Filmmaker Christopher Doyle’s guide to Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions

“As a filmmaker, this is a metaphor for our differences, which are united in a space. This is why I love this place, because to me film is about location.”

A lot of its inhabitants were not happy with how the building was portrayed, however, Doyle says, referring to scenes depicting South Asian drug mules in the first segment of the two-part film. It’s a stereotype Hong Kong’s South Asian community abhors. “I thought I might have been banned,” he says, having not returned for many years.

“As a filmmaker, this is a metaphor for our differences, which are united in a space. This is why I love this place, because to me film is about location”

– Christopher Doyle

In the film’s opening scene Takeshi Kaneshiro, playing a policeman, chases a hooded suspect through the heaving ground floor of Chungking Mansions. Nameless resident South Asians were hired as bit-part actors, depicted toiling in cramped and cluttered flats, filling condoms with white powder then concealing them in clothing and luggage, lorded over by a Chinese dealer (played by Brigitte Lin) disguised in shades and a blond wig.



Chungking Express was released in 1994 and won a Golden Horse Award. It scooped four Hong Kong Film Awards the following year, for best film, director, editing and actor, collected by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who played another policeman. Doyle received a joint nomination for best cinematography.

The film also garnered critical acclaim beyond Hong Kong and Chungking Mansions caught the imagination of cinema-goers worldwide.
“Numerous, possibly hundreds, of people come and stay here because of my films, and I’m very proud of that because they think it’s an authentic Hong Kong experience, which it is,” Doyle says.

Chungking Mansions was already on the global radar before the release of Wong’s independent masterpiece. The Lonely Planet guide to Hong Kong and Macau put the property on the map as the city’s destination for budget travellers in the 1980s and ’90s. Western backpackers stopped over on an Asian adventure that also swept through Bangkok’s Khao San Road, Kathmandu’s “Freak Street” and Denpasar in Bali.

Hostels, with rooms marginally bigger than their single beds, then cost little more than HK$100 a night. Visitors from the all over the world crossed paths, living alongside tailors, shopkeepers and traders from across South Asia and Africa. Tourists staying elsewhere would venture inside for cheap curries at restaurants such as Khyber Pass, the Taj Mahal and Delhi Mess Club, some of which are still in business.




Chungking Mansions was, and remains, a Hong Kong cultural icon, as integral to the city’s cosmopolitan make-up as its Grade-A commercial skyscrapers named after British colonial-era trading companies.

Yet a reputation for shady commerce has always made many shudder at the very mention of its name. In his book Ghetto at the Centre of the World, Chinese University anthropology professor Gordon Mathews acknowledges Chungking Mansions’ reputation as a den of crime. “In the 1980s, it was a recruiting ground for gold smugglers to Nepal, with notices on guest house walls seeking recruits. Travellers smuggled the gold up their rectums to Nepal, where owning gold was illegal,” he writes.

In 2009, Chungking Mansions featured in the National Geographic channel’s Locked Up Abroad series, in an episode about four young men caught carrying more than 27kg of the precious metal into Nepal.

Gordon Mathews

In his book Gypsy the Gem Dealer, released in June, British traveller Ivor Blimsworth (a pseudonym) recounts his experience as an illegal trader in Hong Kong. “Back in the ’80s, Chungking Mansions was the centre of smuggling, not just the gold runs to Nepal and South Korea but also the electronics and accessories smuggling routes up through northeast Asia that were run by Chinese gangs … Chungking Mansions was a place of much happening in the way of illegal business activities.”

Nevertheless, academic Mathews also describes the building as a hub of “low-end globalisation” that has been distinctly shaped by Hong Kong. Chungking Mansions is, he suggests, a concrete representation of the city’s historical place as an entrepôt of a once powerful British empire, populated by the nationals of many of its former colonies and beyond.

Ex-governor Chris Patten and his wife Lavender on a 1994 tour of Chungking Mansions. He was the last Hong Kong leader to visit. Photo: SCMP Pictures

Doyle acknowledges Chungking Mansions’ dubious place in popular culture but also its positive side. The beauty, he says, is that there are lessons to be learned living in the multi-ethnic hotpot of humanity.

“Here we have to be the same as each other. The people who come here to trade, for whatever reason … they dress the way they do, and yet they know that they have to have some engagement with people. This is what it’s about … we’re all in this.

“It’s not the most luxurious place in the world,” he adds with understatement. “Everyone who is here is here because they need to live, because they have an urgency, they have a sense of purpose, which is very basic. It’s ‘I need to feed my family’, ‘I need to make enough money to make things work’. So we all understand each other.”

Like the former Kowloon Walled City, or older parts of Hong Kong Island, there is a strong sense of community, Doyle says. “This [Chungking Mansions] community is not very Chinese, and I think therefore the hope of a society is that we find a way to work together and live together.”

A plane comes in to land at Hong Kong’s former airport at Kai Tak in 1989 while residents of the Kowloon Walled City watch on. Chungking Mansions could join these two former landmarks as a distant memory. Photo: SCMP Pictures

It’s a fragile place that needs to be protected, he says, although he doesn’t hold much hope for the future of Chungking Mansions.

“Of course it’ll be pulled down. What can we say to anybody? What can we say to the Chinese government … to progress, to Tai O, or all our heritage? We need governance. We need people who can actually say, ‘this is important’. We need the Chinese equivalent of a World Heritage attitude, because of course this is prime real estate, of course it’ll go because people are avaricious and China is ascending.”

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