Ghetto at the Center of the World by Gordon Mathews

Likely the most fascinating place in Hong Kong with some of the best South Asian food in the city. Chungking Mansions is a curiosity that is not to be missed.

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 256 pages.
Read from June 25, 2019 to July 3, 2019.

I’ve called Hong Kong home for a few years now and have come to love it for all of its unique flaws and qualities. Hong Kong is a busy city but outside of its city walls are beautiful running trails, beaches, and hikes. There is something for everyone in this diverse city no matter what kind of person you are. As an expat, Chungking Mansions is a fascinating place that needs to be visited at least once, but for locals, it is generally a place to be avoided. The stories of crime and gang activity, along with the lack of familiar local faces, usually are enough to keep many locals away. However, this impression of Chungking Mansion isn’t its whole story.

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Grey facade – Photo by Gerald Figal on Flickr

Gordon Mathews is a university professor in Hong Kong and spent years living in and studying the people and it’s unique economy and isolated globalization. Chungking Mansion is located in the bustling and wealthy Tsim Sha Tsui area of Hong Kong on the Kowloon side. It’s a popular district for shopping and has lots of tourists from mainland China and elsewhere from around the globe. Yet inside Chungking mansions is like entering a different world. Just outside of the building, you’ll find it brimming with South Asians, who, if you’re white, will try and sell you knock-off watches, handbags, or tailoring services. Inside the building is old and run down compared to the shiny shopping area it’s surrounded by. Inside you’ll find cheap rooms for rent, refugees, illegal workers, traders, sex workers, drug addicts, and small businesses from all around the globe. African traders come to find cheap cellphones to bring back to their countries. South Asians come, often illegally, to try and improve the quality of their lives as well as their families. Many refugees come and get trapped in the system of long waits within Hong Kong and are unable to work legally too. Despite the illegality of most of what goes on in the building, a blind eye is often turned by police. Without the illegality of workers and many other trades, Chungking Mansions would not exist. The diversity of the building makes for some of the most eclectic and delicious food in Hong Kong and for rock-bottom prices. It also makes for a unique area of globalization that isn’t really seen anywhere else in the world.

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Image from Asia Times

I’ve actually had the pleasure of dining in Chungking Mansions with a group of refugees and have nothing but great things to say about the place despite its seedy reputation. I would go back in there in heartbeat for the great food, company, and people watching. That isn’t to say that sketchy things don’t happen at Chungking but in general, it’s a decent place to grab a good bite to eat provided you don’t mind how run down some of the establishments are.

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Image from Wikimedia

This book is a perfect insight into Chungking Mansions as its clear that the professor himself has become an established name inside the building and is someone that everyone seems to be comfortable talking with. He seems to have a clear understanding of Chungking Mansions and the people that live there. The novel felt a bit like something I would read in a university class but that’s not surprising since I’m sure that was one of the reasons it was written. Mathew’s writing is as informative as it is fascinating and if you’re in Hong Kong and have ever wanted to visit or know more about Chungking Mansions I would highly recommend this book.

Watermark by Joseph Brodsky

“The eye identifies itself not with the body it belongs to but with the object of its attention.”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 144 pages.
Read on December 25, 2018.

I knew nothing about the author or the book prior to reading it, and I still, know relatively little about this Nobel Prize winner. Apparently, Brodsky is a kind of a big deal. Literature-nerd fail? Joseph Brodsky was a Russian-American writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. He also became the United States Poet Laureate in 1991. He was practically expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972 and ended up immigrating to the US where he lived to the age of 55 before dying of a heart attack in the winter of 1996. While living in the US, however, he spent that majority of his winters in Venice, Italy.

This short novel is a semi-autobiographical love story/essay/poem about Venice. It has poetical prose and paints vivid details of the author’s perception of the city’s character. Did this book make me fall in love with a city I have yet to visit? No, it’s more of a personal reflection of each of the different visits that the author took so it provides more insight into the author’s mind more than anything. While Joseph’s writing didn’t speak to me, he is a gifted writer and I am intrigued enough to see what else he has written. Besides, it appears he liked cats so that’s a good enough reason for me to give him another shot.

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Photo from the Poetry Foundation.

Vi by Kim Thúy

“My first name, Bảo Vi, showed my parents’ determination to “protect the smallest one.” In a literal translation, I am “Tiny precious microscopic.” As is often the case in Vietnam, I did not match the image of my own name.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 88 pages.
Read September 28, 2018.

Having enjoyed Ru for its beautiful prose, I was happy to find this short read by Thúy.

This story follows a similar formula to Ru, as it follows one girl, Vi, and her family’s story of immigration from Vietnam to Canada during the midst of the Vietnam war. Their father does not take the perilous journey over with causing a tear in the family. Once in Canada, the once affluent family has to make serious financial adjustments in their new home. In a way, Vi is another adaptation of Ru. Vi is a first-generation Vietnamese-Canadian stuck in between the cultures and traditions her mother believes in and the new ones in their new home in Montreal, Canada. As with many first-generation immigrants, Vi is at odds with her values and identity. Her mother is traditional and wants her to follow her upbringing but the current atmosphere in Canada is very different compared to where she grew up and she dabbles in what her mother views as scandalous behaviours.

The story is short and the ending is ambivalent but it’s an honest rendition of one person’s struggles to come to terms with their own identity as they grow in a new country there is, however, some jumping around with the timeframe in the plot that is hard to follow at times.  As with Ru, I am curious to know how much of the story actually happened to the author as she shares a similar background story to her characters.

Overall, this book is a beautiful read and an easy way to get a quick read in if you’re looking to catch up on a reading goal.