Friday, 10 October 2014

Desperation in the Market


Hong Kong is famous for its various large street markets that dot the tourist spots and highly populated areas.  In these markets your eyes will be met with a sensory-overload of colours.  The stalls are packed to their brims with anything that can be made cheaply in mainland China that might appeal to the tourists' wants.

"Copy-watch?"

"You want?  All colours!"

"You like this?"

The markets are not a place for the faint of heart or those who easily acquiesce to the deceptively charming broken English of the stall-keeper.  These stall-keepers make their living off of the full wallets of naive foreigners.

"How much is this?"

"400, but for you 350!" A winning smile is flashed as quick fingers tap out 350 on the ever-present calculator.  Hands reach to put a pair of unquestionably knock-off sunglasses, brazenly advertised as genuine, into a bag.

Gullible first-time market-goers might think their pasty white complexion and naturally light hair is working for them in getting such a good deal on those "designer" sunglasses.  "Asians love white people, right?"  Aside from that idea being a gross generalization and rather racist, it is also not applicable in this situation.  Market stall-keepers love selling things, and unsuspecting foreigners have lots of money to give them.  

If you ever end up in a Hong Kong street market then I would suggest that on your first time do not buy anything.  Instead, test out your haggling skills and see how the system of the market really works.  One of the best ways to get a lower price without even asking for a lower price is to act uninterested.  As well, do not be afraid to walk away if the price isn't to your liking; I can pretty much guarantee that you will find the exact same thing in another stall a little ways down the street, if not in the very next stall.


My housemate, Yasmine, and I had our very first Hong Kong street market experience in Kowloon at the Temple Street Night Market.  One evening in the first few weeks of being in Hong Kong we made our way on the MTR to Jordan Station, and from there we found our way to Temple Street.  We walked into a tacky-tourist's dreamland.  We wandered through in awe at the sheer amount of kitsch and "designer" and "name-brand" items.  From "TOMS" to "Ray-Bans" and "jade" jewelry to Disney paraphernalia.

I bought a couple of things, trying to steel my courage to bargain against those who dealt with likely bargained with thousands of young, wide-eyed expat women just like the one before them with Elsa-blonde hair and blue eyes.  I got ripped off a couple of times I realize now.  The sticker on one thing said 30, so I asked for 15 and I got shamed and told that the sticker says 30; submissively I shelled out 30 Hong Kong dollars.  If I had just walked away I would have found the exact thing I had just bought in six or seven other stalls.

We left the market tired, but satisfied with our thoroughly touristy experience.

Our second street market experience happened just yesterday.

Yasmine and I were in Ya Ma Tei in Kowloon.  We had just eaten lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant and we decided to take a walk down the Ladies' Market, which was on a street that ran perpendicular to the one our restaurant was on.

The customary "designer" bags and accessories filled the stalls, along with the usual souvenirs of chopsticks and key-chains.  I was keeping my eye open for a small handbag with a wrist-strap.  I stopped and looked at a couple of things with Yasmine.  A couple of the stall-keepers tried to persuade us to come back and buy by calling out reduced prices.

Then I stopped to look at a handbag that had caught my eye.  The shop-keeper swooped in with a big grin and began telling me something I wasn't able to understand about the colour and pattern of the handbags.  She took the one I liked down and I looked at it more closely.  I asked her how much it was and she flashed another grin as she told me 390, but special new price for me, 350!  She grabbed her calculator and typed it in and presented the number to me.  I was not going to pay that much for a handbag, even if it were a genuine designer handbag.  I furrowed my brow and shook my head.  She tried to explain the great deal I was getting.  I was not having it.  She then brought the price down to 320.  I decided I didn't really want the handbag enough to bargain her down to a reasonable price.  I shook my head again and thanked her.  Then I turned and took a couple steps away.

I did not get very far.  The stall-keeper had lunged after me, grabbing my forearm.  She then proceeded to drag me back to her stall to talk me into buying it still.  She kept a firm grip on my arm as she explained yet again the amazing deal I was getting and then prompted me to choose a colour.  She had reduced the price even further.  I still wasn't going to pay whatever the reduced price was.  I was shocked and confused at what was happening.  She must have dropped my arm and I made another get-away only to be ensnared by the woman again.  I desperately wanted to be away from that place.  I could not understand or believe that this was happening.  She dragged me back to the stall her grip on my forearm tighter this time, it hurt.  She brought the price down to 100.  I hesitated.  I didn't want the bag anymore.  I just wanted to leave.  I considered just buying the bag so she would let go of me.  Finally, I just kept shaking my head and pulled my arm away.  Then I nearly ran with my housemate to put a few stalls distance in between me and the aggressive stall-keeper.  

We continued down the street and we came to a stall that had some cute dresses.  We started looking at them and of course we were pounced on almost immediately by the stall-keeper.  She told us they were 100 each, but if we got two it would be 90 each.  We continued looking at them as she pulled off the ones that we indicated any kind of preference towards.  We didn't want to pay 90 for the cheap dress, so we continued to hesitate and look.  We had not really decided on which ones we would actually buy, but the stall-keeper had already put two into a bag and said she would give them to us for 80 each.  That was still too high.  I tried to start some better bargaining.  I said, "Forty each."  She gave me a look, clearly not impressed with my offer, but instead of giving a counter offer she tried to shame us and tell us how low she had already come and insisted on 80 each.  We decided that we didn't want the dresses.  We walked away leaving the stall-keeper with the dresses in the bag calling after us.  Little did we know that her older sister was lurking nearby, and she not about to let our wallets get away.  She lunged after us armed with her calculator and started agitatedly speaking to us in very broken English.  At first I thought she was telling us off for what she thought was us agreeing to a price and then walking away.  I blurted out in a flustered tone that we had not said we were going to buy them, and that we didn't want them!  She continued nearly yelling at us asking what we wanted to pay, shoving the calculator at us.  We tried to walk away, but she persisted.  We walked faster and she trailed after us her cries of lower and lower offers shrill in the close space of the market.

"60!"

"50!"

"40!"

"20!!!"

The English numerals quickly dissolved into what we could only assume was a stream of Cantonese profanity; our assumption was aided by the expressions of the other stall keepers and shoppers.

We decided we'd had enough.  We left.  We tried to shake off the jarring experience by laughing about it.

Later that day, I told my new friend who is a local of Hong Kong about the experience and even he was shocked.  Normally they are not so aggressive.  He said they must be desperate for business.  They are likely seeing a steep decrease in customers due to the protests that have been happening that area.        

We'll be waiting a little while before we set out for another taste of the bustling tourist trap of street markets.    

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