Papa’s Got a Brand New Wah

“Hello! Handbag! Hello!!”

A short skinny woman grabs me and starts to pull me, with all her strength, into her little shop. My friend Leslie pries the woman’s fingers from my forearm. “Let’s go!” she says to me, meanwhile swatting away a young boy in a spiky haircut who is whispering incessantly in her ear, “DVD…DVD…DVD.”

Welcome to Shenzhen, the Tijuana of Asia.

Yesterday my friend Leslie, a Korean-American who’s my oldest pal in Hong Kong, invited me on a perilous journey through the Lo Wu Seung Yihp Sehng, ground zero of the Global Fake Handbag Trade. I have been to Shenzhen exactly once, to have dim sum at the Shangri-la hotel, and I didn’t even set a toe inside the mega-shopping complex that is the target destination for millions of Hong Kongers crossing the border in search of bargains, Lo Wu Commercial City.

Even if you don’t live in HK, you’ve probably heard about Shenzhen, the economic miracle “new town” just across the Hong Kong border, that hardly existed 30 years ago. Like most border towns–Tijuana, or Ciudad del Este, Paraguay–Shenzhen is where you go to do things that you can’t do in the bold light of day in Hong Kong. Here you’ll find the exploitative labor practices that won’t be tolerated on this side of the razor fence, and the mistresses that won’t be tolerated by the Hong Kong wife (or, perhaps, by your Hong Kong political party).

But for Leslie and lots of other women in Hong Kong, Shenzhen is not about shady labor practices or sleaze. It is the capital of cheap, fake ming paai.


…or, literally “famous trademark”. I don’t understand why Hong Kong women are so into the Guccis, the Pradas, the Louis Vuittons. But this is a designer label obsessed shopping culture for sure. When I first got here I was puzzled that there were few, if any, shops selling locally designed fashionable stuff (G.O.D. and Shanghai Tang are the exceptions) .

The tourism board is always plugging Hong Kong as a shopping paradise, but I’ve never found that to be true. Bangkok, with its handmade silks and gorgeous gems and cool housewear stuff, is a shopping paradise. India, likewise. But most of the things for sale here, besides maybe jade and high-end antiquities, are goods that you’d be better off buying elsewhere. Or that you can buy anywhere else.

Also, if you are a tall Westerner who wears anything larger than, say, a size 6, Hong Kong is not shopping paradise, but shopping jungle. Basically you are stuck with either foraging through the discount factory shops in Wan Chai that sell seconds from export shipments destined for Saks or the J Crew catalog. Or the hideous and overpriced items at Ma Sa, Marks and Spencer. Or, now, Zara, which is Spanish, and stylish and stocks size L. Thank god for Zara.

Anyway, ming paai is what drives fashion here. And the central fixation of ming paai right now–not just in HK, but all over the fashonista world–is the handbag.

You’ve seen those “It Bags”, I’m sure. I think most of them are ugly, unfunctional, and loaded with too many pockets, medallions, heavy brass fittings and other useless doodads. But from a conspicuous consumption point of view, they are perfect for this go-go moment of global capitalism. They stand out, and they cost a fortune. We’re talking $800 USD on up.

If you are not cozy with a rich tycoon, or you don’t have an extra thousand dollars to toss away on something with a three month fashion lifespan, there are only two ways to get your ming paai fix.

The first is a really shrewd Hong Kong business innovation called Milan Station. Basically, it applies the concept of car leasing to purses. At Milan Station, the Hong Kong girl of modest means buys her first “gently used” bag for about $500 USD. Bring it back in good condition within three months, and you can apply 80% of its purchase price to any new bag in the shop. So what you are really doing is renting a ming paai handbag for about $400 down and $35 a month.

The other option is to go ga. Fake. And, since the Hong Kong police have cracked down big time lately on the fake designer dens in the Neui Gaai Sih, the Ladies’ Market in Mongkok, going fake means going to Shenzhen.

Leslie is a Shenzhen pro. She lives in Shatin, close to the border, so Lo Wu is like her local shopping center (like many Hong Kongers, she rarely ventures beyond Lo Wu Seung Yihp Sehng’s doors.) As soon as we get to the fifth floor, she leads me up and down the narrow aisles, jammed with tiny stalls selling clothes and shoes, cobblers mending worn heels at 2 renminbi a pop. Under a poster advertising a master who can “Fix Broken Porcelain With Cramps” there’s a violinist serenading over the din of touts yelling “Missy! Missy! Looking!”

Leslie heads into one of these little stalls, and she’s instantly greeted like an old friend by the proprietress, who runs up and hugs her. I can see the place is floor to ceiling with really bad tacky fake designer purses, and I wonder why we’re here. That wonder disappears when the shopkeeper opens up a secret door behind a rack of clothes that leads to a hidden chamber behind the “real” shop. “The good stuff is in the back,” Leslie says to me in English. “It always is.”

I mention English because our trip to Lo Wu is being conducted in three languages. Shenzhen, like all border towns, is a babel of tongues. Knowledge is power, and Leslie and I are better equipped than most of our fellow bargain shoppers: We can hold our own in Cantonese (Leslie’s husband is a Hong Kong guy), and she’s also pretty fluent in Mandarin.

So, while Leslie’s chatting up the shopkeeper in Po tung wah, I am explaining to the shop assistant about what kind of handbag I’m looking for, in Cantonese. “Not too big and not too small,” I say. “Simple. Maybe in brown or red leather…”

Shop assistant looks at me blankly. For a moment I think maybe she’s from someplace in northern or western China and doesn’t understand my Cantonese accent– Shenzhen is part of Guangdong province, but a magnet for migrants from all over the mainland. Mandarin is the lingua franca here.

Then I realize the problem is not my Gwong dung wah. (“Wah” in Cantonese,
means speech, spoken language). The problem is that I can’t speak the language of ming paai.

“Do you want Gucci, LV, Prada or what?” she asks impatiently, dumping some thick illustrated catalogs in my lap.

I am adrift here. As they say in Cantonese, mouh hei mong. Hopeless. My shopping style is so strictly last century. I need to see the goods before buying them. I can’t drop the model name of a particular designer bag so that a Shenzhen clerk can bring it to me from a dusty backroom.

I flip through the catalog pages desultorily, and the clerk turns her attention to Leslie, who knows what she wants, and how to say it in ming paai wah.

As Leslie examines a rather pretty looking copy of a white vinyl Louis Vuitton wallet, the clerk begins to chat me up again, trying to discern what “brand” the foreign lady really wants. As an aside to Leslie, she says in Cantonese. “Your friend is really sharp. Hou lek. She really knows how to speak baak wah.

Baak wah?

I ask Leslie about this after we leave the shop: what in the world is baak wah? “Oh, that’s what they call Cantonese over here. I said baak wah once in front of my husband and he scolded me, ‘Why are you talking like a Mainlander?’?

As soon as I returned to Hong Kong I looked up this new wah that I’d never heard of before. According to the Chinese Wikipedia, it has a number of meanings, but the one that fits this context is vernacular, dialect, local language. Baak wah is a non-specific catchall phrase for any local Chinese vernacular. And mainlanders, at least the ones in Lo Wo Commercial City, use baak wah to describe the Cantonese language, which is spoken by something like 200 million people worldwide.

The baak in baak wah is the same character that is used to mean white. Plain, clear, unadorned. Or blank, as in blank space.

Venture across the border from Hong Kong and you enter a strange land indeed. One where all the goods are imitation but come with a famous brand name attached.

And something as real as the language you grew up speaking loses its proper name, and is repackaged in a plain white label.

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