How China’s Cheap Phones Make Their Way to Africa

VIA ThinkAfrica Press

Nathan Road is Hong Kong’s busiest shopping street. It is lined with skyscrapers and decorated with neon signs of every size, colour and shape. Most of the logos are familiar: McDonald’s, KFC, Samsung, Rolex, Carlsberg, 7-Eleven, Standard Chartered. This is Asia’s Times Square, a luminous roll call of the world’s biggest companies and products, a shrine to consumer culture in the modern world.

Workers, tourists and others cram the neon shadows of the sidewalks, clutching engorged wallets and sleek plastic bags. The luxury goods in the shop fronts of polished glass and mood lighting beckon their business. Lots of money changes hands. Many shiny new items are purchased. This is the apotheosis of globalization as we know it best: big companies, handsome profits, fancy boardrooms, high-flying executives, top quality goods.

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But this is not the globalization I have come to Nathan Road to see. I know I am getting closer to my destination when an Asian gentleman outside a Rolex store approaches. “Want nice watch? Mister, nice Rolex for you? I give you best price.”

Despite admiring his brazen attempts to shift fakes not a meter outside a shop displaying the genuine articles, I shrug him off and turn into a narrow passage that takes me to the heart of a building called in Hong Kong’s typically optimistic style – Chungking Mansions. This three-towered utilitarian block is one of Hong Kong’s most notorious buildings. Unlikely as it may seem, it is one of the major drivers of Africa’s technological revolution.

The building’s history is infamous. Erected in 1961 to fulfill Hong Kong’s insatiable need for low-cost housing, it soon turned into one of the most legendary stops on Asia’s hippy backpacker trail, thanks to the proliferation of tiny, cheap guesthouses on its upper floors, many of which are still operating.

These cheap tourists enticed merchants of tacky goods, whose stalls swamped the building’s lower floors. In turn, this activity attracted illegal immigrants, drug dealers and prostitutes, turning Chungking into Hong Kong’s seediest underbelly; a place that locals avoided completely and even police feared to tread.

In recent years, the place has cleaned up its act somewhat, but still offers the city’s cheapest accommodation. It is home to a large South Asian community (primarily Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) and plenty of cheap tat: luggage, souvenirs, fake football shirts, etc. But in the last decade or so, shopkeepers have introduced a new product which has kept Chungking Mansions ticking: the mobile phone.