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.

The Way Through the Woods by Long Litt Woon

“We live in a society that regards death as a defeat for medical science rather than a part of life. In a culture that allows little place for death in the public area, grief becomes a private affair, viewed as a luxury we cannot afford.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 182 pages.
Read from June 16, 2019 to June 20, 2019.

When I spotted this book off Netgalley I was interested in reading it due to its themes on grief, yet I found myself very intrigued with the information provided on mushrooms and enjoying these aspects much more than I thought I would. Woon’s journey through mushrooms is intertwined with the grief of her husband; her passion for mushrooms and the intimate details of her mourning make a unique relationship that intertwines and reads well.

“We are all amateurs at grief, although sooner or later every one of us will lose someone close to us.”

Woon discusses her grieving journey intimately and just how uncomfortable we are with death as a society despite it being a part of literally everyone’s life at one point or another. It’s so uncomfortable that many of those grieving feel utterly alone and abandoned in their mourning as no one knows what to do to provide support or relief.  In social interactions the death and memory of the person are often just avoided altogether, leaving the bereaved to heal on their own. It’s a tragedy in its own right, however, the grieved are still the ones that ultimately have to decide how to move on.

“Grief grinds slowly; it devours all the time it needs.”

This is when mushrooms became paramount in Woon’s grieving process. Woon and her husband had once discussed taking a mushroom course together before he died, something that they never got to do together. Woon found herself drawn to sign up for the class alone and quickly learned to lose herself in the world of mushrooms and the journey that comes in learning about them, picking them, and cooking with them. Woon provides some great facts on the different types of mushrooms in Norway and the mushroom culture. Did you know that not every country can agree on which mushrooms are considered toxic? They deadly ones are consistent but the what one country labels as toxic another considers harmless. The book is complete with drawn images of distinct mushrooms in Norway and even a few really yummy-sounding ways to prepare and cook mushrooms, a great addition to the book that I was not expecting.

Mushrooms are something that I have very little experience in eating and tasting having only really come to enjoy them in my adult years. I have, however, always found them interesting and have been in awe of people who are knowledgable on them. Woon discusses how people usually perceive mushrooming as a dangerous ordeal as the little knowledge that people have when it comes to wild mushrooms is only on how poisonous some can be. Woon details the education process it takes to become an expert in mushrooming and explains that errors rarely happen. The wild mushrooms gathered in Norway are inspected by certified experts before they’re allowed to be taken home. With the right knowledge and by double checking each other’s haul, wild mushrooming is a perfectly safe hobby to have but it’s still hard to convince the general public of it.

Through mushrooms, Woon managed to crawl out of the pit that grief had put her in and slowly put together a new life without her beloved husband. Loss, as Woon explains, means so much more than just the loss of that loved one’s life, it’s the loss of the life that will never be had again. Those that are left behind after someone dies will never be the same. Their lives as they know it, or knew it, will never be the same. The unwanted task then falls the mourning to find their way again and start anew with the perceived insurmountable task of doing it without the person they lost.

This book is a comforting and validating read for anyone grieving and while the glimpse into the mushroom culture and its accompanying facts are extremely interesting, most of the information is only valid only in Norway. Even with that, Woon’s writing is highly engaging, enjoyable and interesting, even if you’re only mildly interested in mushrooms.

Stiff by Mary Roach

“Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 303 pages.
Read from May 3, 2019 to May 6, 2019.

I don’t really understand how anyone could be offended in talking about dead bodies or their various uses in science, though I appreciate that it is a sensitive subject, death is a reality of life. I think it’s not that people are uncomfortable with the dead bodies themselves but of their own perceptions of death. Many people can’t fathom being a corpse or if it was their loved ones, regardless of what happens to us when we die.

“We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.”

Mary Roach personalises her experience and interest in death as she shares her own intimate experience with the passing of her own mother. Death may be an uncomfortable reality but it is an experience we all have in common. Mary Roach approaches cadavers in a very entertaining, informative and tactful manner. She observes and interviews the intricate lives of those doing the less-than-glamorous work with corpses while also exploring the strategies they use in order to cope and maintain their humanity with the surreal nature of their jobs.

Anything you ever wanted to know about how a body decays Mary details in her interviews with forensic pathologists that do studies on real corpses to help crime investigators in gruesome murder cases.  If you’ve ever wanted to know where your body goes after you donated it to the medical sciences, Mary can tell you, and it’s often not what you would expect. Mary also discusses how many of our scientific advancements are owed to the illegalities of body snatching through history.

“Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is.”

This book requires a healthy amount curiosity about death and a slightly open mind on the topic, especially if you’re not interested in how a maggot might sound eating human flesh during one of the many dynamic stages of decay. It also discusses the donation of cadavers to science and some very specific uses which many may not be comfortable with, as well as the sensitivities surrounding organ donation and its importance.

“It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in the position H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot. We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life. H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.”

Mary also discusses the feelings and respect that we give our dead regardless of what use a corpse has after death. Whatever scientific purpose a cadaver has there is something sacred in keeping our humanity and due respect in its treatment, in that a dead body, while no longer occupied, was once a person who was loved and had a life like anyone else.

I loved this book. It’s my kind of book. Weird, interesting, factual, personal, and well-written. However, I could see it not being for everyone. For those who are science-minded and comfortable discussing the gruesome details of the body, this book is definitely for you. If thinking about the specific details of an organ transplant and knowing what a still beating heart looks like in an open chest cavity makes you queasy, you might want to pass on this one.