A remarkably motley group of people call the building home; Pakistani phone stall operators, Chinese guesthouse workers, Nepalese heroin addicts, Indonesian sex workers, and traders and asylum seekers from all over Asia and Africa live and work there—even backpacking tourists rent rooms. In short, it is possibly the most globalized spot on the planet. But as Ghetto at the Center of the World shows us, a trip to Chungking Mansions reveals a far less glamorous side of globalization. We come to understand the day-to-day realities of globalization through the stories of entrepreneurs from Africa carting cell phones in their luggage to sell back home and temporary workers from South Asia struggling to earn money to bring to their families.
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Hyun Bang Shin finds Ghetto at the Center of the World to be a fascinating peek into the future of life on our shrinking planet.
Gordon Mathews. University of Chicago Press. Find this book: In recent decades, we increasingly hear about cities striving to capture increasingly mobile capital and international visitors, and to become global or world-class cities.
Discussions have evolved around the issue of identifying what makes world-class or global cities. For the global city discourse, it has been the uneven shares of finance and business services and corporate headquarters that made cities such as New York, London and Tokyo at the apex of the global city hierarchy. Similarly, the literature on world cities positions cities in the hierarchy of cities network on the basis of how cities have come to possess capacity to generate knowledge flows.
This capacity is measured by the extent to which each city sees the presence of globalised service firms in key sectors such as finance, management consultancy, accountancy and so on. While these approaches allow us to see how cities as strategic sites of capital accumulation and knowledge production emerge as key players in the global economy, they may pose two problems.
In this process, cities that do not conform to the growth model of cities in the developed North are often treated as unique or extraordinary. Through the ethnography of Chungking Mansions, Mathews tellingly reports the life of traders from sub-Saharan Africa, of Chinese shop owners and their South Asian managers, temporary workers, asylum seekers, domestic helpers and so on, all of whom are drawn to Chungking Mansions from various parts of the world though predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia , producing their own experience of globalisation.
The attention to the traders and workers from Africa and Asia and the examination of their life stories place their home countries back on the globalisation map. Mathews points out that the interaction among the users and occupants of Chungking Mansions often involves extra-legality due to the nature of goods subject to transaction China-made copies of European or Japanese mobile phones for example as well as the nature of employment notably the recruitment of South Asian visitors on tourist visas or asylum seekers, who cannot legally work in Hong Kong.
The book as a whole is divided into five chapters. In Chapter 1, Mathews discusses the making of the place, presenting an overview of Chungking Mansions including its historical background and a summary of main occupants and users.
To me, the main highlight is Chapter 2 on people. These include traders from sub-Saharan Africa, looking for garments and electronic goods, many of whom purchase as much as they can squeeze in their check-in luggages. The chapter also includes vivid stories of shop owners, most of whom came from Shanghai or Fujian province in the s and the s, and who are more or less invisible with not much physical presence in the building, as they hire South Asian managers who take care day-to-day trading businesses.
Cheap labour is also provided by asylum seekers who work illegally while waiting for their asylum applications to be processed by the UNHCR Hong Kong office or the Hong Kong government itself. The chapter also includes the life of domestic Filipino and Indonesian helpers who work in the numerous hostels on their day off for extra cash, and the life of sex workers and heroin addicts whose numbers are marginal but nevertheless constitute the social life of Chungking Mansions.
Mobile phones and garments are the two main items that are being traded mostly through Chungking Mansions, while produced in mainland China across the border. Copies of brand-name goods or original but out-of-season warehoused goods get traded mostly in small scales for the merchants to carry them in their check-in luggages.
Chapter 4 is on laws. Nevertheless, the chapter presents more extended narratives of asylum seekers in particular, which itself deserves some credits.
In the final chapter, Mathews discusses what may happen to Chungking Mansions in future. Chungking Mansions is about 50 years old, and for an East Asian standard, the building is quite old and may be subject to demolition in the near future, despite the fact that the presence of multiple individual owners of flats and shops as well as high building density had defied redevelopment attempts in the past.
It will be the kind of this book that we may need more to read, in order to understand how the history of globalisation is not simply the history of large corporates, nation states and highly paid privileged ex-pats of the developed world.
It contains some useful links and photos, and a link to a student-produced documentary about Chungking Mansions. Read it here. His main research interests lie in critically analysing political economic dynamics of contemporary urban re- development and its socio-spatial implications, with special emphasis on Asian cities.
Read more reviews by Hyun. About the author.
Ghetto at the Center of the World
Shelves: asia , non-fiction A group of Hong Kongers enter the Chungking Mansions, in search of "real curry" perhaps. They huddle closely together, unused to being the minority. Some of them stare openly at all the foreign faces, none of which are white. Others carefully avoid eye contact, especially the girls, unused to such open scrutiny. Unconsciously, they clutch their purses closer, not knowing that travelers from various corners of the world freely leave thousands of dollars on counters while they carefully count out A group of Hong Kongers enter the Chungking Mansions, in search of "real curry" perhaps. Unconsciously, they clutch their purses closer, not knowing that travelers from various corners of the world freely leave thousands of dollars on counters while they carefully count out the payment for, say, a shipment of copy mobile phones.
Book Review: Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Mathews
Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong