TUNG’S TRAVEL JOURNAL: So many stores, so few choices

If you have been reading these blogs chronologically, then you have probably seen me mention Causeway Bay. Tung Lo Wan, as it’s known in local Cantonese, is the foremost fashion district in what is arguably the fashion capital of Asia, if not the world.

Causeway Bay is a microcosm of Hong Kong at large. There are the wizened Ah Ma’s (They are domestic workers typically from Malaysia, Indonesia or formerly Thailand, and Mainland China. They work long hours, living in their bosses’ homes, almost always to send money back to their families.) shuffling down the street, the 20-something office workers in “don’t-mess-with-me” designer sunglasses clutching their work bags (men and women, more on that later), the Falun Gong and pro-democracy protesters (new this year, thanks White Paper), and of course the ubiquitous Mainland shoppers.

Junior Manson Tung will be teaching at Hong Kong Summerbridge from June 21-August 15. He will be writing periodic blogs about his experience living, working, and traveling around Asia.

Last year, I spent 13 days here, shopping up and down the small streets—and up and down the multi-storied shopping malls and department stores—scaring my family and the Singapore Air luggage-handling girls with 11 suitcases between my mother, my sister and me. (We brought five of them with us, but had to buy six more suitcases as we went through Asia.)

And if you know me, then you know that I’m a shopaholic at heart. When it comes to making a decision about clothes that come in multiple colors, my usual response is “all of them.”

So you’d be surprised to learn that I’m completely bored with the shopping scene here in Hong Kong.

Because even though there are literally thousands of stores here within a 15-block radius of each other, there might as well be only one mall.

Why? Because  the stores here repeat themselves again and again and again. At first, I thought I was hallucinating. Things were bad last year when I came, but not as deplorable as this.

I like to call them zombie-stores because they are everywhere. Take Sasa, the cosmetics and fragrance juggernaut here in Hong Kong. Think Sephora but without all the black-and-white color scheme, a lot more pink, and whole displays devoted exclusively to men’s products.

Last year, you could stand in a Sasa and look at a different Sasa. But Sasa products are relatively attainable. It won’t cost you a fortune to buy their things.

Last year, it was just Sasa that had reached this level of universality. But this time around, even more of the originality has been taken out of Hong Kong.

This time around, you can stand in a multitude of stores and look at the same brand but in a different store. Chow Tai Fook is a prime example. Chow Tai Fook is a Hong Kong- based jewelry and watch company. They sell moderate- to high-priced items. Take Cartier, but make it Asia based and oriental in design.

I can stand in a Chow Tai Fook, and look at a Chow Tai Fook. In fact, next to Hysan Place, I can stand in a Chow Tai Fook and look at a Chow Tai Fook…and another Chow Tai Fook.

Chow Sang Sang, Chow Tai Fook’s cousin, isn’t that far behind it in terms of geographical reach. Chow Sang Sang and Chow Tai Fook often sit right next to each other, even though they sell nearly identical pieces.

Even imported brands have taken on this level of omnipresence. Burberry, as well as Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe, has a level of accessibility that would make even the most luxury-starved consumer weak at the knees from over-indulgence.

The problem is that you really don’t need all that many of the same exact stores. Unlike in the U.S., where they are differentiated by what they sell (for example, a Macy’s might specialize in strictly men’s or home goods), the stores here hawk identical objects. The same ring can be had at the Chow Tai Fook at Hysan Place and at the Chow Tai Fook right down the street.

Fashion is supposed to be about expression. Even I, a self-confessed luxury goods lover, need some differences. It is possible to spend 15 hours shopping (Forever 21 doesn’t shut its doors till 2 a.m.) and really only hit 20 brands.

Instead Causeway Bay is life, a very fashionable one, on repeat.

Also pushed asunder is the very differentiation that made this part of Hong Kong special.

My aunt told me that when she was a kid, you could get $10 goods or $10,000 goods on the same street. It was the whimsical nature of Causeway Bay. You could go as high-end or as low-market as you wanted.

But high rents, pushed upwards by the ravenous Mainland buyer, have chased away many of the small stores and restaurants. Cha Chaan Tang,  traditional Hong Kong cafés with a distinctive east-meets-west fare have been kicked out by long-time landlords eager to make millions by replacing Hong Kong bubble waffles with glistening jewelry baubles.

A new district rife with stores, but deprived of ideas or any real taste, has replaced the storied fashion district.

Little better can be said of Tsim Sha Tsui across the harbor. Long the home to shoppers with a discerning eye and a thick wallet —My own grandfather had his clothing store on 20 Nathan Road, mere feet away from the Peninsula Hotel. To this day it’s his proudest accomplishment, and his greatest regret. If he had only bought the storefront, I would be writing you from my private island somewhere in the South Pacific—, it is now nothing more than an endless stream of Chow whatever’s and Hermeses.

Even Mong Kok, the traditional haunt of Hong Kongers, has been invaded by a wave of luxury stores. In fact, the largest Chow Tai Fook I have seen so far is there. It goes on for more than a whole city block.

Its nickname may be the fashion capital of Asia. But, for me, the choices offered here are only marginally better than the Galleria.

And at least there I don’t have to take public transportation home.


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