The Art of Haggling

It’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged, but quick update: I did not successfully beat the economy and find myself an awesome job. Instead, I did what many an unemployed child my age has done and applied to grad school. I applied to three American universities and one Canadian university. I was accepted by all American universities, and rejected by the lone Canadian university. I took it as a sign that Canada obviously hated me, since I was denied the opportunity to both employment and education. I jumped on the opportunity to go to NYU and love it.

Long story short, I am now in Hong Kong for a few weeks visiting family and completed a short internship at Asia Tatler, a sort of socialite magazine whose circles I will never travel in, as the online editorial intern. And onto the main topic of this blog post: haggling.

Haggling is a practice that is almost extinct, and something I have never encountered in North America (at least in its monetary form). It is the most blatant and unabashed form of compromise, where each party walks away wondering whether or not they got the better deal. Yesterday, I went over to the famed Ladies Street market in Mong Kok, where I spent much of my high school life wandering the crowded alleyways of knockoff bags, phone covers, and shoes in search of the thrill of haggling.

Of course, Ladies Street has changed. I am unaccustomed to the blazing heat, intensified by the muggy air from the typhoon that is scheduled to arrive later in the week. The throngs of tourists from Malaysia, India, China, and Germany mean that prices have changed.

It is incredibly difficult to outwit the older women who run the stalls – one look and they can peg your income, where you’re from, and how much of a cheapass you are. They can tell immediately that I’m a juk sing, or a whitewashed Chinese living overseas.

This is my offensive spiel of the day: there is a hierarchy of shoppers. White people are on the top, as they are anywhere in the world. Then come the Mainland Chinese tourists, crossing the border with suitcases of unmarked cash from God knows where. Then it’s the Malaysian and Indian tourists, with whom the market sellers have language barriers so they communicate through calculators. Then us overseas Chinese, the ‘yellow skinned’ gwailo. And finally, at the bottom, locals, who barely even shop on Ladies Street anymore because of the proliferation of the previously mentioned people. If you look at it this way, haggling is not just about money – it reveals a hierarchy that is about race, ethnicity, and class.

So of course, the higher up you are on the hierarchy, the higher the prices and the harder the haggling. Last year, I haggled over a pair of knockoff Roxy flip flops with the shopkeeper, who was also simultaneously haggling over similar flip flops with two white British women. She informed all of us that the flip flops were HKD$50 (US $6.50). I countered the offer (in Cantonese) with HKD $20 (US $2.50). She began the usual performance of protesting, whining, claiming that I was driving her out of business, but finally settled on HKD $30 (US $3.80). When I offered her the money, she snatched it quickly out of my hand so the British women wouldn’t see, and then essentially shooed me out of the shop. I could hear the British women snapping up five pairs of flip flops for US $6.00 each, exclaiming what a bargain it was.

Which makes me wonder – yes, those women certainly were ripped off. Yes, the shopkeeper had a field day selling five pairs of flip flops at 100% markup. But the thing is, everyone went home happy. Those British women got Roxy flip flops for about three pounds each, which is a steal by British standards. The shopkeeper made a tidy profit. And I got to feel like a local for the first time in years. Maybe sometimes happiness is more important than knowing the truth.

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