Kowloon Walled City was a bizarre urban phenomenon that existed in Hong Kong from 1898 until it’s demolition in 1993. Originally a Chinese military fort, unregulated construction within and on top of its walls resulted in essentially a vertical shanty town; 14 stories of haphazard, mostly windowless, airless units no bigger than 250 sq ft that 33,000 people called home. The population density for this relatively small area was a staggering 1,255,000 people per square kilometer. I first had images of this crazy place implanted in my brain in the early 90’s when I saw Greg Girard’s remarkable images in National Geographic magazine.
The Walled City is long since gone but as I’ve been traveling the Hong Kong area, I’ve found what I would say is a little piece of it still in existence. At least in spirit. The infamous Chungking Mansions in the Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) district of Kowloon.
When traveling alone I don’t require fancy accommodations so usually a clean, inexpensive guest house will do. When I was trying to figure out where to stay in HK I kept finding these ridiculously cheap hotels that made no mention of Chungking Mansions. Only in thoroughly reading reviews could it be ascertained that many of these hotels are in this huge, slightly dangerous building. A place where immigrants and backpackers share tiny rooms, no bigger than the spaces within the old Walled City. A place with a storied history of drugs, prostitution, and other unsavory aspects of society. I ended up finding a decent spot on AirBnB (which I've had overwhelmingly positive experiences on) but being a naturally curious person, one of the first things I did when I got here was seek out these “Mansion” to see what what it was all about.
First, a Mansion in the Hong Kong sense is one of these.
Most were built in the 60’s and have the typical aesthetic of this era which is in my opinion, architecturally hideous. Hardly any thought on actual design was put into high occupancy residential construction of this generation. Not exclusively in Asia, you'll also find a lot of examples of this in New York City as well.
These buildings are massive, multi-story, mixed-use compounds usually the size of an entire city block. There are typically malls or arcades on the first two or three floors and hotels, hostels (licensed and illegal), and private residences in the rest of the building. In Hong Kong a legal rental does not require windows as long as air exhaust and air conditioning is provided. Because of this, living spaces are as tiny as they possibly can be to maximize occupants. Many of the apartments you find in mansions like this one are windowless cubicles with 7’ ceilings.
Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon.
The narrow alleys around the building, like the Walled City, contain their own microcosm of activity and commerce.
The main entrance to the building is patroled day and night by a group of men who try and hustle anyone and everyone coming into the building. They will make every attempt to get you into their tailor shop or sell you whatever illicit substance happens to be on the menu.
The main entrance opens up to a labyrinthine arcade of people and vendors. Beyond guesthouses and residences, it contains currency exchanges, tailors, curry houses, fruit stands, and small stalls selling everything from gold to fabrics to cell phones.
Chungking Mansions is the permanent home to 4,000 people from HK’s various immigrant communities, South Asians and Africans from former British colonial holdings being the most apparent. This does no include any of the thousands of other visitors from around the world staying at one of hundreds of different "guesthouses" in the compound.
The building is 17 stories high in 5 elevator blocks. As there is some crime, CCTV and security is everywhere.
I found Chungking Mansions to be a fascinating, vibrant crossroads of humanity. It is really an entire city neighborhood contained in one building and I’ve never seen anything quite like it anywhere. I spent quite a bit of time here shooting and talking to people. There's definitely a shady element under the surface, many of the guys hanging out front are eager to sell hash, coke, or “something special" to anyone passing by. At the end of the day though most of the people residing here are just trying to get by, which I’d imagine is quite difficult in a city as expensive and overpopulated as Hong Kong.
For me this place is a reincarnation of Kowloon Walled City in a 21st Century context. Albeit one where at least people’s basic human right to oxygen (pumped-in or otherwise) and sanitation is legally protected. Now that I’ve spent some time in this city, I see how really only in Hong Kong could something like this exist. Chungking Mansions is truly unique.
All images acquired with Sony A7R, Voigtlander and Leica primes, processed in Lightroom 5 with VSCO Pack 5 Kodak Royal Gold 400 emulation.