How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Con

If I were an economist struggling to describe Hong Kong and its relative position in the world's economy, I would doubtless resort to sweeping metaphors and hyperbole. "The beating heart of the Chinese mainland", writes our fictional friendly financier, "driving the dynamo of the geopolitik" and so forth. If we can imagine China as the 'beating heart', and the shipping lanes to the West the veins and arteries, then Hong Kong stands as the coagulated, frantically pumping aorta, laden with calorific goodness for those resilient enough to hold still in the current. Hong Kong isnt clean, it isnt pretty, and it isnt peaceful; it is where the rubber meets the road as far as free enterprise is concerned, and this carries with it thrill and risk in equal measure.

Spending any length of time in Hong Kong can be an unsettling and frightening experience; if you imagine being the one bright red sock caught in a rapidly tumbling industrial washing machine full of white business shirts, you may get some idea. The impression when you debark from whatever conveyance took you there is at once shocking and vivifying; the city is very much alive, and all around you several million people are going about business with a heady mixture of stolid purpose and frantic desperation. The streets are hot and reek of commerce in its pure, joyous, undiluted form.

After the initial shock wears off, you will almost certainly begin looking for some way to connect to this strange place in which you find yourself. Making the unforgiveable assumption that you are there for tourism as opposed to business, your first thought might be to seek out some way to dump some of those funny-looking Hong Kong Dollars you bought and exercise some of that economic authority you read about in your Rough Guide to... book. There are a huge number of places to do this, ranging from pristine, glass-fronted emporia to tiny, crammed markets packed out with all kinds of goods and services. Making another unforgiveable assumption, I am going to assume you've had enough of glass-fronted emporia and chain stores back home, and are in the mood for some gritty, grimy, sweaty bargain-hunting amongst the tarps and tables of the mercantile bazaar.

Read on, dear friend, read on.

Preparatory Reading

The first and foremost tenet of shopping in Hong Kong is this: from the moment you step off the plane/train/boat/bus, Caveat Emptor.

A great many tourists from Western nations have beliefs about commercial enterprise that simply do not apply in Hong Kong, and also frequently share an inflated opinion of the status of 'the consumer'. I will attempt to list the most common and potentially hazardous assumptions:

  • "You get what you pay for"
    Utter nonsense I'm afraid; you get what you buy, and you pay what you pay. Inspect anything you buy carefully with the continuous and unyielding assumption that you are being 100% bullshitted, manipulated and lied to. Allow reality to slowly prove you wrong (there are many honest merchants in HK) but always begin with this assumption. The merchants will not take it personally, they are not hypersensitive emodramaqueens, they will answer any enquiry with enthusiasm, although try not to directly insult people in their own city.
  • "The customer is always right"
    This is something you will see if you just stand at the edge of a marketplace or bazaar for an hour or so and watch the negotiations between touts and tourists; about ten percent of the time, the tourist thinks they are in a Wal-Mart without a roof and starts giving the seller attitude. This goes along the lines of "I can get this cheaper at the other place", "I was here earlier, the other guy said I could have it cheaper", "This I bought earlier is crappy, I want a replacement". You will see the seller's face turn impassive, and the buyer get slowly more impatient and/or angry and eventually leave dissatisfied. Do not give the sellers attitude, they see attitude every day and yours will be no more righteous nor penetrative.
  • "Everything's cheap in China"
    Also painfully short of the truth. China (and by extension Hong Kong) is like anywhere else, cheap things are cheap, and expensive things are expensive. The Free Market's power to self-balance is impressive, and the thrashings of a few Independent Income Buyers wandering through are not going to change that. If you want to find things you cannot find in other nations you will be happily surprised at the breadth of choice, but if you come for something specific and hope to make a killing, you will almost certainly be disappointed.

The moral is this: you cannot dupe this city, you cannot outmaneuver its residents, and you will be extremely lucky to walk away with a sale that was not plotted, planned, approved and already factored into next month's earnings spreadsheet by the seller. Whether it be silk ties, fake Hugo Boss shirts, leather jackets or whatever, the seller has a price in mind at which they can make an acceptable profit. The price they quote you will certainly be a great deal higher than that, but this does not mean you can 'haggle' them down to a disadvantageous position. Having spent time in those markets it is a bad habit of tourists to either take the first price quoted, or make offers that are absurdly low on the assumption that merchandise just rains from the sky in China and the seller is desperate to feed his family and will take whatever scraps of hard currency are thrown; this is incorrect. Sellers in Hong Kong are usually smart, enterprising and resourceful people, generally very good at manipulating social environments and most importantly, tough as old boot leather. You will pay a reasonable price (from the merchant's perspective) for the merchandise you buy, the trick is not getting utterly screwed in the process.

The Con

Assuming you're still keen to go exploring and pick up some 'tasty goods', I will explain a few of the more common con-tricks employed in the Hong Kong commercial arena. There are many honest sellers, but an equally immense number of cheats, liars and thieves to be avoided.

Street Touts
This is the con that you will hit literally the moment you step onto the street. Looking down a Hong Kong street (in certain districts, Cameron Road is a good example), in a moment of clarity the impression of the Great Barrier Reef springs to mind; a rich current of wealth flows unceasingly back and forth, and seiving this current for morsels like the fronds of some deranged anemonae are the street touts; armies and armies of them. Touts of all kinds will assail you roughly every five to ten yards; they should ALL be avoided, even the ones offering nicely-printed business cards. On that subject, never accept a business card from a tout. Not only does this expose you legally (touts are often breaking the law in some way, having their business card in your pocket is not a good idea) but they will take this as encouragement and happily follow you down the street repeating their Engrish sales pitch. Do not take cards from touts.

There are several flavours, each with their own unique reasons to stay the fuck away. They may be identified, like rare waterfowl, by their mating calls:
  • "Copy watch! Copy watch!"
    The classic and traditional knockoff Rolex salesmen will shout this over and over at you until you leave their part of the street. Since carrying copyright-infringing merchandise around is illegal, these gentlemen will always ask you to head off to some secluded part of the area where they will either have a hotel room, back room, or back alley in which to crack open a (usually Samsonite...) suitcase that glitters with fake watches like insect eggs under a rotten log. If you get caught buying from one of these guys you are in deep shit with the police; if you get caught with their merchandise in an airport spot check, it will be confiscated and you will probably be fined. The watch mechanisms themselves usually suck, the movements are inaccurate, noisy and break quickly. They arent even worth it as a gift for a boss you don't like, the joke is very much on you.
  • "Tailor suit, tailor shirt!"
    Just as common are the touts offering you tailoring services; these guys are almost always of Indian or South-Asian heritage for reasons that are currently unclear to me. They will usually have a beat-up store buried down a side street packed wall to wall with a bewildering array of suits and shirts, with no apparent organising principle informing the morass. The tout will then attempt to offload a seemingly infinite quantity of clothing upon you, most of which you will later find you do not want. The 'tailor' part of the deal is rapidly forgotten, in general they are not trained in any form of clothings alteration. If you insist they will measure you in a perfunctory fashion and disappear with your suit, only to re-emerge later with a big smile and your freshly-adjusted garment, which you may be well assured has been nowhere near a needle for a good six months. There are hundreds of top-quality tailors in Hong Kong; almost none of them employ street touts.
  • "Mobile phone! Cheap cellphone for you!"
    Finally, the very bottom of the rung are the mobile phone salesmen. These guys are really pitiable because almost everyone in Hong Kong seems to have about three cellphones already, and its difficult to imagine a tourist coming to HK seeking one either. In general they hawk last-generation brick models from nameless factories; these phones appear (I've never bought one) to be in Chinese only, manufactured for the domestic market (no guarantee they'll work on foreign frequency bands) and barely distinguishable from one another. Not only that, HK is bursting with genuine cellphone shops that sell genuine phones at a good price. I am unsure how, or even if, these guys make any money at all.
In conclusion, avoid street touts, if you can. There are some unusually polite types that will appreciate a friendly handshake and a "No thank you", but in general any communication will be seen as an invitation to follow you down the street, endlessly repeating the same line because, in all probability, it accounts for 20% of all the English they know.

Crooked Electronics Stores
This is by far the most blatant yet successful con being run on the streets of Hong Kong. There exists a particular breed of electrical stores catering to the tourists (you will NEVER see locals in there; that's a warning sign) who believe bargains are to be had in the Orient, and they have developed a very specific con-trick to satisfy this fantasy. You can identify these locations thus:

  • Big, flashing, neon signs of a famous manufacturer, Sony, Nikon, Canon etc. Usually pink and blue neon, for some reason.
    These signs are actually copyright infringement, and do not represent an endorsement by the manufacturer
  • No store branding or logo, no means to identify the store uniquely
    This is deliberate. There are dozens of these stores on a street, and if a customer were to complain to the police about a dodgy sale, they would be asked to identify the store. Without identifiers this is difficult, and the store clerks will immediately deny having ever seen the customer before should the store be located.
  • An improbable number of mid-20s Cantonese gentlemen inside, looking like they're hanging out a bar
    By improbable, I mean they will outnumber customers at least 8 to 1, and they will give no outward appearance of being in a place of work. They frequently play with the merchandise to pass the time
  • A truly immense range of electrical items in glass cases, none of which have any price tags
    This is actually incorrect, as they do have tags on them. If you look closer they are scribbled with either gibberish or a code like AQxz. This is usually meaningless.
I would like to make something clear: you cannot make an honest purchase in these stores. It is against their purpose and mandate, so if you are a genuine consumer simply dont bother walking in the doors. If you, like myself, are possessed of a morbid curiosity and want some edgy fun, have a wander in and play the starry-eyed tourist. The con is always the same, and proceeds thus:
  1. You ask for a quote on something from the case, "The Bait", lets say a top-end digital camera for this example. The clerk will give you a quote, usually ~2000HKD, and not based on any definable commercial algorithm except how much money the clerk thinks you have.
  2. You either make a counter-offer (which is often accepted) or accept the initial price; you are issued into the store with a polite "This way please..."
  3. You are sat down at the table as your requested camera is removed from the display case and taken back-store by a second clerk. Your faithful salesman will inform you he is getting you a new camera/cleaning your camera/gift wrapping it, whatever he thinks you want to hear.
  4. Meanwhile, back at the farm, the first clerk will ask for your money. You will, in good faith, probably give it to him.
  5. While he is gone, your clerk will engage you in light conversation; this is performed to elicit a hook for the next part of the con, "The Switch". Let us assume you say "I'm going down to see the light show tonight"; at this point, the clerk's eyes will glow faintly from within as he clicks into gear.
  6. The clerk will tell you that your selected camera, no matter how highly-specified, is totally unsuited for you. You sir, in fact, want this camera, which he will retrieve almost at random from a rack behind him; all of these cameras are cheap, low-spec but very shiny. These are the cameras that they actually sell, the high-spec models are simply shiny lures, glinting with promise yet unreachable.
  7. At this point he will feed you a long, technical explanation of the virtues of the replacement model which, "Special price for you!", is coincidentally the same price as the pre-agreed quote. This explanation is 100% pure bullshit, believe nothing they say, they are not only lying through their teeth but frequently unaware of the truth they are concealing. I had a clerk tell me that an Olympus Mju (capable but unspectacular budget cameras) could see in the fucking dark. Around this time, the second clerk will return with the top-spec camera you originally wanted.
  8. The clerk will offer you a demonstration in good faith; he will take a photo with each camera, and show you plainly that the expensive camera looks awful compared to his suggestion. This is true because, for the last two minutes, the second clerk has been sabotaging every single setting he can get his grubby little fingers on. If you could read Chinese you'd see he he has fucked with the AF, exposure, sensitivity, white balance, JPEG encoding quality and probably smeared some toe-jam on the lens for good measure.
  9. You are now in endgame. Both clerks will heartily recommend item B as the diamond in the rough, denounce item A as a toxic, radioactive and carcinogenic foulness hauled from Satan's own diseased orifice, and then look at you encouragingly. You will either:
    1. Accept their suggestion and buy the crap camera at the inflated price. Later that same evening, two Cantonese guys will get drunk off your dime, and laugh heartily at your expense.
    2. Refuse, and ask for the original camera at the quoted price. They will look haughty, grudgingly agree, and then five minutes later concoct a reason why you cannot buy this camera; "So sorry, not in stock" is the usual one. Congratulations, you have just wasted 20 minutes of your life.

The store clerk will almost certainly ask if you have a similar item you wish to trade in against your new purchase, to further enrich the deal in their favour. While I have used a camera as the example, this pattern holds for all items sold in these stores above a value of ~500HKD. Ipods will have their screen brightness turned down, their EQ settings sabotaged; laptops will sport deliberately fragmented disks and incorrect display settings. Avoid these stores at all costs, they are a colossal waste of time.

Advice: If you want to buy electronics, go for a small store with the QTS logo in the window; this indicates it is a member of the Hong Kong Quality Tourism Services Association, and can be trusted to act in an honest and reputable fashion.

Market Sellers
Before I embark on this, the final section of this short work-in-progress, I have to admit to a certain affection for Cantonese markets and the hearty individuals who run them. While they are ruthless and aggressive in their pursuit of a sale they seem to have a cheeky glint in their eye most of the time which lends an element of fun to the process of making a purchase. That said, a hint of caution when browsing these stores will help you leave with your wallet intact.

The thing to be aware of are the marketing tactics the marketeers will employ, as they are common between honest and bent stalls alike;

  • Insane bulk-buy offers
    Most common on items of clothing, sellers will reliably attempt to steer any single purchase into a purchase for at least double the negotiated quantity. One tie will turn into a tie with cufflinks, which will turn into a tie with cufflinks in a gift box, the price increasingly slightly all the time. This is done to offset the natural urge of the consumer to haggle downward, very few people are crass enough to demand more for less. Once the unit price has been juiced, you will be whacked with an offer for two or three units for what seems like a tiny increase in total price. If you fall for this, congratulations, you just got milked. Keep your mind on what you want to buy, and ignore any attempt to sway you from this course.
  • Aggressively efficient customer service
    This tactic is employed against customers who appear generally nice, inoffensive and polite people. An equiry for an item's price will be rapidly, by which I mean within a few seconds be railroaded into a purchase as an army of stall assistants package, wrap and bag the item and thrust it into the customer's hand. The customer, being a nice, inoffensive polite person now feels awkward and obliged to buy the item; after all, they've gone to so much trouble.
  • Fake brand-names
    Easy to understand this one. Brand name goods for cheap prices on a market stall? Unlikely. It could be decent merch in its own right, but the label bears no relation to the product.
  • Fake-fake brand-names
    An odd concept this one. A market-owner will be selling fake brand-name merchandise, let's say fake Calvin Klein underwear. The label will be CK, but another anonymous label will be pasted over the top. The marketeers will usually show you this if you express an interest, for a variety of reasons. It makes it easier to slip the goods past customs if searched, it hides the fraud from the local authorities, and in some cases might convince a buyer that the merchandise really is genuine, and has been lifted from the back of a crashed delivery van in Hunan Province. This is, of course, completely wrong. It's fake. Don't buy it.