Wong Kar-Wai is one of my favorite film directors. Movies like ‘Fallen Angels’ and ‘In the Mood for Love’ are at the apex of the Seventh Art. I truly believe, however, that the movie Chungking Express is his magnum opus. Chungking Express is a highly unique, beautifully stylish and visually exhilarating masterpiece. An epitome of cinematic art, Chungking Express is about loneliness and finding love in the densely packed city. Portraying a mesmerizing picture of the nightlife in urban Hong Kong. The title of the movie refers to the building called Chungking Mansions, where much of the first part of the movie is set. I had watched this movie before my internship in Hong Kong. I was absolutely thrilled when I finally managed to visit.
I had the opportunity to visit the place a couple of times during my stay. Once with a friend of mine from mainland China, and another time with my flatmate from the USA. The first time, I actually stumbled upon the building while I was exploring Tsim Sha Tsui alone. I was walking along the sidewalk when I looked up and, lo and behold, I found myself standing right in front of the famous building that I had seen in the movie.
Located in Tsim Sha Tsui, the 17-storey building was constructed in 1961. An estimated 4,000 people currently live in the building. The building features guesthouses, curry restaurants, clothing shops, and foreign exchange stores.
Just like the movie, Chungking Mansions has an unusual atmosphere to it which is in deep contrast to the rest of the city. The bizarre, or as some would call ‘sketchy’ mood of the place is what sets it apart. Many tourists fear coming here due to its sketchiness. Don’t get me wrong, it’s sketchy indeed in every sense of the word. I read somewhere that it has been called the ‘murder capital of Hong Kong’. I really can’t understand why though. Another interesting fact is that the building is so famous that a book titled ‘Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong’ has been written about it. Nonetheless I didn’t feel unsafe there at all. If anything, I was only concerned about pickpockets.
You know you’re in the neighborhood when you notice a bunch of Indian guys selling dress suits, holding up and handing out cards to every guy that would even dare to acknowledge their presence. Not the ideal product to sell on the streets though I wouldn’t think. When I say Indian, I also include Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan etc. Basically the whole gang. Frankly, outside my own people, I can’t really tell the difference. Once I started talking to a Nepalese guy in an elevator in Urdu who just stared at me blankly before replying back politely in English. Needless to say I failed terribly to impress the Chinese friend who was with me.
I would say Pakistanis and Indians share quite a lot, for instance, the language, cuisine and *cough* the accent. Although I prefer not to be piled under the label of ‘Indian’ along with so many other diverse nationalities. As a Pashtun, I actually live at the other end of the spectrum, but with foreigners I use this term when referring to the cuisine or the culture. I just feel it’s less hassle. Anyway, I digress. At Chungking Mansions, you will find people of all the aforementioned nationalities. It’s like another city inside a building. A microcosm of all the South Asian and African minorities. Chungking Mansions is the embodiment of the cultural diversity that’s a hallmark of Hong Kong.
I really believe Chungking Mansions is the only place where you can get to try the authentic Pakistani/Indian cuisine. I have been to other Indian restaurants in Hong Kong but the food there tastes quite different to what I am used to. The spices are usually adapted to local palates, which results in a sweetish flavor instead. I was craving for original spicy food from my home.
Having dinner at Chungking Mansions finally, it was like a breath of fresh air. It was amazing. The unexpected bit was that both of my friends also really enjoyed the food, which is interesting considering it was quite spicy. We went to a Pakistani restaurant called Khyber Pass, which is on the 6th floor of the building. It has the best Indian food in Hong Kong. I would recommend it to anyone who would like to go to Chungking Mansions and try Indian food.
I would suggest to everyone who comes to Hong Kong to visit this off-centre but amazing place at least once, to taste a different flavor of the city. You might get a culture shock but it’ll be worth it.
I think I really need to re-watch Chungking Express again someday.
All photos by Hassan Ahmed. Check out his personal profile here