Jump aboard the Chungking Express—if you dare

Culture | by Peta Heinrich
Posted: May 29th, 2013 | Updated: April 3rd, 2014 | Comments

Chungking Mansions: Enter if you dare.

The notorious Chungking Mansions and neighboring Mirador Mansions in Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui, can be intimidating at first sight, especially as a solo female traveler. Full of aggressive touts and frequented mainly by African and South Asian men who gather round the entrances, there's barely a woman to be seen here. But they also offer some of Hong Kong's cheapest accommodation. As someone who's lived and traveled quite a bit in the Middle East (perhaps one of the most difficult regions to travel as a solo female), I've become somewhat accustomed to various kinds of unwanted attention. While it's almost always harmless, it's a hassle to deal with and on my many previous visits to Hong Kong, I'd avoided both places. But on my most recent visa run a few weeks back, I decided it was finally time to give them a try.... Known for coffin-sized rooms and painfully slow elevators, these huge buildings offer an abundance of budget accommodation of varying standards, yet their dubious reputations precede them. Stories abound of cockroaches, dodgy door locks, ancient electrical wiring and worse.

Mirador

I started at the Mirador Mansions located at 58-62 Nathan Road. It's smaller and somewhat quieter than Chungking and was a good way to ease into things. Touts lie in wait at the ground-floor entrance but once you escape you can wander its floors—full of tailoring businesses and Indian men hanging out their washing—in relative peace. I was pleasantly surprised by Motel Double Yield, the Chinese-run establishment which I chose. The HK$300 (RMB 237) room was windowless and the size of a cupboard, but it was clean, well equipped, offered free Wi-Fi and had friendly and helpful owners—and there wasn't a cockroach to be seen.

Chungking

The Chungking Mansions is the more famous of the two and lies just down the street at 36-44 Nathan Road. Built in 1961, this former fire-trap is a massive 17-story labyrinth of residences, restaurants, guesthouses and shops and houses about 4,000 residents. It's a melting pot of nationalities which has seen a fatal fire, at least one homicide and all manner of shady dealings including drugs, prostitutes, scammers and petty crime. I stayed here on my final night and it's certainly a bit more full-on. Walking into any of its entrances, you'll be assailed by touts who'll try anything to strike up a conversation. The most effective thing to do is ignore them completely—if you get drawn in, it could take quite some time to extricate yourself. The bottom floor is a teeming confusion of around 140 shops and food stalls. There are money changers, mobile phone and electronics stores, Internet cafes, clothing shops, Indian grocery stores and restaurants. If you're on a budget and partial to butter chicken, dosas or tikka masala, the ground floor of Chungking is also a good place to head. The upper floors feature around 80 budget accommodations in five different blocks, each with its own set of two lifts, invariably with a long queue waiting to enter. I was initially less impressed with the European Hostel, the deceptively named Indian-run establishment I stayed in here, mainly because of the unenthusiastic service. It was a maze of stairways and locked doors just to get to my room and I'm frankly not even sure it was actually located in the hostel I booked.  But the room itself was nothing to complain about for the price. The HK$200 (RMB 158) double room was cheaper, slightly larger, offered free Wi-Fi and came with a window, though the Indian man sleeping on a mattress in a small alcove just outside my door was a little disconcerting at first.

The round-up

Rooms in these buildings are invariably box-like but the ones I stayed in were clean, had bathrooms and offered free Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, TVs, safes and mini-fridges in as little space as possible. While you might have to shower over the toilet, you can certainly find some decent places here at reasonable prices. Book first to avoid the touts, or otherwise be prepared to bargain. Be sure to check your room first and make sure there's a decent lock on your door, which you should always make use of. Safety-wise I didn't feel physically threatened in either of these places during my stay but I was more impressed with Mirador in this regard. If you're a woman traveling solo, you'll certainly get some attention, which is more pronounced in Chungking. Minimize this by avoiding eye contact and ignoring unwanted conversations. While Chungking has apparently been cleaned up significantly since the 1990s and now has security guards and over 200 CCTV cameras installed, it's best not to be complacent and you might want to avoid the back alleys in the evenings. Overall I'd probably favor the Mirador and its relative peacefulness. But if you're looking for adventure and atmosphere or fancy a samosa or two, Chungking definitely offers more. If you're not claustrophobic and can handle riding tiny elevators with some shady looking characters, why not consider these legends of Hong Kong the next time you drop by?

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