The Mall of the World

What a Hong Kong shopping complex tells us about the true nature of globalization.

GORDON MATHEWS

By the time I first visited the building in 2006, Chungking Mansions had evolved into something else entirely. Over the past 15 years, south China’s emergence as the world’s manufacturer of cheap goods, coupled with Hong Kong’s relaxed visa regulations, has turned Chungking Mansions into a central hub of what I call "low-end globalization." For instance, 20 percent of the mobile phones now in use in sub-Saharan Africa, by my estimates, have passed through this building. The backpackers are still to be found in Chungking Mansions, as are, increasingly, tourists from mainland China. But the complex is now primarily the haunt of traders from around the world. Entrepreneurs from South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond have come to seek their fortunes, buying cheap mobile phones, computers, watches, and clothes from Pakistani, Indian, and Chinese vendors. They hawk their wares alongside Asian and African asylum-seekers looking for refuge and among Indian temporary workers flying in from Kolkata. When we think of globalization, we tend to think of the work that happens a mile away from Chungking Mansions in the glassed-in skyscrapers of Hong Kong’s financial district, the province of multinational corporations and their attendant armies of lawyers and consultants. This kind of globalization has no doubt remade much of the world we live in. But over the five years that I have spent living in and studying Chungking Mansions as an anthropologist, I have seen a different form of globalization. The time I’ve spent listening to the stories of African traders and Pakistani merchants and sleeping in the complex’s guesthouses — from the roach-infested to the flatscreen-TV-endowed — has added up to an advanced course in the intricacies of developing-world economics.

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