AFTER EMERGING FROM the Tsim Sha Tsui metro station, I made my way down a busy street through a steady July drizzle, walking past jewellery shops, clothing stores and large billboards that advertised the Hong Kong dream in all its incarnations: shiny new things, dernier cri gadgetry, and above all diamonds, marketed with the promise of eternal love.
I had only travelled two stops in the deep chill of Hong Kong’s immaculate metro from Central, the city’s main business district and financial centre, which was all suits and banks, and even higher-end shopping, populated by enough white faces that one could imagine Britain’s purchase on Hong Kong had never quite come to an end. By comparison, Tsim Sha Tsui was a world removed. The whites, mostly tourists, appeared like speckles in a crowd that was mainly yellow, but also—and this was new to my senses here—significantly brown and black. South Asians, who barely account for one percent of Hong Kong’s population, were all of a sudden conspicuous where they had barely been in evidence before. And Africans, all but invisible in Hong Kong’s business district, were out in abundance, and after their own particular fashion, they were doing business, too.
My destination, a massively hulking apartment block of heavily weathered concrete named Chungking Mansions, loomed ahead, but I got a sense of the neighbourhood’s flavour even before reaching the entrance. “Copywatch, copywatch? Handbag, sir? Massage?” came the voices as I crossed the street in a crowd during my final approach to the building.
At the entrance to the mansions, a low staircase that led to a darkened pavilion inside, my final obstacles were the milling touts from South Asia who blocked the doorway, trying to scare up customers for the Indian restaurants that are one of the building’s claims to fame.
I took a name card from one of them, but moved past. It was not food that had drawn me here. My first order of business was to find cheap lodging for a few days in Hong Kong, and it had been suggested to me that a hostel run by a Nigerian man named Joseph might fit the bill nicely. But a cheap room wasn’t the main draw to this building either. The very first inklings of what had really brought me here could instead be heard in the calls that rang out from every direction as I made my way through a crush of people down the narrow alleys of the ground floor, lined with endless stalls of merchandise, toward the rear of the airless cavern that functioned like a bazaar.
“SIM cards! International calling cards! Mobile phones, sir,” came the cries, almost all in accents of South Asia. It was this last item that had, in fact, drawn me. The Chungking Mansions, a sprawling and enormous single building, built in five adjoining blocks—and something of a slum at that, despite the grand name—was many things: a claptrap collection of cheap hostels, a collection of Indian restaurants known to be some of the best in Hong Kong, a hiding place for would-be immigrants and asylum-seekers, an emporium for bric-a-brac and odds and ends of every type, an exotic crossroads, platform and assignation spot for prostitutes from Africa or drugs from Kashmir or Nepal.
In a city that can sometimes feel sterile, all of this was surely enough to make this place more than a passing curiosity. But what made it truly interesting, dare one say important, was its place in the trade of the dominant consumer technology of our time: the cellphone.
That commerce had turned the Mansions into the magnet around which was built a human ecosystem like none I’ve ever seen or heard of, and drawn together in its churning slag people from three of the world’s main population centres: China, South Asia and Africa. For the building’s neighbours, merchants in diamonds and pearls and photo gear for rich tourists, Chungking Mansions was simply an eyesore, an abode for undesirables, a place they associated with crime. But the building’s secret—the reason it brought these races together like perhaps no place else on earth—was that it was supplying as many as one fifth of all of the cellphones sold in the booming markets of Africa.
MY FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE PLACE came in the ride up to Joseph’s hostel, the Marria Lodge, where I would stay. I was perfectly prepared for a West African wahala, a spot of mess, a lot of bother, confusion, as I squeezed into the C Block elevator, and silently took note of the passengers cramped there together with me: two Chinese couples, three South Asians, an African, and someone who I guessed was from somewhere in Central Asia.
I’d called to make a reservation a couple of days before, and though it was a Nigerian who answered, it was not Joseph. More worryingly, he said no problem to my every request, pronouncing the words with great dispatch. I’m very tall, and was road weary, having just arrived from West Africa myself. My needs included a king size bed, A/C, and functioning Wi-Fi. Everything was OK, he promised, and then said he would call me back the next day to reconfirm. In Nigeria, I knew, OK was not necessarily a word of reassurance, and of course there was no call.
When I stepped out into a dark hallway on the 11th floor, I was greeted by a strong odour of bleach. It took me a minute to find the sign above one of the doors there for the Marria, but when I knocked, there was no answer. Deflated, I lugged my big suitcase back toward the elevator bank and pressed the down button.
At that moment, a tall, bearded African man emerged from the hostel. He told me that the elusive manager could be found hanging out near the elevator bank on the ground floor, from whence I had just come.
We rode down together, this bearded man named Abdul, who I learned was from Somalia, and I. This time I counted four Africans, three South Asians and two Chinese. I had scarcely lingered downstairs amid the bazaar buzz when I was approached by a tall, slim African man with a friendly smile who drawled my name by way of greeting. It was Joseph.
He began by apologising, telling me that there were no vacancies on the floor I’d just been to, and offering to take me to another place. I assumed this meant another hostel altogether, but he said that he had more rooms on the E Block, and escorted me there.
When we reached the 16th floor, Joseph ushered me quickly past the offices of Christian Aid, an NGO whose work involved helping refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom were from Africa—although I would soon meet refugees from places as far-flung as Colombia, Peru and Nepal—and into the tiny, crowded room where I would live for the next several days.
It had been a long time since I had stayed in a place like this. As a shoestring freelancer in West Africa, many years earlier, where I had often shacked up in everything from truck stops to brothels, places like these were known in French as “entrer coucher”, enter and lie down, because the space allowed for little else. There was Wi-Fi, and A/C, and Joseph, who spoke with more polish and less haste than the “brother” I’d had on the phone a few days before, quickly explained their use. The beds were twin doubles, though, and the bathroom was as small and narrow as I could recall, requiring contortions for me to use, and ladling water from a bucket.
After he handed over the keys, we repaired to Joseph’s airless little office on the same floor. There, I sat across from him on a low stool in the warm air while he introduced me to his world.
Out of the nearly 100 hostels in the building, this was the only one run by an African, Joseph told me proudly. The others were predominantly owned by Indians or Chinese, meaning people from the Chinese mainland. Natives of Hong Kong were few in the hostel business, he said: “They really don’t like this building. It’s a very special place, though. You can find anything here.”
Joseph told me a hard-luck story about life in Nigeria, of making it to college, thanks to his mother’s meagre retirement funds, but not having the means to go further. He explained how he had wangled an invitation to a conference to China, and then absconded to Hong Kong, where he had initially sought asylum, claiming to have been politically persecuted as a member of the opposition back home.
The problem with asylum in Hong Kong, he discovered, was that during the long petitioning process, one cannot legally work, which makes survival problematic for undocumented foreigners, especially for Africans, who immediately stand out here. Joseph eventually found another route: he met a woman from Hong Kong, six years his elder, and they married, reducing his immigration process to a mere formality.
“Somehow I managed to escape that hot, uncomfortable country called Nigeria,” Joseph told me. “You have something you want to show the world, but unless you leave a country like that, what can you do? Nothing.” Then, returning to the subject of his wife, with scarcely a pause, he added: “She’s lovely. She’s good. She doesn’t have a Chinese mind. She’s not greedy.”
For asylum seekers, stories like these were as rare as lottery jackpots. I congratulated Joseph and then asked what he had meant by his phrase, “you can find anything here”.
Almost like a striptease, he began with the anodyne stuff, mentioning the wide variety of Indian food, which Chinese connoisseurs lined up for each evening. From there, he drew a quick catalogue of the gadgets that came through the building: “copy phones, some real phones, copy iPads, some real iPads, watches, bags. Like I said, you can get whatever you want, but if you are not careful, you’ll get what you don’t want here. If you don’t know the goods and are not careful, you will get a surprise.
“Look carefully at the spelling. Samsung might have an ‘i’, Nokia might be spelled with an ‘e’.”
I began to feel Joseph was humouring me. These were not revelations. They were, rather, what one would expect, so I pushed for more. He then began to explain the layout of the building, suggesting not only a division of labour among the races that came together here, but real territoriality, too.
His fellow Nigerians were the biggest cellphone buyers of all, and they tended to congregate on the first floor, a commercial space unsuspected by the travellers and tourists who came to dwell in the cheap hostels. There, the dealers were overwhelmingly Chinese.
The South Asians were on the ground floor, he said, telling me what I’d already seen. Then, one by one, he began ticking through nationalities. Ugandan women, for instance, dominated the prostitution business, he said. People from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Mali fed a brisk trade in gemstones with goods carefully secreted in hidden baggage compartments and on their persons. The big buyers tended to be Indians, but there were others, too.
Joseph saw my interest piqued with mention of this and explained that nearly all of the building’s business was done in cash. “I have customers here all the time who are moving hundreds of thousands of dollars of goods every time they come, and they are coming back all the time,” he said. “There’s a Nigerian guy here now from Jos who is in the stone trade, and with him, we’re talking millions.”
I asked for an introduction, and he nodded, as if in assent, but the smile he flashed was enigmatic.
I understood my task over the next few days to be getting beyond the enigmatic smiles, not just Joseph’s, but those of the South Asian restaurant touts and stall clerks who observed me quizzically as I came in and out of the building, and circulated in the ground floor bazaar, with a notebook in my back pocket and camera at hand.
They had sized me up quickly and knew that I was not a potential customer, but perhaps rather a Hong Kong policeman. This was regrettable and led to many frustrations, but whenever I paused to think about it, it was also somehow hilarious, which took the sting off. By day three in the Mansions, the cries of hawkers had gone totally silent when I walked by. The exception was a skinny young Kashmiri guy with longish hair and sleepy eyes who was a fixture atop a low stool in a dark recess of the building. His name was Angel, and he unfailingly plied me with murmurs of “hash?” or “weed?” every time I approached.
The Indian phone dealers would tell me flatly that the business was dead, and that the idea of selling huge volumes to Africans was a myth. Never mind that they spoke behind glass counters that creaked, loaded to the brims with the very latest display models.
I would go to the second floor to be waved off by Chinese, who refused to engage with me, even though I spoke their language well. In the open spaces there, at least, I could watch Africans—Nigerians, most of all, just like Joseph had told me—inspecting hundreds of freshly bought phones, one by one, and then removing their batteries before packing them into large cartons which they taped heavily for shipment back home.
Over the years, I had spent a lot of time in Ghana, and had lived next door in Ivory Coast, and because of that, I could speak a bit of the language spoken by the Ghanaian traders I met. This prompted rumors, which quickly spread among the West Africans in the building, that perhaps I was a CIA agent. Some asked me directly, leaving me with nothing to do but to laugh.
THINGS BEGAN TO TURN AROUND for me after three days of relatively arid wanderings like this, beginning with a neon-lit meeting with a man named Gordon Mathews over drinks at an airless Indian teashop on the building’s ground floor.
Mathews, an academic from the United States who has lived in Hong Kong for 18 years, more or less wrote the book on Chungking Mansions: The Ghetto at the Center of the World, published in 2011, which received a huge amount of attention in Hong Kong and beyond, especially for a volume of pure sociology.
In it, he had called the Mansions the “ramshackle home of the developing world in Hong Kong”, which was a nicely descriptive phrase, but hardly a striking insight for anyone who had entered the building, however briefly, or even walked past it. The genius of Mathews’s work, instead, was to understand how this 17-storey building functioned as a central node in a phenomenon he dubbed “low-end globalisation”.
This was something entirely distinct, he wrote, from “the activities of Coca-Cola, Nokia, Sony, McDonalds, and other huge corporations, with their high-rise offices, batteries of lawyers, and vast advertising budgets. Instead, it is traders carrying their goods by suitcase, container, or truck across continents and borders with minimal interference from legalities and copyrights, a world run by cash. It is also individuals seeking a better life by fleeing their home countries for opportunities elsewhere, whether as temporary workers, asylum seekers, or sex workers.”
“This,” he concludes his definition with emphasis, “is the dominant form of globalisation experienced in much of the developing world today.”
In Mathews, whose courses at the Chinese University of Hong Kong include something called “Meanings of Life”, one quickly discovers an intense, grayish and talkative man in his fifties who has grown used to dealing with reporters in the wake of the strong response to his book, especially among the Hong Kong media, where he is often quoted.
“In the space of five years, Chungking Mansions has gone from being regarded as a hellhole to becoming a pretty fashionable place,” he told me, at least indirectly contradicting what I had heard from Joseph. “Hong Kong people who once dreaded it are now celebrating the building, claiming the place as proof of the city’s multicultural makeup, its unique openness and sophistication.”
“In 2008, I estimated that 20 percent of all of the cellphones sold in Africa were sourced from here, but the thing about low-end globalisation is that no one really knows, because there are no official figures on this kind of stuff,” Mathews told me. “What I’ve done is the only way to get numbers, and that is by making the rounds to visit people in places like this and asking questions. Lots of questions.”
Mathews related a metaphor shared with him by an African trader to explain why a building like this in a city like Hong Kong had become so vital to a business as important as the cellphone. “He told me that for the longest time Chinese society was like a bottle. The people weren’t allowed to venture into the outside world, and once the country opened up, they didn’t speak English well. Well, in the meantime, you had Pakistanis and Indians who people from Africa and other places could communicate with. They became a sort of the natural middlemen, and this pattern has held.”
The Nokias and Apples and Samsungs of the world had been slow to figure out the ways of the marketplace in Africa, where the informality of the handshake and the duffel bag stuffed with merchandise or money ruled. They had been slow, in fact, even to consider this market, now one of the fastest-growing in the world.
In the last decade, the spread of the cellphone has changed life for Africans with a speed and power unmatched by any other technology. During this time, according to the World Bank, cellphone use has grown 40-fold, and with 648 million mobile subscriptions, the continent has more users than either the United States or the European Union.
In piecing this together, the Chinese, Indians and Africans who did business in Chungking Mansions were not put off by the messiness or haggling. What interested them most was following the trail of money.
Mathews explained that most of the Indians one found in the building were from Kolkata. “You can fly from there to here very easily. Biman, the Bangladeshi airline, has return fares that are very cheap. If you’re from Mumbai, it doesn’t make sense to come all the way here. You’d go to Dubai and so forth. But the people who fly from Kolkata earn their airfare back carrying their first load of merchandise.” (Phones from Chungking Mansions come to India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh in large numbers, but their volume pales in comparison to the building’s African trade.)
Although I had read his book, I only had a dim recollection of some of the important changes that had swept the building’s cellphone trade since Mathews had been studying it. In the early years, something called “copy phones” were the mainstay of the business. These were incredibly cheap and flimsy knockoffs of major foreign brands, which often came, as I’d been forewarned, with gross misspellings of their names.
Next came the rise of the Chinese brands, companies that were unheard of to customers in Peshawar or Lubumbashi, the capital of southern Congo, where four years ago I saw them traded by Chinese migrants in the wrecked shell of an old train station. These phones were better made than the copies, a bit more expensive, and tended to work, sometimes even well.
Lately, though, the trade has been dominated by the big international brands for the first time, but with a twist. What was sold in great quantities at Chungking Mansions was something called the “14-day phone”. These were Nokias and Samsungs and Motorolas and the like that had been previously owned and returned for one reason or another by the previous customer, often as good as unused, within the short return window, hence the name.
One would not have thought that these lightly used phones existed in quantities such as move through this building. But fulfilling its role as a node in Mathews’s low-level globalisation, Chungking Mansions had won a niche for itself buying up enormous quantities of these barely used phones and channelling them, mostly unsuspected, at cut rates to buyers in the Third World who prize the cachet and perceived reliability that comes with a big global brand.
I met Hussein, a friend of Mathews, late the next afternoon in another café on the ground floor, the air in this one equally stultifying, but with much better décor. It was a five-table place, and we sat in the back corner, while music from the sub-continent played over the drone of a 24-hour TV news broadcast echoing from the other end of the room.
A burly Punjabi man, with a thick pile of black hair piled atop his massive head, Hussein sweated throughout our conversation, which made me feel better, because over the course of a few days, the building had become oppressive to me. He had skin the colour of dark caramel and banded, aggrieved eyes, and he wore a large ruby ring, which he tapped against the tabletop nervously, when he wasn’t fingering his big Samsung phone.
Hussein placed his hometown near Islamabad, but wouldn’t say exactly where. He began his story insisting that it was more or less typical of people in the Chungking Mansions phone business these days, but as he went on, he quietly abandoned this pretense. In the space of six years he had risen from the station of lowly phone hustler to become one of the building’s biggest sellers. There were 40 major players in all, essentially all South Asians, I had learnt, and by a reputation he did nothing to deny, he was near the top of the heap.
He got his start when an uncle already in the business called him in Pakistan and told him he wanted to sponsor his travel here. “He thought I could manage the business for him and basically financed me,” Hussein said. This act of generosity was quickly followed by a familiar migrant’s tale of exploitation, though. “I was working 16-18 hour days and being paid almost nothing—about $200 US a month. I hustled like that for 15 months, until he fired me, and then I started my own business.”
This marked the start of an intense apprenticeship, full of risk and occasional loss, but also, as he mastered the game, rich rewards. “I had to uncover the addresses of the Chinese companies that supply these phones,” a trade secret that the building’s big players kept to themselves. “I had no experience of the world outside of this building, and it was very tough, but I learned fast.” So fast that he claimed he now spoke better business Cantonese, the dialect of Hong Kong, than the wife he would eventually marry, a native of the city.
“I had to learn so many models from so many different companies. Nokia alone, they have 200 models, and I had to learn the functions. I had to learn just how much to pay for them and how much to sell them for.”
His volume steadily picked up, though, quickly reaching the point where it wasn’t unusual for him to sell 1,000 phones in a single go, with deals like that several times a week. He was important enough to have a code name, Top Star, and had access to all of the high-volume Chinese distributors who controlled the supply of the 14-day phones.
“I was becoming the supplier to all of the shops here. My phones were everywhere.”
At the same time, learning the ropes meant constant setbacks and never-ending insecurity. Hussein described purchases from Chinese distributors where as many as half of the phones, carefully hidden away at the bottom of a consignment, were sub-standard or even unusable. Other times, suppliers took his money and then walked away, daring him to call the police. “They knew I couldn’t because I had no right to be in business in Hong Kong. I had no papers.”
As I listened to him more, I understood better the haunted look he wore. All of his business was in cash, but he couldn’t keep a bank account here because of his lack of papers. This often meant carrying around the equivalent of $50,000 and having to find ways to temporarily stash money in a variety of places; of having to trust others and getting burned.
This Hussein described as the underside of the city’s flattering self-image as a tolerant, cosmopolitan haven. “There is a dark system in Hong Kong that stunts the lives of skilled, ambitious people from the outside. It deliberately takes advantage of us. It limits us, while making us live under constant threat.”
LATE THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON I got a call from Joseph, the manager of my hostel, who I hadn’t seen since our first conversation. He had spoken then of big-time African dealers in phones and electronics and gems, some of whom were supposedly staying at his place even now, but the introductions he’d hinted at had never come. Now, he said, he wanted to talk.
He greeted me on the ground floor, where we met, with a look of perfect relaxation, including his familiarly laid-back, enigmatic smile, and after some initial small talk, he told me that he wanted to introduce me to someone. “You’re still interested in the phone business, aren’t you?” he asked with a wink.
Indeed I was, I answered, and with that he led me to the back of the building to the stall of a Gujarati man he introduced as Pappy.
Pappy had a shaved head and furrowed brow and sat behind the glass counter at the entrance of his unprepossessing shop. “What can I do for you?” he asked, sounding as if he expected a customer, someone who would buy a phone or two.
Joseph interrupted and told him I was a writer, and I picked up from there, explaining my purpose. In the back of the shop, another man who was fiddling with devices looked up and spoke up, addressing Pappy in their language, from all appearances telling him that it was probably best not to speak with me.
Pappy waved off his concerns, though, telling me the other man was his brother. “Give me a few minutes,” he said.
I waited there, while Pappy made a couple of phone calls and went through his books, looking up every few minutes to speak to a passerby, most of them Africans, who stopped almost as if to pay their respects.
One of them, a man in his late fifties, of medium height, with dark skin and oblong tribal marks carved into his face, lingered, and I understood right away from his accent that he was a native French speaker. “Where are you from?” I said in French, guessing the West African nation Mali in the next breath, causing the man to light up with a big smile.
I told him I had been in Mali within the last year, and had been going there for years, and when he mentioned his hometown, Kayes, I situated it for him in the west of the country, and told him I had been there long ago. Our friendship was sealed.
The man, who gave his name as Diarra, began with a sort of testimonial to the decency of Pappy, whom he had known for several years and done business with. “He treats everyone like a human being,” he said. “That’s why you see so many Africans stopping to say hello to him. It doesn’t matter if we’re conducting business or not. He’s an African to us.”
Pappy overheard this, but said nothing, carrying on with his business, and within minutes Diarra was confiding to me in French about his own affairs. He was a precious stone dealer who travelled the breadth of Africa, from Madagascar to Senegal, buying gems, which he brought to Hong Kong for sale. He’d learned the business all on his own, he said, undergoing the same kind of rude apprenticeship I’d heard from Hussein about his entry into the 14-day phone trade.
Diarra, who had never finished high school, had experienced similar success, too, earning enough money to buy houses in France and in three West African countries besides his own. But when he came to Hong Kong to unload his goods, he always returned to this building, staying in the same cheap hostel each time.
I asked him what he was selling on this trip, and he told me sapphires and tourmalines, and he began to tell me how one prices such things, how one avoids fraud, and how he moves money about without bank accounts.
On this last point, I had been hearing many stories. People often spoke of a thriving business run by a Pakistani financial network in the building that functioned as a kind of informal PayPal. Traders without bank accounts paid people with legal residence in Hong Kong—and hence with bank accounts—to move the proceeds of their transactions around. People swore that it was run entirely as an “honour business”, meaning on trust and a handshake. One Indian dealer told me with a wink that nobody cheated, because the Pakistanis would kill anyone who did. Theirs was a society, he said, where everyone had a gun. Stereotypes aside, nobody I spoke to could recall a payment gone awry.
Diarra wanted to go have tea together. It was Tabaski, or Eid, and before long, it would be time to break the fast. Did I want to eat dinner together, he asked.
I thanked him elaborately, telling him perhaps another time, but knowing that it was my last night in the building; my last night in Hong Kong. Pappy was ready to speak with me.
The phone dealer’s mother had materialised in the meantime, dressed in a dark sari, while I spoke with Diarra, and she quietly took a seat in the shop, observing the passing world. Pappy explained that he, unlike Hussein, was a Hong Kong resident. He had been here for many years, and had children who had grown up in the city.
Among many other things, Gordon Mathews had explained to me that legal residence was a key factor in determining one’s place in the building’s hierarchy. The Hong Kong citizens and legal residents were able to own official businesses, and dominated the stalls here. They had bank accounts, so they could act as profitable intermediaries and middlemen for those who were confined to the informal economy. And it only took a few minutes of conversation to understand that this divide, between residents and aliens, between official market and black market, was infused with attitudes as deeply held and impermeable as any caste.
Pappy did little to hide his disdain. “Most of the people you see around here don’t have Hong Kong ID,” he said. “They are transients, and they spend their time going back and forth to the UN office for refugees, trying to seek asylum. It’s all a big game.”
The people without legal residence eventually end up getting sent back home, he explained, but many of them kept coming back, returning to familiar lives that were, often enough, comfortable and reasonably prosperous. To do so, they simply invented new identities for themselves in India or Pakistan and obtained new papers. “This kind of crowd is involved in all kinds of things, drugs, gangs, smuggling, fighting, you name it,” Pappy said. “They complain about being persecuted by the authorities here, but they have far more rights than they have back at home, and far better chances, too. That’s why they keep returning. They give the rest of us a bad name.”
When I mentioned my conversation with Hussein, Pappy was equally free in his disdain for Pakistanis, who he said were both gullible and untrustworthy; “cheaters”, he called them, adding for good measure that their country was “like a jungle”.
At that, there was some chatter from his brother, who had remained quiet for some time, and just as quickly as our conversation had begun, it seemed like Pappy had had enough. What was the future of the business? I asked him, hoping to extend things by another question or two.
“The Chinese phones will never take over this market,” he said, in the first of two bold predictions. “The lead that companies like Apple and Samsung have is too great, and even the Japanese and the Europeans have been left behind.”
“Fourteen-day phones are not going to go away, either,” he added. “What is changing is the middlemen. In another five or ten years you won’t find people from India or Pakistan controlling this market any more. Africans have the resources to do this business directly themselves. They are travelling all over the world more and more, and they’ve got the money.
“People like me will content ourselves with retail. The others you see in the business here, they will disappear.”