Review: Ghetto at the Center of the World, by Gordon Mathews

An incredible account of the hidden side of globalization (5 stars)

Ghetto at the Center of the World is an incredible book about an incredible place. Chungking Mansions is a 17-storied building in Hong Kong that has become an international trade hub because of it’s low prices and central location, gathering at any given time about 4 thousand people in it’s guest houses, stores and restaurants. It is one of the most cosmopolitan places on Earth, the author counted no less than 129 nationalities in the three years of research for the book.

One of the central concepts of the book is the one of “low-end” globalization, described thus by the author: “Low-end globalization is very different from what most readers may associate with the term globalization—it is not the activities of Coca-Cola, Nokia, Sony, McDonald’s, and other huge corporations, with their high-rise offices, batteries of lawyers, and vast advertising budgets. Instead, it is traders carrying their goods by suitcase, container, or truck across continents and borders with minimal interference from legalities and copyrights, a world run by cash. It is also individuals seeking a better life by fleeing their home countries for opportunities elsewhere, whether as temporary workers, asylum seekers, or sex workers. This is the dominant form of globalization experienced in much of the developing world today.”

“It is amazing how much can be obtained in Chungking Mansions, from lodging to a haircut to halal barbecue, to whiskey of all price ranges, to sex, to computer repairs, to TV remotes, to spy cameras installed in pens and glasses, to stationery, to groceries, to laundry service, to medicines, to legal advice for asylum seekers, to spiritual sustenance for Christians and Muslims. As one well-read informant explained, “There is a self-sufficient ecosystem in Chungking Mansions.” One might never leave the building for weeks or months on end, since virtually all that one might need is in the building itself.”

The book brings a fascinating ethnography about how these different nationalities and cultures manage to live side by side. Racism exists and is rampart, specially from the Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese against South Asians and Africans, but grievances are largely put aside in the everyday struggle to make money. It is not a Disney-perfect relationship, but a human and imperfect one, with highs and lows.

The book is very well researched and organized in chapters dedicated to the place, the people, the goods, the laws and the future. It is one of the books that really made me feel like I have traveled to this fascinating place. Highly recommended.

Guilherme Solari is a Brazilian writer and journalist from Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has written about movies, literature and videogames for some of Brazil’s biggest news sites. He is the author of THE CASCAVEL CHRONICLES, a love letter to 80's action movies, as well as the cyberpunk CYBERSAMPA series.