Two years ago, Frances Cheong, a lecturer on genome sciences at the University of Washington, showed me two photos of Chungking Mansions, a Hong Kong high-rise featured in Wong Kar-Wai's 1994 classic Chungking Express. One photo was taken in 2007, and the other in 2012. In the first image, the building looks like it did in the movie: a hive of human activity, time-worn, time-warm—a place managed by property owners who evidently wanted to keep the costs of maintenance to a minimum. In the next image, the building is clean, shiny, and new-like. Cheong explained to me that the appearance of the place, which is very busy and packed with a variety of small businesses, was improved because the movie made it a popular tourist destination.
For those who have not seen Chungking Express or simply forgotten it, the first half is about a cop, called Cop 223, who is so wrapped up in a recent breakup, he fails to notice that the mysterious blond woman he befriends is clearly a ruthless gangster. She even murders someone, though her crimes are never investigated. She is only a much-needed distraction for a young and handsome cop suffering a serious bout of lovesickness. The film's gorgeous, color-rich images made its cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, as famous as its director.
I recently had a lovely conversation with Cheong (who grew up in Hong Kong and has lived in the United States for 15 years) and Jeremy Stone (a film lover who lives in Seattle and is familiar with Hong Kong) about the history, politics, architecture, and location of the building that gave a part of its name to and played a big role in Wong's masterpiece.
Anyone who has seen the film will remember the building, but what was its significance before?
Cheong: Chungking Mansions is a very odd and old building, supposedly one of the cheapest accommodations one can find in Hong Kong. It has many small hotels, and also lots of restaurants and shops, some at the ground level, some throughout different levels of the building. I think some of the best Indian food can be found there. A lot of South Asians, Africans, and other ethnic minorities in Hong Kong gather there. It gained some notoriety for illegal activity—so when I was a kid, my parents warned me against going inside. Now it is famous because of the movie. You may notice in the photo that there is now a shopping mall called Chungking Express right next to Chungking Mansions.
Stone: Half of the film's English title comes from Chungking Mansions, where the smuggling scenes are set. The Midnight Express snack bar was in Lan Kwai Fong, in the Central District on Hong Kong island, and so closer to where Tony Leung's character [Cop 663, who is in the second half of the movie] lives. The Chinese title actually translates to Chungking Forest, suggesting an urban jungle, but it can also be taken to signify a historically complex and ambivalent relationship between Hong Kong and China. For example, the city of Chungking was also a last stop in China for many people fleeing from the Japanese invasion. I don't want to treat anxieties about the handover to China as the key to pre-1997 Hong Kong cinema, but I think it's right to hear this resonance in the title. Chungking Mansions is a hub because of its cheap guesthouses and its proximity to manufacturing centers in China, as well as Hong Kong's relaxed short-term visa policies. Because of this, it's an interesting place for critics of neoliberalism.
Has the neighborhood been gentrified due to the film's success?
Cheong: The concept of gentrification won't exactly apply to the improvements made to Chungking Mansions. Tsim Sha Tsui [the old district where the building is located] is right by Victoria Harbour. It has been highly developed for a long time. Today it has lots of high-end shopping malls, financial centers, fancy restaurants, some of the most famous and old hotels in Hong Kong (like the Peninsula), a mosque, a park, and museums. It is certainly not poor. It is more like a commercial and tourism district. For the past 30 years, I don't think Tsim Sha Tsui's nature has changed much, though it has lots of history.
Stone: We don't really know any details, but the newer photo suggests an attempt to sanitize the building's image. Until recently, Chungking Mansions has been protected by its decentralized ownership, and you could see this in its collage-like facade. (Individual units in Hong Kong's older buildings often incorporate owners' alterations.) Now the air conditioners and guesthouse signs are gone, and the facade looks regularized. Maybe in this respect you could talk about something like gentrification, but I'm not sure that the interior of Chungking Mansions has changed much.