Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cheating and Honesty in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world. Though some super-rich have bodyguards, most people can go about their lives without having to worry about crime. One of the reasons the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens has been so successful is that people can go out partying and not worry about getting mugged. A policeman friend commented that tourists can get drunk in Wanchai and wake up the next morning in their hotel room and still have their wallet.

At the same time, many Hong Kong people live their daily life assuming others are out to cheat them. Hong Kong shoppers do not ask clerks for advice on what appliance to buy because they assume the clerk would steer them to the appliance that they make the most profit on, or the old model that is hard to sell. They are sometimes right, but overall, I’ve found clerks in large stores to be fairly helpful, if they speak Mandarin or English and I can communicate with them!

So it came as a bit of a shock to be completely taken for a ride yesterday on Tung Choi Street, AKA “Goldfish Street”. I needed to get one (or preferably two) fluorescent tubes for my aquarium light. The tubes I need are 6000K, which means they are designed to provide the light that is most suitable for growing plants. I went into one store where I have been before and the clerk (I realized it was a chain, or a large store divided into several nearby small shops, because the employees were wearing similar blue polo shirts with a company logo on the breast) told me that they did not have my brand, but they had a similar tube from another brand. Since I did not even know the Dazs brand of the old tube I brought with me, I said it would be fine. He checked in the back section of the store, but could not find it. But he told me that the 6000K tube I wanted would cost HK$130, while the regular light tube would only cost HK$25. In my experience, the stores charge pretty much the same price for most things, so while the difference did seem high, these were actually different products, so I reluctantly said OK. He said he had to go to another shop to pick it up.

We waited near the front of the store watching customers.  One group came in with two boys. One boy in a green t-shirt had surprisingly long eye lashes. His parents spoke to him in Mandarin. The other couple they were with spoke to their son in Cantonese. The boys first looked at the iguanas hanging from plastic leaves in a terrarium, commenting on their changing colors. I then was looking the other way when I suddenly heard a man who was not wearing the uniform come in and yell at the boy in the green t-shirt, “Siu pang-yau, lei you mo gao co!”  Apparently the boy had put his hand in one of the salt-water aquaria, or something similar. The whole group fairly quickly left the shop; his father was smiling broadly and giggling, in the way that some Asians do when they are embarrassed (which looks totally inappropriate to Westerners). A few minutes later, the boss yelled something out and an employee next to us told us “mo fo”, there is no stock. So we also left.

$55 for a tube... really!

I checked at a couple other places that did not have it, so then I went to a shop across the street that often has what I need but I have found fairly unpleasant. If nothing else, the small of their cat makes the store unpleasant. But I’ve always found the queen laobanniang (lady boss) at the till to be unsmiling and unpleasant. As soon as I walk in holding my old tube, she and an employee tell me to go to the back where they have the bulbs. The employee says he has one, but it is not for plants, but he says it is white and 6700K, and about the same. I don’t remember my physics, so can’t remember if that is really about the same or not, but decide to get one tube, so I can at least replace the one that does not turn on. He tests it to prove it works (they always do that in Hong Kong; once you buy it and leave the story, you cannot bring it back saying it does not work), I ask how much it is. He goes the 10 meters forward towards the counter. The store is very crowded (always is on weekends), but it is still quite clear that everyone is looking at me and does not know the price, but are embarrassed. The queen of the till then says, “Fifty-five dollars.” Now, I had been told that the regular light was only $25 at the first store, so I’m pretty sure I’m being ripped off, but I pay anyway. This is why I don’t like this store; I often get the feeling I’m being charged the special guai-lo price.

As we make our way home, I remember that there is a new store that sells imported Danish plants (this is real globalization: why should tropical aquarium plants come from Denmark! They must grow inside there, because of the winters, but could grow outdoors in Malaysia.). I think this store might have my “flora light”. But when we walk there, they say they don’t sell lights. But as we walk out, one of the employees kindly tells me that I should go across the street to another store, where they would have it. So I go there, and to my amazement, they have the same Dazs brand tubes. She tells me the price in Cantonese, and I think I’ve misunderstood her, but no: $28 each. So I buy two. But now I’m sure the first shop was trying to not just cheat me but rob me, and the second certainly did cheat me.
$28 per tube...

This blog entry is my revenge. There are also layers of hell for people who cheat (I know, because I saw them in the Disneyesque park of Fengdu, China). 

Notice that both pictures have a "Top Sun" 升輝 shop in it. Tung Choi Street appears to be one small shop after another, and I have long tried to get a student to do research on why Hong Kong still has such a bazaar economy. But now, I see multiple shops with the same name. What is going on? The shops are not obviously specialized, but staff now, as mentioned, also wear uniforms. 

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