves readers’ attention. The anthropological methodology and its research findings provide a profound understanding of land use dynamics in dense urban nodes under complex socio-economic transformations.
In arguing that Chungking Mansions might be the most globalized building in the world, the volume also exposes a critical typology, commonly overlooked, of transient real estate spaces and critical hubs of international activity. Ghetto at the Center of the World explains not only how such a building is part of complex processes of cultural hybridization, but also that the flexibility of such buildings is key to facilitating the transactions that sustain a large part of global economies.
While Chungking Mansions, as one of the oldest structures in the area, itself might disappear, several transient buildings and neighborhoods have emerged throughout the world that, similarly, stand ready to define our lives. More and more, Chungking Mansions represents the world we will live in, the study concludes. Low-end globalization is not our past; rather, it will be a defining element of our urban futures. This book affords a ripe opportunity to understand it.