HONG KONG – A big fat discount. That’s what I wanted on my last day in Hong Kong – a reasonably priced memento of my seven weeks here.
So, I stalked my prey: an antique store in the heavily Chinese neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei. I’d already visited twice and was sufficiently impressed by the layer of dust on their paintings, carvings, calligraphy sets and other crafts.
Maybe these things are truly old ... not just scuffed to look that way?
I spotted two small pictures in my modest price range. The larger, an elaborate peacock painted on porcelain (for my burgeoning peacock-themed collection, naturally), had a sticker price of 1,800 Hong Kong dollars (US$232). The second, a father and two children painted on glass, was HK$650 (US$84).
I wanted both. Life’s too short to choose between tchotchke. Better to snag both.
Yet, not at these prices. Which is why I needed a strategy. Since everything in such places is marked up exponentially – as if shopkeepers are giggling at the thought of gouging suckers like me – each price-tag is negotiable. Despite any Oscar-worthy protest by the proprietor.
Worse, though, is the nagging fear I’ll be ripped off. Or in China’s case, it’s the inevitability of being ripped off. After all, the Chinese are world-class forgerers of purported “antiques.” According to some estimates, as much as 95 percent of the antiques peddled are fakes.
It’s not just antiques, of course. China also leads the world in counterfeiting clothes, sneakers, jewelry, medicine and many other products. Not to mention the rampant pirating of music, movies, books and computer software, according to the International Intellectual Property Alliance.
As one expert once told 60 Minutes, “We have never seen a problem of this size and magnitude in world history. There’s more counterfeiting going on in China now than we’ve ever seen anywhere.”
From a culture that has contributed so much to world civilization over five millennia, I wish I could explain this modern-day thievery. But toleration of it also bleeds into the educational system, where widespread plagiarism and high-profile exposures erode the reputation of all Chinese scholarship. It even trickled into my journalism classes in Hong Kong, which I blogged about last year.
But back to my treasure-hunting.
In Central Europe, where I’ve lived for most of the past 17 years, it’s also a question of “Buyer beware.” At the Ecseri flea market in Budapest, my wife and I once looked for an ornate, turn-of-the-century wall clock. Shying away from ritzy shops, we sniffed around among countless tables weighed down with knickknacks. We settled on an affordable wooden clock that met our humble expectations.
The ticking lasted less than a day. We took it to a repairman, whose autopsy revealed parts in there from at least 10 other clocks – configured in such a way to keep it pulsating just long enough till we were off the lot. It was unsalvageable, he said. Today that clock is mounted on the wall of our Budapest apartment, dead to the world. At least it’s pleasing to the eye!
That was small-time swindling, compared with China. I got my first taste of the scope in September, during a visit to Beijing’s vaunted “dirt” market, Panjiayuan. While walking among the aisles and aisles of porcelain teapots, Buddha busts and opium pipes, a former student of mine explained how even a Chinese antiques expert had recently been bamboozled here.
If they could dupe a pro, how could I compete with such industrialized hoodwinkery?
All I wanted was an old framed portrait of a Chinese family, in traditional garb. If the women’s feet were bound, even better. (Don’t ask about my curious fascination with Chinese foot-binding.) I soon found what I was looking for. But upon closer inspection, my naked eye spotted pixels. A xerox!
I gave up, frustrated, leaving the market empty-handed – unheard-of for me.
In Hong Kong, though, I wouldn’t be denied. With only a few hours until my flight home, I withdrew just enough cash to attempt a ruse of my own.
The two pictures together were going for HK$2,450. At the most, I’d pay 2,000. But that was Plan B, the fall-back option. First, I stuffed 1,750 into my right pocket, with another 500 in my left.
I entered the antique shop with a cheerful “Nei hou!” – Hello. They returned the Cantonese greeting, recognizing me. I set my backpack down right away, to show I meant business. There were no other customers, so I had the attention of both saleswomen. The bespectacled one took the lead.
I went right for the more expensive peacock, hanging on the wall. “Sui sam!” they hollered. Be careful! As if it were of the Ming dynasty.
It was still 1,800, but for me, it could be mine for 1,600. Very kind of her. I countered: 1,200.
She recoiled. Fifteen hundred, that’s it.
Fine, I said. Thirteen hundred.
She didn’t budge. She looked serious. No budge?
“Hou gwai,” I wailed. Too expensive.
I fetched the second piece, of the robed father and mischievous-looking kids.
Instead of 650, she offered it for 600. I snorted.
“Peng di!” I barked. Cheaper!
Sure, I could have thrown down two grand then and there. I wanted to play hard-ball.
Acting like I’d been struck by a revelation, I motioned that I might be interested in both. I picked up their calculator, punching in my offer: 1,600.
They feigned disgust.
I pulled all 1,750 out of my right pants pocket, peeling off 1,600. I then flapped my arms, trying to explain that I had a flight. That was all the money I had.
“Mou cin,” I said. No have money. As a concession, I pushed forward all 1,750.
They were on to me. “Jau cin!” they bellowed. Have money! One pointed to my left pocket.
Last chance. I was also at the limits of my Cantonese skills. I opened my left pocket, daring her to dive in for my hidden cash reserve. Again, no other customers on the horizon.
They caved, but not before unleashing what was surely a barrage of creative Cantonese curses. The grumbling continued as they bubble-wrapped my pictures, dissipating only when I began photographing them. Then their Cheshire-cat smiles returned.
Flush with the triumph of an extra HK$250 saved – a whopping US$32! – I carried my booty into the Temple Street Night Market, where I dropped another HK$200 on a pair of “leather” belts.
Rushing back to my rented apartment to pick up my luggage, I quickly showed the doorman the two belts. Tony is a fellow who knows about such things.
“This one is real leather,” he said. “But that one is fake.”
Ah, China. On my way out the door, one last kick in the rear.