food / travel

Chungking Mansions: Globalization Packed Inside One Hong Kong High-Rise

In the heart of Hong Kong, Chungking’s 17 stories are divided by price and “presentability.” They are home to travelers, traders, restaurants and prostitutes in a low-cost microcosm of our ever mobile world.

All the world comes to Chungking (Cheung Fun)
All the world comes to Chungking (Cheung Fun)
Ilaria Maria Sala

HONG KONG - Whoever has been to perennially pricey Hong Kong on a low budget has spent at least one night there: Chungking Mansions, "the world's most globalized building," offers rooms at unbeatable prices at 36-44 Nathan Road, right on the point of Tsim Sha Tsui, one of Hong Kong's most densely populated areas.

But defining the reality of this address isn't easy: A bit disreputable, active day and night, sometimes chaotic, it's a spacious building with 17 floors that you can access via five different elevators – from A to E in descending order of presentability. The first two floors are dedicated to commerce, the others divided into mini-hotels, restaurants, offices and mini-mini apartments, which are then divided and subdivided and rented out to merchants coming from Africa or the Indian sub-continent who need somewhere to spend the night for next to nothing. According to the security staff estimates, when the doors close at 11 p.m. each night, some 4,000 people sleep here.

Once, it wasn't a safe place. But now that Chungking Mansions is about to celebrate 50 years of business, the tales of theft, arson and fighting between gangs are a distant memory, still told just for the thrill of it.

Prostitution, however, is still present: the ladies of the night who smile in the corridors are Philippine, Indonesian, Chinese and African. However the Chungking Mansions Owners Association (about 900 people), presided over by Selima Lam, have done everything possible to make the building more salubrious.

Gordon Matthews, a Hong Kong-based anthropologist and author of Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, estimates that you can find some 130 different nationalities at any moment of the day or night. Vacationing tourists coming from Europe, the USA, Russia, and Japan are side by side with a hundred of others from all over the world, here in this trading capital to work, do business and exchange goods.

Low-end globalization here doesn't include McDonald's or the omnipresent luxury goods shops, as if in the duty free of some planetary airport. It's a type of globalization made up of merchants like Filos, from Calcutta, who buys clothes made in China at Shenzhen, right on the border of Hong Kong, in order to sell them in India. For him, the building is his own personal hub: just over 100 euros a month for a tiny room inside an apartment sub-divided into micro-rooms, which are managed by 67-year-old Abdul Kureishin.

Teens from the mainland

Filos spent 25 years as a ship's cook, and now buys Chinese cell phones and memory cards for India. Everything is within reach: Cross-border wholesalers and forwarding agents just inside Chungking Mansions. "I've been going back and forth for 16 years," says Filos. "Chungking Mansions is cheap, and has the best Indian restaurants in Hong Kong: Taj Mahal, Delhi Club, Khyber Pass."

For Sany, who comes from Ghana and has a hip-hop clothes shop that's especially popular with Chinese teenagers who come here at the weekend, even the Mali restaurant on the 17th floor isn't bad. His wife is from Hong Kong and would like to live in Ghana, but Sany will have none of it. "Our leaders sold the national resources before we were even born, and the economy is completely stalled." Better, he says, to be at Chungking Mansions.

Then there's Jehangir Khan, who sells a specialized produce: a cell phone that contains 2 SIM cards, a digitalized Koran, interpretations of the Koran, its translation in 25 languages, prayer times according to the day and time zone, and Islamic songs and music videos. "All made in China," Khan boasts. The brand is Iqra Technologies, a company based between Hong Kong and Shenzen, which shares the digital Koran market, along with Enmac, developer of this religious-digital novelty.

In the name of business, arguments are avoided, not even Indians and Pakistanis bicker. Another particular quirk: no one specializes in a single market. For example, cell phones are still doing well – according to Mathews, 20% of the cell phones used in sub-Saharan Africa pass through here. But now, due to the financial markets' volatility, Chungking Mansions has seen dozens of currency exchange shops spring up, turning some healthy margins. Because the low-end of globalization works day and night, and can smell every new trend on its way.

Read the original article in Italian

photo - Cheung Fun

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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