As the birthplace of Chinese and martial arts cinema, with cloud-scraping apartment rises and specialty streets selling rare and prosperous herbal concoctions, Hong Kong city is a city unlike like any other. Unfortunately (or fortunately), there’s one thing I missed in my last visit there… Chungking Mansion. Instead, I’m going to let fellow travel blogger, Heather Sinclair, enlighten you to that mysterious zone of Hong Kong city, which is a love-hate experience for travelers.
Chungking Mansion has a reputation for sleazy back-room deals and sordid deeds (reinforced by the movie Chungking Express). Whether today’s Chungking deserves this reputation or not, the price of its guesthouses and location in Kowloon made it the perfect choice for a two-week stay in Hong Kong with my husband. We experienced two different guest houses – both in Chungking – and I’m going to share what I learned so you’ll be more prepared than I was.
First: What Exactly is Chungking Mansion?
Time Magazine selected Chungking Mansion as one of Asia’s “Best Examples of Globalization in Action“. Outside, the rows of windows make it look like a giant rectangular block of apartments. Inside, it’s a jumble of irregular-shaped spaces. Like a game of Tetris, or one of those puzzles that has a million pieces and fits together to make a cube somehow.
Chungking’s ground floor is jammed with closet-sized shops and restaurants run by immigrant proprietors. Be prepared to squash your way through the crowd, where every person you rub elbows with is from a different country and speaks a different language. Loudly. Being in Chungking is what I think it’s probably like being on a train to the United Nations during rush hour.
The Fun Begins: Taking Elevator to Your Guesthouse
Chungking Mansion has five elevator banks: A, B, C, D, and E. Each bank has two elevators: one for odd-numbered floors and one for even. Duck into the elevator bank, and you’ll see a listing of the establishments reached by each elevator on the wall. Look for the name of your guesthouse and make sure you’re in the right place before getting in line for the elevator.
TIP: Block A is the busiest, choose a guesthouse in another block for a shorter elevator line.
The elevators aren’t fancy. There’s no carpeted floor or fake wood-paneling inside: just hard grey metal. A camera in the top corner shows who’s getting in and out on a screen at the bottom. At busy times a rope keeps the queue of people at the bottom organized, while a uniformed elevator attendant makes sure everyone stays civilized.
Wait your turn to cram yourself in with people, luggage, and boxes, and be prepared to step off if a bell rings. Once the elevator reaches maximum weight, it won’t move until someone steps out.
The elevators are some of the slowest I’ve ever taken in my life. They’re built for durability, not speed. If you don’t like waiting you can take the stairs. Be warned: the stairways are equally un-beautified and littered with tiles and random building supplies.
TIP: The ground and first floor (as it’s called) are both filled with shops. The stairwell above the shops is much narrower and poorly lit.
What are the Guesthouses Actually Like?
I stayed in two different guesthouses in Chungking Mansion.
My first guesthouse was in Block A, on the sixteenth (top) floor. The photo of the room on my reservation printout looked like a hotel room in North America, but smaller. That’s why I was surprised when the room was not exactly what I expected.
Check in went smoothly: the clerk behind the desk spoke English and took down my passport and reservation information. She led down a twisting, narrow hallway to my room. When the clerk opened the door I feasted my eyes on the smallest room I had ever seen in my life. It was not what I expected from the picture.
It was smaller than my university dorm room, but it did come with ensuite bathroom, bed, night table, air conditioner, window, waste basket, and flatscreen TV.
Despite having to step sideways to get from the bed to the bathroom, this room basically had everything I needed. The space under the bed was big enough to store two suitcases, and the bathroom doubled as the shower. The bathroom came equipped with soap, shampoo, and conditioner. There was even a disposable toothbrush and toothpaste on the tiny bedside table.
TIP: Take out the toilet paper before your shower or you’ll soak the roll and have to ask for another.
The 6′ bed was comfortable for me, but my 6′ 2″ husband was a little crunched up. Being small was an advantage.
After one week at the Ashioka, I changed guesthouses and elevator blocks. This time there was no clerk. There was a phone on a table with a note in English that said “Call for assistance” and had a phone number.
When the clerk finally arrived, she said I needed to stay in a three-person room for the first two nights (unexpectedly), and then move to the reserved double room for the rest of the week. At first it seemed like an upgrade but, even though the three-person room had two beds, it had no window. Staying in a windowless box was oppressive.
There was an interesting room beside mine. And by “room” I mean “narrow space with a curtain hung across it”. I had heard voices, so I peeked in and saw it had a mattress. It looked like people lived there. I never asked, but I guessed it was a repurposed storage closet: an ultra-budget room.
The next double room I stayed in was my favorite, even though it was the smallest room yet. This time the bed was squashed between three walls, but my husband’s feet could hang off the end of the bed so he was comfortable. The ensuite bathroom was slightly larger than the other two rooms, and there was a window. It didn’t open up to the street, but to a ventilation shaft between Chungking’s blocks. I could get fresh air, even if the view was of a dark, concrete shaft.
With no full time clerk, I used a fob attached to the room key to open a security door to get into the guesthouse at night.
I enjoyed staying at these two “classy” guesthouses in Chungking; I think there are plenty that don’t have the amenities I enjoyed. The lower the price, the less you’re going to get, and the smaller your space will be.
Chungking itself was a headache. There were always touts at the entrance asking if I wanted a tailor shop or fake purses while trying to shove business cards into my hand.
The lines for the elevator were excruciatingly slow, especially when people were transporting boxes and goods in the elevator.
There’s no need for a reservation: touts at the entrance of Chungking Mansion will be happy to direct you. There are plenty of guesthouses, so if you don’t like the room you’re shown, keep looking.
Although Chungking has a shady reputation, I never felt threatened or in danger while I was there.
Is Chungking for Me?
You can tell if Chungking Mansion is the place for you:
- You want to stay in the middle of the action: Kowloon!
- Your budget for Hong Kong accommodation is $30/night or less
- Crowds don’t bother you
- Modern amenities aren’t a priority
- Waiting 30 minutes for the elevator is no big deal
- Small spaces don’t scare you
- You can ignore the army of touts out front
- The bare necessities are all you need
How to Get to Chungking Mansion from the Airport
Take the train (MTR) from the International airport. Buy a ticket for the Airport Express at a ticket vending machine or the service counter. Buy a ticket to Hong Kong station. Once you arrive, follow the signs to Central station and buy a ticket for the subway and go to Tsim Shah Tsui. From here you can and walk to Chungking Mansion. Depending when you arrive at the airport, getting to Chungking can take less than an hour.
Take the A21 Cityflyer double decker bus; this is cheaper than the train, but doesn’t run as frequently. Depending on when you catch the bus, it can take well over an hour to reach Kowloon. There are suitcase racks on the bottom floor of the bus; we had small backpacks, so we had no trouble getting up to the second floor of the bus.
The taxi is the most expensive option, and probably the fastest. I don’t know anything about this option, because we were on a budget.
Heather Sinclair has found her life’s passion in travel. She’s also done stuff like living in a truck, becoming minimalist, quitting perfection, and quitting her job to follow her dreams. Heather loves talking in the third person, wants to help make your travels easier, and wants you to find your life’s passion too. Say Hi at The Travel Type or find her on Facebook and Twitter.