At times marred by salacious headlines, Hong Kong's Chungking Mansions has a large mouth and a global appetite.
The densely populated 17-story building, which houses an estimated 4,000 residents from 129 countries and for 60 years has served as a key hub for trade and currency exchange, is a unique Hong Kong icon.
Passing through several iterations over the last six decades, the urban monolith was initially known for its culturally diverse residents and notoriously awful accommodation. But tales of exotic food offerings have grown in stature over the years, with many a hungry Hongkonger now beating a path there in search of tastes mostly from Sorth Asia and the Middle East.
Speaking about his 1994 film "Chungking Express," director Wong Kar-wai once called Chungking Mansions "a legendary place where the relations between the people are very complicated... That mass-populated and hyperactive place is a great metaphor for the town."
Those who enter and make their way through the labyrinthine maze of shops on the building's lower floors will see colorful foreign exchange dealers with glowing signs, myriad styles of clothing on sale, electronics goods, hair dye, sweets, and beads signposted with all manner of languages.
A luggage store crowded with suitcases harkens back to an earlier time, before COVID grounded international. Before the pandemic, Chungking Mansions saw around 10,000 daily visitors. By those standards, today's bustle seems a little muted.
While for newcomers experiencing Chungking Mansions for the first time is an assault on all the senses, it's perhaps the smell of food that draws more people here these days than anything else.
Most restaurants have found ways to adapt to Hong Kong's changing dining-out restrictions, with at least one winning a contract to supply halal meals to the city's mandatory quarantine facilities. In Block E on the seventh floor, the Khyber Pass Mess Club opened in 1991 by Iqbal Mohammed in what used to be a jewelry factory, offers traditional Indian and Pakistani cuisine
Back then, recalls Mohammed, there were only two restaurants in the entire building, with everything else mostly factories and mahjong clubs. "Before, all the shops were selling watches," he said.
After friends urged him to create a space for halal food, Mohammed says he chose Chungking Mansions for strictly practical reasons. "Because the rent was cheap at that time," he said. "It looked like a second United Nations building, because many people are coming in from all over the world."
Over the years, the mix of people has broadened even further. "After I opened, mostly Indian, Pakistani people came and they brought some Chinese friends," said Mohammed. "Then the Chinese friends told other friends. They told a magazine, they interviewed us, then we became popular."
Mohammed believes the key to this longevity has been good quality ingredients and expertise. "We have a very good chef making around 500 chapati every day," he said, noting that pandemic had put a huge dent of up to 70% in daily traffic.
Selina Ip, who runs Paul's Kitchen -- an economically priced eatery named after her husband offering Pan-African and Filipino cuisine -- says the pandemic has been an opportunity to further refine her recipes before government-regulated dining restrictions ease. She also credits the loyalty of her customers, who filter into the restaurant as she talks.
Established in 2016, Ip says her first goal was to create somewhere for Hong Kong's African diaspora to taste familiar flavors and feel a sense of community in a city where some foreigners are more welcome than others.
"In Hong Kong, there is still a lot of discrimination -- even my husband experiences this," said Ip. At Paul's Kitchen, her customers have found a sense of community where they can talk freely when the going gets tough. "It's like home," she says.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to attracting new customers, people who walk in just for the food, has been overcoming Chunking Mansions' less than savory reputation.
"When I first came here I felt uncomfortable because I heard a lot of negative stuff," said Ip. "Sometimes my customers come here and they don't feel comfortable, so I told them to just call me and I'll come and pick you up."
Gradually, people have learned to feel more comfortable and started bringing their friends along. Now offering speed dating, Paul's Kitchen has even become a place for hungry customers to meet their soul mate.
"We use our heart to run the business. I want to make it like a home," said Ip. "I want people to understand more cultures, and as they accept more cultures... they don't feel afraid, they don't discriminate, because the world is so big, we need to love each other."
Chinese University of Hong Kong Anthropology Professor Gordon Mathews says that when he began researching his book "Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong," back in 2005, the building's reputation was quite dark.
"People felt Chungking Mansions was quite a dangerous place, and crime was rampant there," said Matthews. "There may have been a tiny element of truth to it, certainly there were more sex workers apparent there than a few years later," he said, adding that police at the time told him the building "was probably as safe as most other buildings in Hong Kong."
While vloggers and certain types of tourists still flock in search of a shocking experience to detail, that has somewhat subsided, Mathews says.
Today, the space is viewed increasingly as a unique part of the city, and a place that is widely embraced. In October 2019 during the protest movement, when a pro-democracy activist was attacked by assailants wielding hammers, reports later emerged the assailants were of South Asian descent.
At the time, there were concerns from some that protesters may target minorities in retaliation, but instead close to 1,000 supporters of the protest movement gathered at Chungking Mansions to support restaurants in the building and ethnic minorities in the city.
"One thing I love about Chungking Mansions is people are so generous. I remember the night that all the buses were shut because of protests and I couldn't get home, so unexpectedly I stayed in Chungking Mansions," says Matthews. "I went to a restaurant at 11 that was just closing and the owner promptly gave me a free meal. He didn't have to do that, but that's the kind of thing that goes on."
Hong Kong already lost HK$600 billion under the pandemic, and its economy can hardly recover if vaccination progress remains sluggish...