The dilapidated, 17-story building known as Chungking Mansions sits in the heart of Hong Kong's glittery tourist district, on the busy shopping thoroughfare of Nathan Road. But visitors entering the building may be surprised to find themselves in something that looks much more like the markets of Kolkata, Kathmandu, or Kampala -- or all of them at once. There are Africans in bright robes and hip-hop fashions, Pakistani men in skullcaps, young Indonesian women in their slinky best, European hippies, and Indian and Nepalese touts offering a room, a watch of questionable authenticity, a suit, or hashish.
Chungking Mansions wasn't always a low-budget United Nations. Built in 1961 as a luxurious apartment complex, the building soon fell into disrepair. By the late 1960s, it had become the haunt of American GIs on R&R from Vietnam looking for prostitutes; in the decade that followed, its cheap guesthouses became a haven for backpackers on a budget in a newly prospering -- and expensive -- city.
By the time I first visited the building in 2006, Chungking Mansions had evolved into something else entirely. Over the past 15 years, south China's emergence as the world's manufacturer of cheap goods, coupled with Hong Kong's relaxed visa regulations, has turned Chungking Mansions into a central hub of what I call "low-end globalization." For instance, 20 percent of the mobile phones now in use in sub-Saharan Africa, by my estimates, have passed through this building. The backpackers are still to be found in Chungking Mansions, as are, increasingly, tourists from mainland China. But the complex is now primarily the haunt of traders from around the world. Entrepreneurs from South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond have come to seek their fortunes, buying cheap mobile phones, computers, watches, and clothes from Pakistani, Indian, and Chinese vendors. They hawk their wares alongside Asian and African asylum-seekers looking for refuge and among Indian temporary workers flying in from Kolkata. When we think of globalization, we tend to think of the work that happens a mile away from Chungking Mansions in the glassed-in skyscrapers of Hong Kong's financial district, the province of multinational corporations and their attendant armies of lawyers and consultants. This kind of globalization has no doubt remade much of the world we live in. But over the five years that I have spent living in and studying Chungking Mansions as an anthropologist, I have seen a different form of globalization. The time I've spent listening to the stories of African traders and Pakistani merchants and sleeping in the complex's guesthouses -- from the roach-infested to the flatscreen-TV-endowed -- has added up to an advanced course in the intricacies of developing-world economics.
Store managers and clerks in Chungking Mansions come from all over the world, but most are South Asian. The building is the only one in Hong Kong with free-to-air South Asian TV: Indian, Pakistani, and Nepali TV channels available to everyone. Bollywood movie stalls and South Asian grocery stores and restaurants abound. The mobile phone trade in particular, carried out in a hundred wholesale stalls on the building's second floor, is dominated by Pakistanis. It is said that in the 1990s, Pakistani gangs roamed the building intimidating store owners, but by all accounts this is not the case today. As one Pakistani phone stall proprietor told me, "Why should anyone extort money? We can make money much more easily by selling mobile phones!"
In the last two years, more mainland Chinese have opened stores in the building, often with direct links to Chinese factories, seeking to undercut the prices of the Pakistani middlemen. But their businesses often fold on account of the language barrier --Chungking Mansions may sit on Chinese soil, but its lingua franca is English. The Chinese merchants' relative ignorance of the world beyond China hurts them, too. As one West African trader maintained to me, "Chinese have been in a bottle too long." Nonetheless, they may be the wave of the future; as a Pakistani merchant in Chungking Mansions said, "Between the Chinese and the Africans, maybe in a few years there will be no room for the Pakistanis anymore."
I spent many months behind the counter of a Chungking Mansions mobile phone stall with my Pakistani friend Mahmood, who sold phones primarily to African traders. None of the phones on offer had price stickers. Instead, a trader would approach and ask the wholesale price of a particular model. Mahmood would then ask about a comparable model. If the trader knew nothing of that model, Mahmood raised his initial price 10 percent, based on the customer's ignorance of the game. But if the customer recognized the model that Mahmood had mentioned, Mahmood knew to keep his price low, for he had a worthy adversary. From there, the haggling would take days, with Mahmood and the trader making offers and counteroffers until the last possible moment, when the trader's van was waiting outside.