A Maze of a City Within a Megacity: Exploring the Architectural Marvel of Chungking Mansions
October 25, 2022
An entangled circuit board of cheap lodgings, hardscrabble business outlets alongside South Asian and Pan-African eateries, and a purported gathering site for dealers in the unmentionable, Chung King Mansions has stood tall for over half a century as an elusive shadow cast over the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui.
Three tower blocks stretch upwards with 17 storeys worth of floors, and a pesky elevator system that relies on one carriage to service each spire, all linked by way of a double decker arcade podium sandwiching the street-level floor. The architectural marvel is one that obscures a treasure trove of stories amongst its grey washed walls, a stark contrast to the shimmering metropolis of its surroundings.
The Composite Building
Belonging to a style of building introduced to the Hong Kong cityscape and public housing repertoire in the late 1950s, Chungking Mansions falls under the genre of a composite building. A rampant style of architecture during the post-war era, its towering structure was put in place in the hopes of alleviating the exponential explosion of the city’s residents during the time, thanks to an influx of wartime refugees and a stabilising quality of life leading to nuclear family households requiring better-built apartments.
During the period of its debut, Chungking Mansions stood as the tallest complex in the whole of the Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood, edging out its architectural foil, the luxurious colonial Peninsula Hotel that lies only a stone’s throw away.
A blueprint with a sense of purpose at its heart, there was a keen sense of functionality that saw the Chungking Mansions mix homing units with workplaces and shopfronts lifted from what would’ve in a previous era, constituted by its ground-level inhabitants. This was the continuation of the local shophouse in the sense that it replicated the business-downstairs and residentials-up-top model that had cemented itself into the city’s mercantile-centric architecture. This was a particularly important element that laid down the foundations and concrete roots of what came to accommodate for, and in a way establish, the labyrinthine selection of businesses embedded in Chungking Mansions today.
Podium Tower Design
A comparison uncovered in a deep dive conducted by architect Derek Siu, the structure of homes amongst the Chungking Mansions network follows a pattern not far from the suburban American cul-de-sac. Interlinking clusters of individually packaged family units up along a main tower with the community shared space of the podium, the dense vertical cul-de-sac of Chungking Mansions at once connects its inhabitants while deflecting from the outside world.
An explainer underlying the building’s oppressive aura and heaviness is the limited street-facing areas for tenants in the inner towers, with their key source of connecting to the outside constrained to the pouring sunrays from the central lightwells. Whether this is a design of confinement, or one that shields, the effect it has on all who enter by bringing them into another world entirely is surely enthralling.
Yet within the mansions, there was a blurring of boundaries between the private and public, at least amongst the community based in the podium tower. The shared alleys and hallways used to navigate the podium are set into a square, not unlike a shared plaza of a small town’s city centre. A constant transforming of functionality and movement of people kept the liveliness, despite the overarching design of the mansions remaining fixed.
Today, playing children weave in and out between hanging bedsheets from guest houses’ laundry, whilst elderly men sit on stacked plastic stools sipping tea and chattering with passing diners full off spice-laden delicacies. The outpour of private elements into the public space amongst said squares has turned the areas into a point of contact between the strangers that call their journeys to Chungking Mansions a visit, and the people whose lives are deeply intertwined with the structure.
A Self-Sustaining Ecosystem
Even throughout history, those who made their way in and out of Chungking changed by the era. In the 1960s, the building had beginnings as a workspace for sex workers, before transitioning into a backpacker haven in the 1970s and a criminal den in the 1980s, then an asylum seekers’ pitstop, and eventually solidifying its stance as an entrepot of trade once the late 1990s and 2000s rolled along.
In large part due to this flow of trade, the building quickly came to be a hub for African and South Asian links and a centralised locale dedicated to the communities of the respective cultures. At one point, anthropologist Gordon Matthews had estimated that up to 20% of mobile phones sold in sub-Saharan Africa were part of the supplies gracing Chungking Mansions.
Retaining a piece of each of the demographics it had once hosted, the building’s urban ecosystem grew and shapeshifted into an all-purpose melting pot we know it to be today. Describing this absorption process as a form of “ground-level globalization,” author Samantha Culp surmises the ever-shifting function of the building’s unchanging architecture as a form of “urban artificial intelligence.”
A microcosm of architectural developments as their own phenomenon, the building remains a hulking icon of Hong Kong in its constant state of flux.
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