peteg's blog - noise - books - 2011 11 12 Mathews GhettoAtTheCentreOfTheWorld ChungkingMansions

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

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You've seen the film, now read the book. I don't know if there is a soundtrack.

Mathews is an American sociologist tenured as a professor at the Christian University of Hong Kong. He tells of first visiting the Mansions in the 1980s, and one gets the feeling that the funding for his anthropological studies arrived just a little too late; with China coming to understand what it takes to thoroughly own global trade, his low-end globalised traders are heading directly to Guangzhou, no longer in need of the Hong Kong middle man with his enforceable contracts and British business sensibility. This is certainly not Wong Kar Wai's 1960s Hong Kong.

The best part of this book is its promise, and when it recounts the stories of residents, either through anecdote or reportage. I found it fascinating as there doesn't seem to be anything like this building in Saigon, even as China is pricing itself out of the market. Then again, Vietnam is not yet known for high-tech manufacturing, or cranking out good-enough copies of mobile phones.

Unfortunately the novelty starts to wane somewhere around the middle, with the realisation that all players mentioned in the book are monothematic: they are there for money, money, money. This is what makes the building work, a friendship amongst the Indian, the Pakistani and the African possible, and indeed Hong Kong itself is the same effect written larger. That the mainstream of the host culture (Hong Kong Chinese, and more recently mainland Chinese) is uncomfortable with the third world in their midst, and identify it along racial lines, is surely true in most countries.

Another realisation was that this book never gets to grips with the role of women in the building, with the two roles on offer being a sex worker or a (Chinese) co-owner of the building. Perhaps the few women traders are mostly into clothing and are operating in another district. It is difficult to discern whether the incessant staring at the passing women in the building is a cultural thing (a women-as-property trope from the home country) or the behaviour of a large number of sex-starved expats, both, neither, etc.

Mathews treats the plight of asylum seekers at length, and wisely restricts himself to prognostication and not prescription. From a Western perspective it is interesting to see what the Eastern approach is and will become.

To be more curmudgeonly, this book makes me think that anthropology is at the more boring end of travel writing. Less repetition would have been lovely, and a bit less promising and a bit more carry-through. I don't put a lot of stock in non-empirical paradigms, and it seems that coining them is the essence of this sort of work. Here we get the "cultural supermarket", which is perhaps trying to summarise the idea of accessible multiculturalism, i.e. exotic food with the menus in English. Unfortunately it also connotes blandness, transactionalism, exploitation of primary producers, and so forth. I'm getting that ill-fitting cheap suit sort of a feeling.

I guess I was hoping for more of a biography of the building, ala Birmingham's Leviathan, in addition to the stories of individuals. Early on, Mathews tells of a shirt of his falling fifteen stories down a light well from a clothesline in the 1980s, and the possibility of it still being there; in doing so he lifts Chungking Mansions out of the generic facelessness of the ghetto. As Sickboy said about heroin, what keeps the relationship going is personality.

I picked this up from the UNSW Library on the strength of a review on Inside Story. I was a bit surprised the library had such a recent book (August 2011).