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elmer gozun cato
elmer g cato DESPITE ITS proximity to the Philippines, I never had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong, until a couple of weeks ago, when I went with Ninang and some friends. The former British colony had always evoked images of a shopper's paradise brought about mainly by stories my mother told me about the trips she made there as a viajera in the early eighties. It was the week after Hong Kong marked the 10th year of its handover to China, when I took the late morning Philippine Airlines flight to the special autonomous region.

I went there to unwind. I wanted to put myself in an environment different from the Holiday Inn Clark, where I had been under virtual house arrest for almost two weeks while helping run a United Nations peacekeeping course there. Since it was my first time in Hong Kong, Ninang insisted that we go to Disneyland or take a tour of the city. But seeing Mickey Mouse and the other tourist attractions was not really the kind of unwinding I had in mind.

By unwinding, I meant shopping, and by shopping, I meant the bargain stores my mother told me about, most particularly the plethora of shops that made Hong Kong a byword among photo and airsoft enthusiasts. Unwinding, of course, also meant going on a food trip and renewing ties with old friends who are now based there.

In addition to Peking duck, I wanted to see Meyo Abada, my kumpadre and neighbor at Lippo Karawaci in Jakarta, who is now a top insurance executive in Hong Kong. There is also Consul Vicvic Dimagiba, my Foreign Service batchmate, who is assigned to the Philippine Consulate General. While I did enjoy my fill of luscious Hong Kong duck during my three-day holiday of sorts there, I was unfortunately not able to be in the company of my two old friends.

We checked in at the Park Lane shortly after arrival and began hitting the malls a couple of hours later, starting with Pacific Place in the Admiralty area. This giant mall was so impressive. It is a virtual cornucopia of retail shops offering the same name brands you can find here in New York. But, to my dismay, the price tags were simply just out of reach for a government functionary like me.

Well of course, I was in a high-end shopping mall, but I just would not be paying hundreds, even a few thousand pesos more, for the same item that is available for a much lower price in Manila or New York. I told Ninang I would rather while my time away in Macy's or the outlets in Woodbury or Riverside, where I would get more value for my money.

It was such a disappointment that Hong Kong turned out to be not the shopper's paradise I pictured it to be. It was just so expensive, Manila ended up being much cheaper. As such, most of my time was simply spent window shopping. While I ended up getting nothing, I took comfort in the fact that we will cross into Kowloon the next day and will hopefully find some real bargains there.

After breakfast at the Conrad, we took the Mass Transit Railway and found ourselves exploring some shops at the Jordan area of Kowloon. We eventually ended up in Tsim Sha Tsui, where I got sales-talked into getting a set of replica samurai swords similar to those my brother-in-law brought with him from Tokyo. I always wanted to gift myself with some samurai swords since I took on the airsoft nom de guerre "Shogun" three years ago. I imagined the sword to blend well with the rest of my weekend war gear.

The saleslady immediately sensed my interest and initially priced the three swords– long, medium and short– at HK$500. She tried to go in for the kill by lowering the price to HK$400, and then HK$300. I was fortunate to have sharpened my haggling skills at Greenhills just a week earlier, so I offered to buy the three swords for HK$200. She shook her head in seeming disbelief. I then walked away, only to find her running after me, saying she will take my two hundred. That's how I got the three swords, which eventually ended up on display at my in-law's receiving room on Embassy Road.

So there I was, lugging a box of swords and trying to wriggle our way past a sea of humanity to the harbor for the Star ferry ride across the bay. It was at that point that I found myself stepping into a camera store, eager to seek out some items for my Canon 30D digital SLR that I have checked online while in New York. I was hoping for a repeat performance of my victory over the samurai lady just a few minutes earlier. I asked the middle-aged salesman if he had a hand-strap for the 30D. After going through one shelf of assorted straps, he said he did not have the item.

I then asked if he had the protective hood cover for the camera's sensitive LCD screen. He said he has it and showed me the same item I was checking out on eBay just a few weeks earlier. How much is it, I asked him. He quoted a little over HK$700. Wow! That's roughly US$100, or four times the amount I will pay for the same item if I purchased it at my favorite Circuit City store here in Queens. I can get this for only US$25 in New York, I told the salesman. He looked at the other salesman, said something in Chinese, got his calculator and punched some keys. "Oke," he told me, "I will give it to you for $25." Fine, I said, I will get the item.

I then asked for a shutter release cable. He has it. Realizing he could not get away with his earlier pricing, he offered it to me at the equivalent of US$55, which is more or less the same amount I would get it for online. All right, I will also get the item, I told him.

I took out my wallet and was getting ready to pay when I decided to ask if he had some China-made shutter release cables that are being sold like hotcakes online. I was hoping to see how the Chinese clones would fare in comparison to the original Canon piece. I don't know what I did or said, but the salesman just went ballistic.

He angrily muttered something in Chinese, which I have no intention of finding out. All I know was that it was not nice to hear. "Whoa! We not sell China. We sell only original Canon. You wasting my time," he told me. He punctuated it with a yell of "Get out! Get out!" with the accompanying saliva barely missing my face.

Having been used to the way shoppers are pampered here in the States, I was naturally taken aback with this kind of treatment. Here I was being treated rudely by a salesman, who only minutes earlier tried to make a fast buck at my expense.

I must confess that at that instant I was feeling a bit murderous. I imagined myself as the swordsman portrayed by Jet Li in Hero, and making full use of the samurai blades I had in the box. Instead, I simply smiled at the salesman, muttered something unprintable in Kapampangan, and stepped out of the camera store.

As I hit the street, I shook my head and swore that this visit would be my first and last.

[About the author. Elmer Gozun Cato is a Kapampangan journalist turned diplomat known for his advocacy of responsible and responsive journalism in a media career that spans more than 15 years. He first made a name for himself in 1983 when as a 16-year old college freshman became a cub reporter for the crusading newspaper Ang Pahayagang Malaya during the martial law regime of former President Ferdinand Marcos. At 21, he became one of the youngest newspaper publishers in the Philippines when he founded the Angeles Sun in 1988. His journalist experience included stints as correspondent and desk editor in various local, national, regional, and international news organizations, including the Manila Chronicle, the Philippine Daily Globe, Reuters, and GMA News. In 1991, he became one of the first Kapampangan journalists to go overseas when he became a reporter for the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah. In 1997, he became Executive Editor of the Indonesian Observer in Jakarta. He later published K, the Kapampangan Magazine. In 1998, he joined the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) after placing eighth in the Foreign Service Officers Examination. He served in various capacities most prominent of which were as special assistant to two former Secretaries of Foreign Affairs—Domingo L. Siazon Jr. and Vice President Teofisto T. Guingona Jr.; as spokesman and later officer in charge of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement; and later as head of the Regional Consular Office of the DFA in Clark Field. He has been based in New York since 2003 where he serves as Second Secretary with the Philippine Mission to the United Nations.]

-Posted: 1:22 AM 9/22/07 | More of this author on eK!

Gary Salas (of Angeles City, Philippines) writes...

I guess you were hit by the classic Hong Kong tale of butchery by shops located in Kowloon. If it will change your mind, let me guide you through the streets of Hong Kong once I arrive at the second quarter of 2008. I have been living and working in the former colony from 1993 to 2007. I am currently teaching at HAU's (Holy Angel University) Department of Architecture. Let me know. Best regards...

-Posted/Via Email: Thu, 4 Oct 2007 03:25:38 -0700

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