Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hong Kong

Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong

Gordon Mathews

Opera houses, trans-Atlantic flights, multilingual work atmospheres, nice restaurants, dressing up in formal attire, a steady flow of books to my home arriving via UPS, Pilates classes, shopping for clothing to take to Europe, etc.

The above are occurrences which have taken place in my life over the last few months and constitute my take on “reality.” Although I do not consider myself in the flanks of the “extremely privileged” in the United States by any means, I recognize that my “reality” will be experienced by only a few – due to preferences of time and resources.

Ever since I was young, I have been interested in the topic of the “realities” of different groups of people. Luckily, I have not only come to gain knowledge about other realities through my studies, but also through experience. For many years, my father worked in what is considered one of the lowest income sections of our small city. As a child, I loved spending time at his office because there was never a dull moment – I got a lot of attention from the customers because no one looked like me; people spoke in different languages; and I was there a couple of times when my father called the police to help solve disputes. As I got older, I spent time there because it felt so real – especially in contrast to my private school and later in contrast to my private liberal arts college.

I became accustomed to hearing about other’s realities. I heard about gang violence, people struggling to pay their bills, men taking their girlfriends’ food stamps to buy steaks to sell at half price for the cash, unwanted pregnancies, and teenagers dropping out of school. After increasing my Spanish language ability, I was able to learn a great deal from the customers who were undocumented workers: border crossings through the help of coyotes, deportation raids, fear of the police, separation of families, and corruption in their home countries.

Even though we lived in the same city, our realities were dramatically different. They lived in a reality of constant financial uncertainty. In their realities, there was no Visa, American Express, or Mastercard. But yet, I continued to see them week in and week out – constant testimonies to the tenacity of people to make due in difficult situations.

Thus, I was not shocked or even mildly surprised by the description of reality as described in “Ghetto at the Center of the World:Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong” by anthropology professor Gordon Mathews. Chungking Mansions is an old, 17-floor building in the heart of busy Hong Kong which now is home to cheap guest houses (often frequented by African traders), a plethora of ethnic food restaurants, and many low-end shops owned by South Asians and ethnic Chinese (many specializing in mobile phones and clothing.) A haven for people seeking economic opportunity from around the world, it is described by the author as a place where low-end globalization and cosmopolitanism thrives: “Chungking Mansions is basically a ‘club of the third-world successful.’” (page 102)
First it is necessary to define both “low-end globalization” and “cosmopolitanism.” We all know what globalization is – it is the phenomenon which allows someone (me) to sit at a Starbucks in Europe, listening to jazz, while chatting on the internet with a friend in Asia. It consists of the web of connections and transactions made across the world. Low-end globalization consists of “traders carrying their goods by suitcase, container, or truck across continents and borders with minimal interference seeking a better life by fleeing their home countries for opportunities elsewhere, whether as temporary workers, asylum seekers, or sex workers. This is the dominant form of globalization experienced in much of the developing world today.” (page 13) According to the Random House dictionary, “cosmopolitanism” can be defined as, “free from local, provincial, or national ideas, prejudices, or attachments; at home all over the world.”

After having developed a better understanding of the Chungking Mansions, it is important to ask the question: “Why Hong Kong?” First of all, it is important to recognize the current status of Hong Kong as a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. It came under Great Britain’s sphere of control following British victory in the First Opium War in 1842. It returned to Chinese possession only in 1997. However, Hong Kong is distinctly separate from mainland China – firstly, through linguistic differences. While Mandarin Chinese is spoken in the mainland, the language of Hong Kong is Cantonese. Moreover, Hong Kong retained its economic structure based on free trade following its return to China. Hong Kong has been constantly ranked as the #1 most economically free country in the world by The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. The author notes that “by the 1990s, Hong Kong had become wealthy – far wealthier in its per capita income than China and wealthier, too, by this measure, than its colonizer, Great Britain.” (page 2)

In short, the author tries to expose the realities of low-end globalization, how it is a product of our neo-liberal economic system, and how it is a reality which we will experience in the years to come. The author describes this environment as cut-throat; a place where economic exploitation happens on an individual level: “Instead of the exploitation of faceless corporations, Chungking Mansions enables the exploitation by individual entrepreneurs whose faces those they exploit know very well. But the exploited seek, in general, not to rebel against their oppressors but to emulate them.”  (page 103)

One of the aspects that I liked most about the book was how it was interspersed with short vignettes from actual inhabitants in and people who make their livelihood from Chungking Mansions. Reading the “realities” of these individuals and their struggles to make the best for themselves in this world made the book certainly worth the read.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

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