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chungking mansions

Photos: Hong Kong’s counterfeit mobile hub loses ground to cheap phones on the mainland

Once considered squalid and dangerous, Chungking Mansions is slowly being rebranded as a colorful, multicultural attraction. Yepoka Yeebo

Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions is a jarringly down-market building on some of the world’s most expensive real estate. The 17-story building, in the ritzy Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, is home to some of the city’s best South Asian restaurants, several $20-a-night guesthouses, and a mall that at one point, sold a fifth of all the cell phones that ended up in sub-Saharan Africa.

Between 2006 and 2010, African wholesale traders bought around 10 million handsets in from Chungking Mansions every year, according to Gordon Matthews, author of the definitive account of life in the building, Ghetto at the Center of the World. (Smaller traders cram the phones into suitcases for the flight home, and larger wholesalers ship them to Africa.) The South Asian and Chinese-owned stores offer everything from the cheapest Nokias and Pakistani-made mobiles to tablets and Samsung Touch models, brand new to used to completely fake. A real Samsung Galaxy S1 sells for around $142, while a Chinese-made counterfeit sells for around half that price.

Stores initially attracted traders by offering cell phones cheap enough for some of Africa’s poorest consumers, an advantage rapidly diminishing. “Now African customers are demanding high-end models because people want to buy them,” said Pakistani trader Rizwan Buff, who’s been selling phones in Chungking Mansions for over a decade. “Before, Africans were buying phones for HK$60 (US$7), now they’re paying HK$500 (US$64).” Buff said business started to slow in 2012 as more African traders chose to go straight to China. At the same time, manufacturers like Samsung and Huawei started selling in Africa, undercutting wholesalers. “In five years, maybe I am still here, maybe I’m not,” said Buff.

At Chunking Mansions’ electronic stores, Samsung Galaxy Touch models are the most in demand: a Galaxy S1 sells for around $142, a Chinese counterfeit version goes for half that price. Samsung is increasingly aware of its popularity in Africa, and over the past few months, have launched both the Galaxy S4, and anti-counterfeit drives in several countries on the continent. Yepoka Yeebo
Pakistani trader Rizwan Buff mostly sells “14-day phones”: fully functioning models customers have sent back for a refund during the 14-day return period, which get auctioned off in bulk to merchants like Buff. Soaring demand in Africa also led Buff and his business partner to open wholesale stores in Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yepoka Yeebo
In recent years, the decrepit building has been given a facelift, and it’s now emblazoned with a bright-lights-big-screen facade radiating all the way down Hong Kong’s Nathan Road. Yepoka Yeebo
Chungking Mansions was built in the 1960s and fell into disrepair. The outdated wiring has sparked deadly fires and in the 1990s, the overloaded electrical system exploded, leading to a blackout. The building’s 900 shareholders have since stepped up security and maintenance, slowly turning around its reputation as a dark, dirty and dangerous place full of seedy hostels. Yepoka Yeebo
Most traders in Chungking Mansions sold garments or watches until around 1999, when the number of shops selling mobile phones exploded in response to demand from the growing number of African traders. Merchants say they started off selling real phones made by Western brands, until cheap, Chinese-made phones and counterfeits flooded the market around 2006. Yepoka Yeebo
Traders in Chungking Mansions originally bought huge numbers of the cheapest phones available from simple Nokia models to no-name Chinese and Pakistani brands. Now, they’re increasingly demanding tablets, BlackBerrys and higher-end touch screen phones. Yepoka Yeebo
For many immigrants living in Hong Kong, Chungking Mansions is something of a community center. Stores in Chungking Mansions are largely run by Chinese and South Asians with small numbers of East and West African businesses. Traders hail from all over Africa and Asia, and the building is also full of tourists, immigrants who live in Hong Kong and are looking for a taste of home, and refugees since Hong Kong is an entry point for asylum seekers appealing to the United Nations. Yepoka Yeebo
Prabhdyal Singh, (center) has been selling vegetarian food and Indian groceries in Chungking Mansions for 18 years. Hong Kong became a hub for Chinese exports in the 1980s. South Asian merchants were some of the first foreigners in Chungking Mansions, and the building became a mandatory stop for visitors because of the cheap accommodation, a cluster of remittance booths and the well-regarded South Asian restaurants. Yepoka Yeebo
African traders started to arrive in large numbers around 2000, fueling the cell phone boom. Suldn Yusef, who works for a Hong Kong trading company, and Mokther Bullbull, who runs a shipping company (second and fourth from the left) once worked in Chungking Mansions but have since moved, and now visit just to catch up with old friends. Yepoka Yeebo

You can follow Yepoka on Twitter at @yeppi_yeebo. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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