Upwardly Mobile

How one Hong Kong high-rise became the centre of the global cellphone trade

01 January 2013
The entrance to Chungking Mansions at 4 am. The 17-storey building is the heart of a teeming cellphone trade.

AFTER EMERGING FROM the Tsim Sha Tsui metro station, I made my way down a busy street through a steady July drizzle, walking past jewellery shops, clothing stores and large billboards that advertised the Hong Kong dream in all its incarnations: shiny new things, dernier cri gadgetry, and above all diamonds, marketed with the promise of eternal love.

I had only travelled two stops in the deep chill of Hong Kong’s immaculate metro from Central, the city’s main business district and financial centre, which was all suits and banks, and even higher-end shopping, populated by enough white faces that one could imagine Britain’s purchase on Hong Kong had never quite come to an end. By comparison, Tsim Sha Tsui was a world removed. The whites, mostly tourists, appeared like speckles in a crowd that was mainly yellow, but also—and this was new to my senses here—significantly brown and black. South Asians, who barely account for one percent of Hong Kong’s population, were all of a sudden conspicuous where they had barely been in evidence before. And Africans, all but invisible in Hong Kong’s business district, were out in abundance, and after their own particular fashion, they were doing business, too.

My destination, a massively hulking apartment block of heavily weathered concrete named Chungking Mansions, loomed ahead, but I got a sense of the neighbourhood’s flavour even before reaching the entrance. “Copywatch, copywatch? Handbag, sir? Massage?” came the voices as I crossed the street in a crowd during my final approach to the building.

Howard W French is an associate professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, to be published by Knopf in May 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @hofrench.

Keywords: asylum market globalisation Hong Kong cell-phones commerce retail second-hand trade middlemen developing world