23 September 2011

The Moose, The Gap and the Apple 麋 、溝、蘋

Determined to reclaim Hong Kong from European powers, the Americans are sounding their battle cry and marching into the city to pomp and circumstance. I am not talking about the type of invasion unleashed on Qing China by the Imperial West; I am referring to the almost contemporaneous arrivals of heavyweight American retailers in our city beginning this fall. Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap and the Apple Store are all set to squeeze into the city’s already crowded retail space, promising to shake up our cityscape and transform our shopping routine. The good news is that we no longer need to travel to Tokyo or New York to get our hands on anything with a moose logo. The bad news is, any Joe Blow – make that Joe Ho – in Hong Kong will soon be able to walk into these new stores and walk out with the same pair of jeans you had once begged a co-worker to bring back from the States. Globalism can be such sweet sorrow.



Not since the coming of European apparel giants Zara in 2004 and H&M in 2007 has there been so much buzz about casual wear. Earlier this year, Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) broke commercial real estate records by agreeing to pay a whopping HK$7 million (US$900,000) per month to rent four floors at the iconic Pedder Building, replacing long-time tenant Shanghai Tang. The store is slated to open early 2012, but A&F’s first foray into the Greater China region has already roused local shoppers into a tizzy. And for good reason. Visiting an A&F store is like walking into the middle of a rave party, where head-bobbing, hip-swaying sales clerks blur the line between runway models and Greek gods; where the good, the bad and the narcissistic succumb to the deafening dance beat and empty their wallets willingly at the under-lit cash registers. During my New York years, I would make regular pilgrimages to the retail temple on Fifth Avenue just to soak up the other-worldly shopping experience. I would buy something, anything, just to get my hands on a shopping bag racier that most soft porn.

But for all its glamour and godliness, A&F has had more than a few brushes with the Asian community. Under the guise of a so-called “Look Policy,” the all-American, lily-white label was accused of workplace discrimination by banishing minority store clerks to non-customer facing tasks. In 2002, a serious lapse in judgment landed A&F in the center of a nationwide controversy, when they put out a t-shirt design featuring Chinese cartoon characters with stereotypical slanted eyes emblazoned with the slogan “Two Wongs Don’t Make It White.” The t-shirts were quickly pulled from the shelves but the damage was done; and the label became a perennial stable for Saturday night sketch comedy on American television. It remains to be seen, however, whether Hong Kong shoppers will be more forgiving and forgetful, and take the label’s checkered past in stride.


Another American household name in casual wear is expected to open in Hong Kong this November. After Queen’s Theatre closed in 2007, Luk Hoi Tung Building (陸海通大廈) in the heart of Central has been boarded up for an overhaul. The redevelopment was barely finished when Gap swooped in and snatched up two floors of retail space. Next to Calvin Klein and across the street from Coach, the new location promises to make the American retail royalty feel right at home.

For half a century, Gap Inc. – which also owns Banana Republic and Old Navy – dominated all segments of the American apparel market. In the U.S., Gap stores are more than just a place for ringed tees and khaki slacks. They are urban oases where citizens take a breather from the daily grind and blow off steam with a healthy dose of retail therapy. Walking on the oak hardwood floor, rummaging through the piles of feel-good fashion designed to hide the imperfect body, and invariably ending up at the discount rack where prices are slashed by up to 60%, can really hit the spot. I still miss those lazy Sunday afternoons browsing in the midtown store on 42nd Street and Broadway the way I would drop in to see an old friend. But my long wait is finally over.

2011 will mark the year when Gap re-enters Hong Kong, after an unsuccessful stint in the 1990s that left the retailer with red ink and injured pride. Vanity sizing might have something to do with Gap’s failure to connect with Hong Kongers, for its catalogue was catered primarily to the ever-expanding waistline in America, callously snubbing the petite Asians and ignoring our insatiable appetite for all things slim-fit. This time around, however, with the influx of Mainland Chinese visitors willing to drop serious dough in exchange for a piece of Americana, Gap’s second act is shaping up to be a big hit, enough to make up for slumping sales back home.



From fashion to nifty gadgets, the American retail invasion knows no bounds. Apple, that lovable maker of all things cool, whose very name is a term of endearment, is scheduled to make an official landfall in Hong Kong at the upscale IFC Mall this month and at the spanking new Hysan Place in Causeway Bay by mid-2012. Because their stores are designed with every bit the same perfectionism that goes into their electronic products, it is not surprising that the bill for the renovation alone is running up to HK$160 million (US$20 million) per store.

For years, Apple products have been the birthday gift de rigueur for all ages, and the Apple Store has become the 21st Century version of the candy store with walls of life-changing gadgets. That’s why every holiday season, shoppers and staff (called “Geniuses” and “Creatives”) pack the flagship store on Fifth Avenue, turning the famous glass cube into a man-trapping fish tank. Today, Apple boasts four locations in Beijing and Shanghai, all of them among the highest grossing stores worldwide. The two new stores in bustling Hong Kong are certain to earn new superlatives by luring local iPhanatics and the growing middle class from nearby Chinese cities. What is uncertain, however, is the fate of those authorized Apple dealers scattered around the city after the real deal comes to town.


The Hong Kong retail market is not for the faint of heart. Savvy and deep-pocketed as these first-rate American retailers are, they will eat humble pie as they come face to face with the city’s twin evils: sky-high rents and rampant piracy. According to a recent survey by CB Richard Ellis, retail rents in Hong Kong rose nearly 50% compared to last year, placing the city in second place -- ahead of Sydney and London -- among the world’s most expensive retail bases. It makes you wonder how many tight-fit Henley sweatshirts and vintage straight-leg chinos they would have to sell to turn a profit. And what happens when greedy landlords jack up the rent in a couple of years?

And that’s not all. These foreign labels, despite their best efforts in brand protection, will bear the full brunt of China’s lax copyright enforcement. With Shenzhen just a 45-minute truck ride away, new designs and the latest innovations can be replicated and distributed in a matter of days, from the products themselves right down to the shopping bags and authenticity cards. Even an entire Apple Store can be cloned, as bloggers exposed one particularly uncanny replica in the Chinese city of Kunming a few weeks ago. All the media fanfare resulting from the store openings in Hong Kong will only rekindle demand for knock-offs and copycats in the region. When that happens, it will bring international attention to one of Hong Kong’s many contradictions: the co-existence of the first world problem of over-valued real property and the third world problem of undermined intellectual property.




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This article previously appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of MANIFESTO magazine.


As printed in MANIFESTO


01 September 2011

I Was There When the Sky Fell 當日我在場

The No.2 train slowed to a halt. Inside the subway car, the overhead florescent lights went out for a moment and flickered back to life. The middle-aged Caucasian man standing next to me heaved an impatient sigh, bemoaning the frequent interruptions of an antiquated transport system. Suddenly the train doors parted and the crackling PA system issued a dispassionate instruction: An emergency has been reported in Lower Manhattan, all passengers must exit now.


14th Street, where I got off the subway train

I climbed two flights of stairs and came out of the 14th Street station. It was one of those beautiful September mornings in New York. Cloudless blue skies and a few falling leaves. I looked to the south and there it was, the reason why my train had stopped: plumes of heavy smoke were billowing out of the World Trade Center. 

I walked into a nearby Citibank branch to find out what had happened. “Some fool flew their plane right into the building, sweetheart,” the heavyset African American woman paraphrased what she had heard from the radio. In my head I had this image of a spoiled brat flying daddy's biplane and accidentally slamming it into a building.

Now what am I supposed to do with my plane ticket? I grumbled to myself as I tried to call Mei Lin to cancel our lunch. My friend and I were supposed to meet up on Wall Street after I finished my errand at the American Airlines ticketing office at the WTC. But my cell phone had no signal. It wasn’t my day.


An image etched into our collective psyche 

By the time I walked out of the bank onto the streets, one of the Twin Towers was gone and the other one was burning furiously. Convinced that it was just the angle that put one tower behind the other, I walked from one side of Seventh Avenue to the other to get a different vantage point. That’s when I noticed that every car as far as the eye could see had stopped, and the drivers were all standing in the middle of the streets listening to the car radio.


Approximately an hour ago, two commercial airliners crashed into the World Trade Center. The South Tower has collapsed, casualties unknown at this point. The sombre newscaster at WCBS announced.


I realized how wrong the bank teller and I both were: this was no accident. If I were in a Hollywood disaster movie, that would be the moment when the soundtrack came on and the brass instruments beat out a heavy chord. I looked around and saw people crowding around at every public phone, for cell phones were as good as dead. I rushed back into the bank and asked to use its land line. The Hispanic woman waiting in front of me stared unseeing at a blank wall, mouthing ay-dios-mio, ay-dios-mio non-stop.

20 minutes later I finally got to call Mei Lin, but I couldn’t get through to her. By the time I came back out on the streets again, the North Tower had also fallen. The World Trade Center was gone, destroyed, erased from the skyline.

There were simultaneous attacks on Washington D.C. and the Pentagon. The car radio continued to deliver bad news, and the situation got worse with each report.

There were now gaggles of people on the streets, steadily walking to the north and away from the suddenly unrecognizable Lower Manhattan. My survival instinct kicked in and I made a quick detour to a corner store where I bought two bottles of water and a few Snickers bars. And I began walking north, like everyone else.


The worst headline imaginable

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In spring 2001, I accepted an offer from a reputable New York law firm for an associate position, not bad for a Canadian law school grad whose knowledge of American law was limited to a course in U.S. constitutional law. On September 9, I arrived in the Big Apple to spend two weeks looking for a place to live. On the second day of my apartment hunt, my broker found me a one-bedroom in a pre-war walk-up, not bad for a budding lawyer with massive student loans.

I was to sign the lease three days later, on September 13, at the broker’s office in midtown Manhattan. Having accomplished my mission well ahead of schedule, I had no reason to hang around in New York and risk over-staying my welcome. At the time I was crashing rent-free at my friend Mei Lin’s apartment in Queens, and so I decided to fly back to Toronto a week early.

Since every major airlines had an office at the World Trade Center, I thought it was only appropriate to pay a visit to the famous skyscrapers – designed by Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki (山崎實) and known for their stunning symmetry and understated grace – first thing Tuesday morning to change my flight reservation. And since Mei Lin’s office was just across the street, I figured I would take her out to lunch to thank her for her hospitality.

That series of unremarkable decisions was what put me on the southbound No.2 train at 9:00am on that fateful day. If only I had left my friend’s apartment half an hour earlier, I might have been buried under 220 floors of concrete and steel, and my name might have been inscribed around the edges of the 9-11 Memorial along with the names of the other 2,975 victims. The extra 30 minutes of snoozing on my alarm clock had probably saved my life.

The 21st Street apartment I signed



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I continued my trek up Sixth Avenue. There were now thousands in the Great Migration to the north, some were sobbing but no one made a sound. Silence was the security blanket that wrapped around us and kept us sane until we found shelter. 

Mei Lin’s apartment was on the other side of the East River and so my only option was my other friends Ivan and Sarah, who lived in the Upper East Side on 82nd Street and York Avenue. But that was 70 blocks away, or approximately five miles northeast of where I was. 

I had just passed Madison Square Park when I spotted a northbound city bus on the corner of 24th Street taking passengers. I ran toward it and became one of the 60 or so lucky souls on board a bus designed to carry half that number. Some of the people who couldn’t get on became agitated and started to pounce on both sides of the bus, causing it to rock from side to side. The more aggressive ones tried to climb on top of the vehicle. I was scared out of my wits, for right in front of my eyes common sense had clicked off and lawlessness had taken over. An old woman finally cried from her seat, “let’s go, please, let’s go!” Then the bus started moving slowly, heading north, avoiding pedestrians. 

Along the way, traffic lights became irrelevant, as did all the banks, furniture shops, pizza joints and other traces of civilization. When we reached the 42nd Street intersection, a pair of police officers stopped us in our tracks. There is a bomb in Grand Central Station -- everyone get off the bus right now! They kept repeating those same words. The B-word set off an immediate stampede and everyone started to push their way off the bus and run for their lives. I ran as fast as I could, away from where the bomb was supposed to be, all the while hunkering down and holding on to my bag. It was a false alarm, but the evacuation left empty baby-strollers and shoes all over the streets. Right there and then I knew America was at war, and I was one of the city’s 8,000,000 refugees.


This ain't Damascus


Two hours later I arrived at Ivan and Sarah’s building. The security guard was long gone and I took the elevator straight up to their apartment. I rang the doorbell and Ivan, who didn’t even know I was in town, answered the door. “Come on in,” my friend urged, pulling me inside. On a day like this, a surprise visit from an unannounced guest needed no explanation or apology. 

Later that afternoon, another friend of the couple's showed up at the door and together we turned their Upper East Side apartment into a makeshift refugee camp for stranded visitors. All day, the four of us did nothing but watched CNN, alternating between gruesome footage of the plane crashes and gut-wrenching pleas from families searching for loved ones. 

All night, we felt the rumble of heavy dump trucks going up and down the island carrying debris from Ground Zero. We didn’t talk much, for one of us would start to cry each time we attempted a conversation. 48 hours went by just like that. 

By the end of the week, I decided to take a 12-hour train ride back to Toronto instead of waiting indefinitely for the airports to reopen. But on September 13, the day before I left the city, I did the unexpected. I kept the appointment with my broker and signed a two-year lease when all of his other clients had backed out and walked away. Three weeks later, I returned from Toronto and moved into my small one-bedroom apartment, the place I would call home for the next five years.

The Wailing Wall

It is said that everyone remembers where they were on September 11 and every New Yorker has a 9/11 story to tell. I have told mine to friends and family dozens of times, an account of events that requires no embellishment. I wasn't covered in ash while running away from the collapsing towers, nor did I witness trapped office workers jump out of the windows and pulverize in front of my eyes. 14th Street was still a way from the Twin Towers. But none of that changes the simple fact that 9/11 was the single most terrifying experience I ever had.

 It is also said that once bitten, twice shy. Even today, ten years after the day that changed the world forever, every loud bang or ambulance siren I hear raises the specter of another terrorist attack. It makes my heart skip a beat. And each time I take off my shoes at airport security, lose interest in a history book after realizing it was written before 2001 or find myself taking the office fire drills much more seriously, I am reminded of the sweeping and permanent impact the event has on our daily lives. 

But if September 11 was the scariest day of my life, then September 12 would very well be my proudest. Say what you will about the Americans, but I have never seen a more united and compassionate people than those I encountered in the weeks and months following the attacks. From Harlem to Greenwich Village, Brooklyn Heights to the South Bronx, there were donations of every kind: money, blood, food, clothing and toys for the thousands of children orphaned by the attacks. Sanity and civility were restored almost immediately, and the early moments of panic and despair quickly gave way to kindness, gumption and hope. It was New York's finest hour and being a part of it filled me with complicated joy and infinite pride. That's why I decided to sign the lease and move to the city ten years ago. I did that despite -- and because of -- what I experienced when terror hit. And it remains one of the best decisions I have ever made.

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This article also appears on SCMP.com under Jason Y. Ng's column "As I See It."

As posted on SCMP.com