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.