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


  1. Jason,

    Thanks for writing this interesting article. It is an excellent information update of my knowledge on these stores forthcoming opening. I can now plan to visit them when they open.

    I was once a great fan of GAP and Banana Republic stores; (others brands are Timberland, Ralph Lauren Polo, Eddie Bauer, J Crew.....) and every time I was in San Francisco downtown, I would make an effort to visit these stores and grab as much clothings to appease my past passion for shopping. At that time, I too boycotted A&F products purely for the same reasons. In those days, at end of every US trip, I would return with two big suitcases loaded with casual clothings I don't get to buy in HK. It is sad that alot of these clothings are never worn once.

    The influx of these American brand stores is synonymous to Santa Claus coming to town - to fulfill the crave of starved and crazy shoppers in HK locally. So, this is good news.


  2. Martie,

    I thought I was the only one who stockpiled on clothes from the U.S. and ended up NOT wearing any of them! Whenever I clean up my closet I will find stacks of clothes still with the price tags on! :-)


  3. very nice & informative blog !i think i have to reconsider buying from A&F anymore cos i really hate discrimination. Will the prices very high here?
    i prefer ralph lauren they have a total look except mr poon marks up the prices which the brand doesnt deserves such values when compared to some cheaper ones from europe. Im now crazy for those handmade items from etsy.com, at least they r something not mass production and will add to some personal charm and being unique. I think the brands will be successful here as long as there r enough tourists from mainland which is their main market section. U could have seen joyce boutique and other designer labels gained back their lives when their sales turned to speak mandarin some 15 years ago.

  4. Jason,

    I email you my comments after reading the article in Manifesto, or maybe I wrote something on your wall, did you receive that? : p


  5. Dear Jason,

    Found your article in the Manifesto magazine last night and savoured it already. It is good, replete with your signature humour and yet very perceptive.

    I saw the boards that Gap is opening, but I have no idea Shangahai Tang (which has been there for so long) is being evicted too. I have to admit I do like beautiful things, but let's hope our society (and culture) is not just anchoring itself on its abyssmal materialism. No doubt our PRC comrades are admirable contributors to that!

    The sky high rent is already one thing we general populace in HK (aka me) have to reckon with with great difficulty already. Sometimes when I walk into a shop to buy something I do wonder how much of the price is going into the brand-name, the quality and design of the product, and the rent they are footing. With a cup of $100 coffee in Central I am sure $98 goes into the rent and $2 into the beans (or maybe the water). And it doesn't taste half as good as my cheaper coffee in Sydney, needless to say !


  6. Jason,
    Have just arrived from the UK - discovered your book and now your blog - excellent writing which has helped me to make some sense of this fascinating city.
    Found your two pieces on the plight of domestic workers particularly sensitive and helpful. Seeing so many women hauling heavy bags of shopping and yet dealing so patiently with young children who are not their own, has been the least uplifting part of arriving here.

  7. Hi Christine,

    Thank you for your comment. Sky-high retail rental rates have long been stifling the local culture and they have gotten more outrageous than ever in recent years. Imagine a budding jewelry designer trying to open shop anywhere in the city to sell her designs or a master pastry chef trying to open a bakery. Don't even think about it! That's why whenever we visit a foreign country we are thoroughly charmed by those little mom-and-pop shops selling knick-knacks or home baked dessert. None of that exists in Hong Kong!


  8. Thanks for your support, Anonymous, and welcome to Hong Kong!

    Do let me know what you agree (and disagree) with the book as I genuinely welcome reader's feedback!


  9. Dear Jason,

    Once again, I enjoyed reading your blog and especially about this one as I live, work, hang out all within 2mile radius from Central. I agree, the retail/shopping scene in Central is becoming more and more Americanized, with American invasion from brands back home. I do have to say though that I do not mind it one bit as I feel the retail shops in HK are too extreme - either very local or very European (i.e H&M, etc).

    I welcome this change in Central and looking forward to checking out these stores soon!


  10. Jason,

    Try checking out to see whether there are any new articles of yours or new comments, here I am again (at least this piece cut off my ceaseless ramblings on your 911 piece, I know, but that was an emotional topic).

    Haha, just re-reading your earlier comments and I realize we are true comrades. I do hoard up on clothes (on a few occasions, evening gowns) at home which I either never found a formal enough occasion to wear or pieces that I didn't wear for fear of tearing / messing it like pouring coffee on it or something. I ALWAYS ended up with coffee stains on ALL my favourite pieces so next time if you see me wearing a shirt with a coffee stain you'll know that is one of my favourite attire. Every now and then I'll be surprised (or shocked) to dig up in my wardrobe a nice piece which I bought years ago and it has never seen daylight (or twilight) since I took it home. With some of them (especially if I have outgrown them, not that I aged that quickly) I'll take them to the dry-cleaners, clean and freshen them and give them away sometimes.

    As for your comments on the rocketing rent, I do miss those small side-street cafes / bakeries / quaint small shops in Sydney an awful lot. I remembered when the Soho area in HK was first colonized I did go there quite a bit as those cafes gave me a feel of those charming small places, and I would go from shop to shop trying out their coffee and checking out their decor or whatever pieces they housed. But even that is getting more and more "Hongkong-nized", sad to say, and I found them every time I went past those streets now the shops and restaurants just masqueraded and what was there before could disappear overnight?! Including one of my favourite bookshops on Hollywood Road (the 'Collectibles"). It certainly wasn't a good feeling to drive past a new coffee joint and liking it only to find a week later it has already evaporated and squatting there, a Starbucks or another restaurant / shop from a larger chain. : <

    Anyway, I was on the lookout for the Oct issue of "Manifesto", but there is none coming out till Nov, is that right ? Looking forward to your next piece.