Ignatius Suglo reviews a book that collects visceral images of Hong Kong’s last ghetto.

Nana Chen, Chungking Mansions: Photographs from Hong Kong’s Last Ghetto (Blacksmith Books, 2018), 87pp.

Taiwan-born photographer Nana Chen can be considered a global citizen, as she has spent most of her life in different countries across the globe ­­– Argentina, Chile, Denmark, Taiwan, Thailand, the US and Vietnam. Her photographic book project on Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions was born out of curiosity, coupled with her personal experiences as a “global nomad” – a background which she shares with many of the building’s residents and which inspired her to “see how people live inside what looks like an inhospitable environment in a country that is not theirs.” Her images are an intimate representation of the lives of the residents of Chungking Mansions from an insider’s perspective.

Chen leads the reader into Chungking Mansions, a place that many locals and non-locals alike are mortified by the idea of going into. Chunking Mansions is often viewed as a ghetto, which houses a wide range of migrant “hustlers” huddled in a slum-like vicinity and commonly identified as South Asians and Africans. Nana shifts this dynamic by changing the ontological state of these actors from objects to subjects. This she achieves through individualizing them via portraits. Instead of taking group photos, she humanizes her subjects by representing them as individuals with livelihoods and stories, and not just as the mere migrant “other.”

Each portrait has the subject posing, as opposed to supposedly unstaged shots of people going about their daily activities. Subjects pose while maintaining varying levels of eye contact with the audience. This gaze, unlike that of the “offer” image, interacts with the audience by soliciting an emotional response. This is reemphasized by the fact that the author does not caption the images, leaving the interpretation entirely to the audience. It is a conversation between the residents of Chunking Mansions and the audience. The subjects are portrayed in a vibrant business environment, posing next to their shops or places of business. Family life is depicted by capturing their everyday living environment and activities in the home. This work challenges the general assumption that residents and patrons of Chunking Mansions thrive off crime by offering alternative viewpoint of people earning and making an honest living.

Nana brings our attention to nuanced viewpoints that are often glossed over or ignored, such as stairwells and elevator shafts that reflect the wear and tear of old buildings across Hong Kong. Multilingual signage in Chinese, English, Arabic and Hindi hints to the diversity and multicultural nature of people living and doing business in Chungking Mansions. There is a good generational divide in the subjects represented, from children and teenagers through to young adults to the aged.

This work veers off the well-trodden path of the “single story” of Chunking Mansions as a place of crime, graft and rot. It presents a multifaceted and/or alternate story of Chunking Mansions as a place also of thriving businesses, an important representative of not only the globalization of people, but also goods and services, through vibrant businesses, families, religions and friendships. Chungking Mansions is rich in geographic, ethnic, religious and gender diversity. In addition to heartwarming images of many South Asians, one would have expected to see substantial representations of Africans and Middle Eastern residents and business people and more importantly a fair representation of the many women owning and or running shops and restaurants in Chungking Mansions.

All in all, Nana Chen accomplishes what she set out to do – “see how people live inside what looks like an inhospitable environment in a country that is not theirs.” She succeeds in showing that Chunking Mansions is a normal home and workplace to many after all.

Ignatius Suglo is a PhD student of China Studies at the University of Hong Kong. His research interests include China-Africa relations, representations of Africa in Chinese popular media, diasporic communities and people-to-people engagements.

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