We have done a lot of shopping since we arrived, one of us has enjoyed this much more than the other, a statement which needs no clarification.
The innate affection of Hong Kong for all things procedural saturates all aspects of life here, and never does it feel more evident, more cumbersome, and more inhibitive, than when shopping.
Shopping in Hong Kong is a completely alien experience, items are organised by category. Interested in a new pair of trainers? Head over to Fa Yuen Street, or “Sneaker street” as it is more commonly known. Fabric? The fabric market in Sham Shui Po. Clothes? Tung Choi Street where the Lady’s market is.
When Sam needed to buy some old cameras for his photography class we knew exactly where to go and headed there after school. We know the system. We know what we want. We headed to the street markets in Sham Shui Po where we were greeted by a shirtless market stall holder in front of an impressive display of crap.Well I say “greeted”…he was there, shirtless. The stalls were full to bursting of old TV remotes, rusty tools, video players and cameras. “Perfect” we thought.
Sam pointed to a Canon camera on a shelf in the stall asking to see it. The stall holder said something neither of us quite understood given our lack of Cantonese ability and began removing boxes from the shelf below the requested camera. He continued to remove the boxes and set them down in front of the stall. And he continued. And he continued. We weren’t sure whether we should help, or why he was doing this. Was it to clear a path to the chosen camera?
After ten minutes of standing next to the stall holder watching him move boxes around the stall it became clear that he was not actually serving us. What he had said was “no”. He did not want to sell us the camera. I’m still not sure why, perhaps there is such a demand for old crap that he did not need our custom or he thought our inability to speak Cantonese would be too tiresome, but either way, he had exited the transaction without us knowing. I’m not sure what he thought of us standing within conversation distance while we watched him move the boxes. In fact, there was a lot of that interaction I didn’t understand. Fortunately we managed to find a man who was indeed willing to part with his miscellaneous crap in exchange for our money.
The system of item by location worked fantastically well when we were outfitting our apartment, when we needed to buy bed linen, wardrobes, electricals etc we could head to Home Square and browse IKEA, FrancFranc, ZaraHome and Fortress. When we wanted to buy a TV we could flit between the shops at New Town Plaza comparing deals and price matching between two vendors.
However, when we have a shopping list comprised of a toaster, goggles, plug adaptor, bread – things become more difficult. Shopping becomes more of a city-wide scavenger hunt where your only limitation is how much you can carry. This scavenger hunt method of shopping enlightens you to a wide array of goods which you are not interested in buying, normally because they smell really bad.
The procedural nature of Hong Kong means that if you select an item in a store, it will instantly be confiscated from you and exchanged for a ticket which you can use to collect and pay for the item at the till. Shop assistants swoop in with assassin-like stealth and relieve you of the items you are desperately trying to buy and give you a slip of paper, this usually takes longer than it would for you to just walk to the cashier and pay for the item and often you are left waiting at the till to be reunited with your items. I’m not sure if this is a sales technique to prevent you changing your mind about items or an anti shop lifting procedure but I do wish they would stop doing it.
Purchasing electrical items is a saga somewhat reminiscent of Harry Potter’s journey down the 3rd floor corridor to retrieve the Philosopher’s Stone. We wanted to buy a water filter jug because tap water in Hong Kong, albeit clean, tastes like chlorine. We quickly identified the perfect jug, and brought it to a man in a high visibility vest. Naturally, he confiscated the jug. He sent us on our way with a ticket to present to the cashier to pay for the jug. After paying, the cashier exchanged our ticket for another ticket.
We were assured that this ticket could be exchanged not for another ticket, but for an actual, real life jug. We went back to high visibility man and showed him the ticket. He gave the ticket to a helpful lady who went to find the jug. Helpful lady brought the jug in its box out to us and high visibility man. Helpful lady removed the jug and each accompanying accessory from the box and gave them to high visibility man, explaining the instructions as she went. High visibility man showed us each part of the jug and re-explained the instructions. High visibility man returned each part of the jug to helpful lady who re-packed the parts. Helpful lady disappeared. Helpful lady reappeared with written instructions for the jug and gave them to high visibility man. High visibility man explained that these were written instructions and returned them to helpful lady. Helpful lady told high visibility man she would go and get us a warranty for the jug. High visibility man told us that helpful lady would go and find a warranty for the jug. Helpful lady returned with a warranty card. High visibility man asks if we would like a bag. We do. Helpful lady tells us to return to the cashier to collect a bag and then r…we took the jug and ran.