Contemporary Marco Polos


India’s economic buoyancy stretches far beyond the realm of the country’s family-owned business empires, writes Gordon Mathews

Readers of India Business Law Journal are bombarded by news of billion-dollar deals closed by large enterprises and family-owned conglomerates in India, and may envision an Indian business world that consists primarily of the Tatas, Ambanis, Bhartis, and Mahindras. These groups and other business houses are extraordinarily important to India’s blossoming economy; but miles below their endeavours lie another calibre of businesspeople who matter equally.

I have spent much time in Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions, a building of guest houses and small businesses teeming with over 4,000 people, many of whom are migrant workers from South Asia and Africa.

Gordon Mathews
Gordon Mathews

I have talked to people from Kolkata who work for low wages for as long as their entry permits allow them to stay and return home to India every 42 days, lugging suitcases filled with packs of China-made clothing weighing 30 kilogrammes or more. Carrying this clothing largely pays for their flights between Hong Kong and Kolkata, generally via Biman Bangladesh Airlines. Hundreds like them bring clothing into India, purchased for less than locally made clothing would cost.

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Gordon Mathews is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the author of Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong.