Inside Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions

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Chungking Mansions sits nestled in downtown Hong Kong, framed by stately hotels, LED-bedazzled storefronts, and an iconic skyline. But it is not the Hong Kong of native Chinese residents -- as the Economist reports, many regard the place with a "kind of horror, as a heart of darkness that just happens to be located in the heart of their city." The shopping mall structure has morphed into a collection of apartments, cheap guesthouses, restaurants, and shops, inhabited by 5,000 residents.

Illegal transactions abound; there are drugs, sex, and black market goods for sale. But as Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, writes in , Chungking Mansions is also "a central node in low-end globalization," a hub in the underground economy that supplies goods to much of the developing world. As much as 20 percent of the mobile phones used in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, have passed through the building.

Above, the main entrance to Chungking Mansions, located on Hong Kong's bustling Nathan Road.

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Chungking Mansions consist of five 17-story towers sprawling across most of a city block. Ten thousand visitors from at least 129 different countries throng to the Mansions every day to "trade, talk, eat, pray and fornicate, all in a context of mild lawlessness and constant flux," according to the Economist.

Above, one of the building's famously inexpensive guesthouses.

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People walk down a passageway in Chungking Mansions on Nov. 30, 2009. A 10-minute train journey from the frenetic financial heart of Hong Kong, Chungking Mansions could hardly be more different from the glitzy skyscrapers with which the city is synonymous. Built in the 1960s, it has long been a destination for backpackers looking for a cheap night's sleep in one of the 80-odd hostels inside.

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Shopkeepers sit outside their electronics store in Chungking Mansions on Nov. 30, 2009.

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A man works in the reception area of a guest house in the Mansions on Nov. 30, 2009. The rooms are small but inexpensive, a boon for many travelers in notoriously expensive Hong Kong.

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An African visitor checks out the exchange rates at a currency dealer inside Chungking Mansions on Dec. 2, 2009. According to Matthews, about 80 percent of the traders in the building come from sub-Saharan Africa.

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A man buys curry at a stand in Chungking Mansions on Dec. 3, 2009.

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Shopkeepers sit outside their stores in Chungking Mansions on Nov. 30, 2009. As Matthews writes, "Since few Hong Kong Chinese would ever work in Chungking Mansions, no one is accusing the workers of stealing jobs from the locals."

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A man rests in an alley outside Chungking Mansions on Dec. 2, 2009.

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Visitors queue for an elevator inside Chungking Mansions on Dec. 2, 2009.

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A woman passes behind the window of a guest house in Chungking Mansions on Nov. 29, 2009.

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People walk through the corridors of Chungking Mansions on May 2, 2007.

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