It's a 17-storey building on one of Hong Kong's busiest streets that brings together under one roof the business of commerce and hospitality as also citizens from all the habitable continents of the world. Welcome to the world of Chungking Mansions.
Located at Nathan Road, the ever-busy Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district on Kowloon Island, the Chungking Mansions building is right in the middle of high-end and mid-range shopping areas. But that is where the comparison ends.
The building, completed in 1961, is no great shakes either from the outside or inside but occupies a prominent place in the centre of Kowloon's commercially busy Golden Mile. Big time addresses on and around the street include the majestic and historic high-end Peninsula Hotel, the I-Square Mall and Sheraton Hotel.
As one approaches its entrance, one can straightaway feel the difference. Scores of young men, mostly Indians and Pakistanis, armed with leaflets of budget hotels and guesthouses and of eating joints virtually hit you with offers for rooms and food the moment you give the slightest inkling that you are an outsider or a tourist.
Inside the building is a world of trade, food, accommodation vying with each other to attract clients amidst a near chaotic and stinky atmosphere, glitzy LED lights breaking the otherwise virtually dark interiors bereft of any natural lighting and even more sales guys and shop owners trying to woo customers.
At the very entrance of the building, there are several Forex (foreign exchange) shops which easily offer the best exchange rates in Hong Kong for most currencies in the world. For most part of the day, the very entrance of the building is swarming with people from various nationalities that are sending or receiving money or simply getting it changed.
"It is always a busy day here. Since the best rates are offered here, many people come here to change currency or transfer money," Karam, an executive at a leading Forex company who hails from Punjab's Jalandhar city, said.
At any given point of time, one can easily spot Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Nepalese, Filipinos, Koreans, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, budget travellers from Europe and the United States, people from the African continent, Australians and many other nationalities under the same roof. It is believed that people from nearly 130 nationalities visit the building annually; 50-60 nationalities can be found in the building on any given day.
A lot of trading – from electronic goods and mobiles to textiles to toys – happens here.
Chungking Mansions is quite famous for the cheapest accommodation anywhere in Hong Kong. There are scores of low-budget hotels and guest houses on various floors. From the relatively clean ones to the smelly, cramped and window-less -- rooms are available to suit the budget of all kinds of travellers.
Indian and Pakistani curry restaurants are the hot favourites inside this building even though food from other countries and cultures, including the Middle east and Africa, is also available.
"At many shops, one can easily see samosas, jalebis, pakodas, biryanis, vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, packaged Indian snacks, several local brands from India and much more. It is quite a delight to see all these things being sold openly in a foreign land. Over here, one can hardly miss the atmosphere of a normal India or Pakistani city," tourist Harish Goyal said.
"A lot of people who are staying in hotels in other parts of Hong Kong come here for Indian food. Also, the prices are very competitive here," Balli Singh, who owns two restaurants on the building's first floor, said.
Besides the main commercial centre, Chungking Mansions also houses two malls - the Cke Shopping Mall and Wood House.
In his book, "Ghetto at the Center of the World", Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), gives a colourful and factual depiction of Chungking Mansions and what all -- legal and illegal -- goes on inside.
The Hong Kong Police keep a close watch on activities inside the building to curb illegal activities like drugs' unauthorized trading, flesh trade and illegal money.
The building, which has been featured in films and by National Geographic, was named the "Best Example of Globalization in Action" by a leading international magazine some years back.