Fallen Goods--A Shopping Story

Trip Start Aug 30, 2006
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14
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Trip End Feb 03, 2008


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Flag of China  ,
Sunday, February 4, 2007

"Want to buy a watch?"

The Indian man, elegant in a suit, stops three shorts-wearing Americans on a Kowloon, Hong Kong street.

"Aw, don't listen to him man. It's just a copy," one of the tourists complains to his friend.

Dan and I are standing next to a juice bar, drinking fresh guava and strawberry juice and eavesdropping. It's fun to spy on other tourists.

"Are you trying to sell me a copy?" one man asks, kind of threateningly.

The salesman, one of the hundreds, possibly thousands of touts on Hong streets offering passersby anything from a foot massage to a square meal to watches, purses, tailoring, backs down.

"No, no. No copy." He doesn't want any trouble. He recedes back into the shadows of the street and the tourists carry on to the next barrage of hawkers.

Dan and I smile to ourselves and walk on. Dan pauses at a small store window. He's looking for a watch himself. The man inside rouses himself from a newspaper.

"Hello there" he greets us. "Want to buy a copied watch?"

"Just looking" Dan says cheerfully.

"Why pay Hong Kong prices for copies when we live in Mainland China?" we ask each other rhetorically and laugh, plunging our hands deeper in the pockets of our $25 North Face and Columbia jackets; Dan treading lightly in his new Ecco shoes that cost a fraction of what we saw them for in Prague.

We don't necessarily condone pirating, counterfeiting, or thievery. But it is everywhere here. And man, is it cheap.

Just as the prices are negotiable in China, so are the quality of manufacturing and veracity of labels.

I bought some sweaters recently in Guangzhou, a shopaholic's worst fantasy. Worst, because every time you buy something in the warren of shops and stalls in any one of its labyrinthine markets, you stumble upon that same thing two seconds later, but better quality and much cheaper.

Each sweater set me back 35 RMB, or about $4.50. Each bore a designer label. And a confusing, bilingual tag. On the English part of the tag, it said it was made in Italy. But in clear Spanish, on the other side, "Hecho en Uruguay."

Hmm. My bet is, both tag and sweater were made in China. Walking in our favorite clothing market at the Train Station metro stop in Guangzhou, you can pass small shops catering to the many wholesalers in the area. All they sell are tags.

Dan bought a small, brand-name-less camera case at one of the computer markets in Tianhe. As he paid, the shop assistant brought out a box of metal tags. Did he want Sony? Panasonic? Canon? No thank you.

In China, no one will steal your bag for the label-why, when it's fake? But when we travel outside the country, we'd rather not let people know what kind of technology we carry.

Even food is sometimes deliberately mislabeled here-creating "counterfeit" citrus fruit, fish, even seaweed. The shops (or their suppliers, who knows?) label an inferior product with a quality, more expensive brand label. Most of the time, the consumer never knows the difference. We learned about it from Hong Kong TV.

Before moving here, the most pirating I'd seen had been of DVDs, CDs and software. Few of my friends can say they have never copied a good song from a friend's CD, or burned a movie to their computer so they can watch it later.

But since I've been in China, I don't think I've seen a single legitimate DVD or CD.

DVDs here cost 10 to12 RMB. We paid 40 RMB for a box set of the Indiana Jones movies. We were renting DVDs for 6 RMB each a week. With four yuan difference, we no longer trouble ourselves walking back to the rental.

Copying here is ubiquitous. Something we have more of an ethical dilemma with is the fallen-off-the-back-of-a-truck situation. Some of these DVDs, sweaters, watches seem real. If the sweater doesn't know where it's made, or during your movie a head suddenly rises to walk out of the theater, then it's pretty clear it's a fake. My Columbia jacket is mismatched with the lining, so I think it is a factory second.

But Dan's shoes... My camera...Some of my other clothing... Has it been made for retail in China on some fifth cycle within the same factory that made the original? Are they the remnants of discontinued lines? Do they have tiny imperfections we don't notice?

Or, did that box, that shipment, just go missing and end up in Guangzhou? Are we rejoicing in a cheap price brought to us by the misfortune of the security guard, truck driver or workers who got blamed for the missing goods? In China, a lot of things are done through favors, sly payments. Is it possible these things are "misplaced" as part of the price of doing business in China?

We don't know. But we do know where to do our Christmas shopping for next year....
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