Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Shopping Till We Drop: A tale on four continents

Night Market on Temple Street, Kowloon, Hong Kong
It was only on my second visit to Hong Kong that I realized what fun street market shopping can be. I think the national sport there is shopping. I sure know Chinese shoppers love the Cabezon Outlets in the middle of nowhere on the way to Palm Springs, CA. To tell the truth, after looking at prices in the multitude of upscale malls in Hong Kong (they are like fleas, just about on every corner), I can see why they shop! The difference in prices pays for the trip and then some. The irony? Most of what they buy in the good ole USA was made in their home country, China!

Vendors in Liberia, West Africa
My first real experience with street shopping was when we moved to New Mexico and we would travel to the Mexican border and see the markets there. To a boy from urban Portland, OR, where such things didn't exist back in the early 60's, it was a novel experience. It was when I spent two years in Liberia, West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer and the kind of market I was used to was nearly as rare as chicken teeth, that I began to appreciate street markets. In fact, we were given a set number of plane flights to our village ... a 30 minute flight, or a 12 hour road trip. We learned to divide those flights so that we could shop at the Monrvia Lebanese supermarket, make a mad dash to the airport, fly home and our students would be waiting for the mad dash home and the refrigeration of frozen items. If something was not put away at breakfast, coming home after school four hours later we would see the mold already forming! We had a kerosene refrigerator that actually could freeze things. To entice the boys to get things for us, we would give them an ice cube. In a land where it never gets much below 70ยบ you can imagine what a treat that was. When we were cut off from our supply of kerosene, we nearly had to abandon our post because we couldn't keep food or medicines refrigerated. The roads became impassable and we couldn't even be flown out.

Street market in Monrovia, Liberia
However, vegetables and fruit were purchased locally. We would give the houseboy 50¢ and he would return with far more than we could eat! Tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, mangos, onions, grapefruit, papaya if in season. We had an avocado tree behind the house that bore twice a year. Back in 1967 few in the states even knew what they were. More for us.

Our dirt path of an airstrip was lined with mango trees and we would gorge on those until we were yellow and they were gone.

Sidewalk shopping in Merry Olde England!
Of course sidewalk sales and then flea markets, patterned after the old and honorable versions in Europe became the rage. I can remember on my trip home in 1969 visiting the ones in Rome, Florence, Paris and London. It seemed like you could get anything. Haggling was expected. Never good at that the locals would often intervene for me to get me a better deal!

It seemed to take longer for it to catch on in the US but when it did, it took off like a rocket. Every weekend you would see, and still see, signs posted on telephone poles, taped to walls and other signs announcing a yard sale. Many would place ads in the local paper and now the Internet telling of a sale. I've been told that people pick a neighborhood they like and cruise them every weekend looking for the yard sales. One lady in West Covina, CA bought a painting for $50 that turned out to be a Jackson Pollack valued at $5 million. So, you never know!

Not to be left behind, Pasadena seemed to jump in with both feet. Pasadena City College (PCC) held
Rose Bowl Flea Market
their swap meet or "flea market" every first Sunday of the month. Not to be outdone, the Rose Bowl, that venerable bastion of American Collegiate Football Glory held their Flea market on the second Sunday of each month completely surrounding the stadium, and then some, with vendors offering everything! Looking at much of it I would think, "Well, my junk can become your junk ... for a price!"

We are not talking about a few thousand attendees, we are talking about 100's of thousands of attendees some of which drive from hundreds of miles just to sell and buy!

However, it is in Hong Kong and maybe much
Piggies in all their glory
of Asia, I don't know, that the street and markets seem to flow on just about every street and alley. Just coming down the street where I am staying you pass meat markets with pork, beef and fish hang or freeze in ice. Flowers, fruit or every kind and stripe are for sale. Spices, dried items and even candy are sold. This would freeze the blood of an American food inspector. I could just see them falling to the street frothing at the mouth. No one seems to get sick so you do have to wonder. There is no doubt that it is fresh ... but you wonder "fresh" for how many days? Even my Chinese friend has his doubts.

Considering the many malls in Hong Kong that are selling upper and super upper scale brands, there is something to be said about looking at, fingering, haggling with the street vendors. No one seems to take umbrage to this and in fact is expected! If you go to the Temple Street Night Market you can find just about every brand at a discount. On close inspection though, you know
Temple Street Night Market
without a doubt its an impostor but that doesn't make it any less fun. Everything is there ... clothes, computer items, paintings, watches, purses of every color and design, shoes, shirts, pants, and accessories for the home, Bose speakers that are simply not, Polo Shirts that well, lets say sell for merely a few bucks when the mall sells them for $100 each ... you get the drift. Everyone knows and that's the fun.

Night Market jewelry. Does it really matter if its "real" or not?
Only open nights from 6 pm till midnight it is often a relief from the heat and humidity of day time. There are many restaurants as well so you can eat, shop and people watch! Is it real? Is it fake? Who knows and after a lifetime of worrying about such things, I finally realize if you like it ... who cares? I remember so many things I really liked on all my travels but never bought. When I'm gone, someone else can worry about that. After watching Antiques Roadshow you may find out that, well, you really never know!
Shopping at the Peak

In fact on this trip I ended up at The Peak, the mountain that overlooks Hong Kong and Kowloon across the bay and actually went shopping. This amazing area with views of the city, that are breathtaking, has not one but two shopping malls. While much of it is most likely cheap stuff you could purchase at the Night Market, I found some treasures that were what I was looking for ... Christmas gifts, a robe for Halloween that while inexpensive is amazing in its intricacy. As I've discovered both here and at home, Chinese shoppers know the cost of everything. They are also not shy about asking for a
discount, something that I remember drove merchants crazy when they moved to Southern California in large numbers in the 70's. As I have recently learned, it doesn't hurt to ask and have been surprised over and over again at the response. There is one or will be one soon!!!

If you have never been to one or perused a sidewalk sale, now might be a good time to try. There is usually no pressure, remembering, of course, that you never pay the asking price. Lowball it and see what happens. Remember, you could be lucky like the guy on Antiques Roadshow who bought a Windsor styled chair on the way there only to find out his $30 purchase was an original 1700's Windsor chair, one of about 6 that was worth $30,000. Gasping he grabbed his chair and when asked what he was doing said, I'm going back to see if there are any more!

Thank you for reading my blog. I truly believe design is an important part of our lives! Please read earlier blogs that cover how design shapes and yes, rules our lives!

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