The “ghetto at the center of the world” is now a symbol of unity in Hong Kong’s protests

“We’re all Hong Kongers.”
“We’re all Hong Kongers.”
Image: AP/Kin Cheung
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the middle of the glitzy Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district stands a nondescript 17-storey building known as Chungking Mansions. Known for its ethnic diversity, affordable curries, cheap phones, and sometimes seedy reputation, it has over the past week become an unlikely point of cultural connection for Hong Kong’s protesters. It’s all the more surprising because it could well have been an ethnic flashpoint.

Last Wednesday (Oct. 16), democracy activist Jimmy Sham was viciously attacked with hammers, and reports had trickled out that the assailants were South Asian, stoking fears that protesters may target minorities in retaliation. 

Luckily, those fears didn’t materialize. Instead, as tens of thousands of protesters marched through the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui on Sunday (Oct. 20), a group of South Asians stood at the front steps of Chungking Mansions, handing out water and egg tarts, belting out a popular protest anthem, and shouting “We are all Hong Kongers.” At the helm was Jeffrey Andrews, the city’s first ethnic minority social worker. “To tell you the truth, these attacks try to split society, but the effect is the opposite, making us more united,” Andrews told the local newspaper Ming Pao (link in Chinese), referring to the attack on Sham.

What drew the protesters, who are overwhelmingly ethnic Han Chinese, even closer with the ethnic minority groups was when a police water cannon truck blasted stinging blue-dyed liquid at the Kowloon Mosque, just several hundred feet away, shocking the local Muslim community. A group of citizens quickly gathered to help clean the mosque’s gates and steps. The police later apologized, saying it was unintended. Video clips showed the cannon spraying the mosque although there were no protesters nearby.

Chungking Mansions is located in the middle of the busy, glitzy Tsim Sha Tsui district.
Chungking Mansions is located in the middle of the busy, glitzy Tsim Sha Tsui district.
Image: AFP via Getty Images/Ed Jones

Chungking Mansions has famously been described by the anthropologist Gordon Matthews as the “ghetto at the center of the world.” By this, Matthews meant that as a hub of “South Asian merchants, African entrepreneurs, Indian temporary workers, African and South Asian asylum seekers, and penurious travellers from across the globe,” the building was also intimately connected with other markets around the world, including Calcutta, Lagos, and Dar es Salaam. At one point, one in five cell phones that ended up in sub-Saharan Africa were sold in Chungking. That number has dropped now, as more African traders go straight to China for cheaper goods. Still, Chungking remains a transient, hyper-connected, and diverse place—much like Hong Kong.

The building also tells the story of Muslims and ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. The city has about 300,000 Muslims, about half of whom are Indonesians, followed by about 50,000 Chinese, 30,000 Pakistanis, and the rest from India, Malaysia, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, according to the latest official figures.  

Some of the city’s best South Asian eateries can be found in Chungking Mansions.
Some of the city’s best South Asian eateries can be found in Chungking Mansions.
Image: AFP via Getty Images/Ed Jones

The first sizeable community of Muslims set foot in Hong Kong around the early 19th century when Europeans trading in the South China Sea brought South Asian sailors and merchants to the region, according to the book Islam in Hong Kong, by Paul O’Connor. Under British colonial rule, South Asians’ command of English led to them being treated with preference, and they “often acted as a go-between using their language skills and status to mediate the authority of the British to the Hong Kong Chinese,” taking on important roles in the bureaucracy, the police, and security forces. As a result, South Asians, and especially Indians, became associated with a certain kind of authority, and came to be feared and disliked by the local Hong Kong Chinese population. That fear morphed into discrimination over the decades, and still lingers to this day.

The history of Hong Kong’s Indian and Muslim communities extends to the present day in a myriad ways, including something as mundane as the word “shroff,” which is used all over the city to mean a cashier’s office. The word is actually derived from the Hindi and Arabic word saraf, which originally referred to a bullion merchant; today, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, “the word has almost completely fallen out of use, except in Hong Kong English.”

In a city that is still very much grappling with issues of racial and ethnic discrimination, many Hong Kongers hope to seize on this moment of cultural unity to foster closer ties between the majority Han Chinese population and the roughly 580,000 ethnic minority residents. Some of them have been active throughout the protest movement, including on the frontlines. And a local journalist of Pakistani descent, Nabela Qoser, has been lionized by protesters for her rapid-fire, take-no-prisoners approach to grilling government officials (link in Cantonese).

As a gesture of appreciation for and solidarity with the city’s ethnic minority groups, Hong Kong’s protesters will gather at Chungking Mansions for a “Thanksgiving Day” on Friday (Oct. 25), calling on people to dine at the restaurants to support the businesses.

As Andrews, the Hong Kong-Indian social worker, stood in front of Chungking Mansions on Sunday, he improvised a call-and-answer with protesters in Cantonese (link in Chinese).

“Will you guys still be afraid of Chungking Mansions any longer?” he shouted into the microphone.

“No!” the crowd responded.

“Will you guys still be afraid of South Asians?” he asked.

“No!” the crowd roared back.

“We are all Hong Kongers, yes or no?” he asked.