Friday, 4 December 2015

The Amazing Race 27, Episode 11

Agra (India) - Hong Kong SAR (China) - Macau SAR (China)

There were no bicycles on The Amazing Race 27 this week in Hong Kong and Macau, for a change. But the reality-TV travel show did return to a topic I raised a couple of episodes ago and have discussed at some length during previous seasons and in my books: cell phones (also known as “mobile phones” or simply “mobiles”, depending on local usage).

One of the challenges for the racers in this episode was to find a second-hand cell phone in the Apliu Street electronics bazaar.

Is buying a used cell phone at a street market in Hong Kong, or shopping for other electronic devices in Hong Kong, a good idea? Maybe, but only in certain circumstances.

To begin with, price is not a reason to choose to buy most cell phones, computers, parts, accessories, or other electronic devices in Hong Kong rather than in the USA. Prices for electronics are lower in Hong Kong or the USA than in many other countries with higher taxes and, more importantly, high import duties, including some European countries. But prices of identical electronic devices are lower in the USA than in most of the rest of the world, and can be comparable to prices in Hong Kong.

The largest concentration of electronic device manufacturing in the world is in Shenzhen, the “Special Economic Zone” of China adjacent to the “Special Administrative Region” of Hong Kong. And many used and discarded, traded-in, or “recycled” cell phones are sent to Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and other nearby places in China to be cleaned up, repaired, and refurbished for resale.

I’ve talked before about the potentially better value in used than new cell phones. But as I’ve also pointed out before, the cost of shipping, either in bulk by ocean container or by airmail for a package the size of a cell phone, is small compared to the value of a cell phone or even the values of less expensive devices.

If you can find the same electronic items in the USA — either from a storefront discount retailer that imports directly and in large volume from China, or from an online seller who drop-ships individual orders directly from Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Dongguan, or Guangzhou — there’s typically little difference between prices in the USA and in Hong Kong.

Stores like this that I regularly buy from include Central Computers in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, drop-shipping worldwide from China, and numerous drop-shippers who list new and/or refurbished electronic items on eBay. There are many others, although one of the best-known, J&R Music World in New York City, has recently closed.

There’s always a risk of getting an item with a hidden defect, especially with used goods. Testing and overhaul of items sold as “refurbished” is often perfunctory. Tellingly, almost every time I have bought a used cell phone, it has arrived with some or all of the previous owner’s stored data, ranging from names and phone numbers to lingerie photos and suggestive text-message archives. If you buy travel gadgets before you leave home, rather than on the street in Hong Kong, you have a better chance of getting your money back if they fail right away. Even with new goods, getting warranty service or replacement may be difficult, expensive, or impossible in any country other than the one where you bought an item.

What, then, are the circumstances in which it makes sense to buy cell phones or other electronics overseas?

There are some electronic devices made for Asian markets that aren’t available at all in the USA, or are only available in the USA from specialty importers like at a substantial mark-up. Some of these are compact computers and other small gizmos especially well suited for travellers.

The first several models of netbooks, for example, were available in Asia for some time before they began to be distributed in the USA. My partner bought one of these at one of the many shops in the Wan Chai Computer Centre mall in Hong Kong. Some other products are never marketed in the USA. I have a Panasonic laptop — the size of a netbook but ruggedized and as powerful as much larger laptop computers — that’s part of an entire Panasonic product line that for years has been distributed only in Asia. It’s not available from any authorized Panasonic distributor in North America. I bought it in the USA from (at a discounted close-out price), but it would have been cheaper in Hong Kong.

You can find even more cutting-edge electronic devices like this in the Akihabara district in Tokyo. If you have a choice, though, you are probably better off buying them in Hong Kong (or Manila, although prices there are slightly higher), where it’s easier to find versions with the operating system, menus, keyboard, etc. already switched to English.

The other time that it makes sense to buy electronic devices in Hong Kong is if you are travelling, and you can’t wait until you get home to the USA. That’s most likely to be the case if you are on a long trip, or if something you brought with you has gotten lost, stolen, or broken.

Ten years ago, for example, I stopped over in Hong Kong for a week (mostly spent in Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Guangzhou) on my way home to the USA from a trip to the Phillipines. My cell phone died just after I arrived in Hong Kong, and I wanted an inexpensive basic cell phone to use for the remainder of my trip. It didn’t have to be fancy or last very long — I figured I would shop for a better replacement once I got home.

Before giving up on my old cell phone, I took it to a repair shop to see if it could be cheaply and quickly repaired. No such luck, I was told. I might as well buy a new phone.

Before I could get out the door of the shop, however, another customer came in. Like me, she was speaking English, which was somewhat unusual in that neighborhood. She was trying to return a phone that had been repaired but that she no longer wanted, having bought a new phone in the meantime. She thought the repairs had taken too long, but the shopkeeper didn’t want to take back the repaired phone. Seeing an opportunity for a win-win-win solution, I interrupted to see if she would consider selling the phone to me.

“Why not?”, she replied immediately. I tested the phone with my SIM card to make sure it was unlocked, and we haggled briefly. I was in a pretty good bargaining position, since I’d already heard her tell the shopkeeper that she had no use for an extra phone. We quickly came to agreement on a price for the phone and charger. (This was back in the days when almost every cell phone had a different proprietary charger and charging connector.)

The only problem was that she didn’t have the charger with her. “No problem. I work as a dancer just around the corner, and I live over the club. We can go to my place, and I’ll get the charger for you. It will only take a minute.”

Off we went down the block, through a side door, and up a narrow flight of steps into a warren of backstage cubicles that doubled as a dormitory and as dressing rooms.

Her cubicle was cramped, with barely room for a twin bed. I stood in the doorway while she rummaged through cubbyholes and crates of clothes and other belongings searching for the cell phone charger, and we chatted about the Philippines. She was from the Visayas, and was surprised that I had recently been in Cebu — not a city on most tourist itineraries. She pointed out the photos propped in front of her clothes rack of the children she had left behind in the Philippines in the care of their grandparents, who she only got to see once a year on her home leave.

A couple of half-dressed dancers hurried past, pausing to ask curiously who I was and what I was doing there. “It’s OK. He’s just buying that cell phone I didn’t want,” she answered, and they went on their way after quick hellos.

Then a much older women appeared at the end of the hallway and started yelling at my host in a voice of authority. “Who is this man? What is he doing here?”

This time, “He’s just buying my cell phone,” didn’t seem to be an acceptable answer.

Her harangue was in rapid-fire colloquial Taglish (a mix of Tagalog and English), and I couldn’t follow it all. It wasn’t clear whether she thought I was a customer who had managed to get in without paying the house its cut, whether she thought I was a prohibited “boyfriend”, or whether there was a general rule prohibiting the women who worked in the club from bringing any men into their lodgings.

“Hurry up and get him out of here,” the boss-lady demanded. Fortunately, just then my host found the correct charger in one of her piles of stuff. She apologized for the bad manners of the madam, wished me a good trip, and I was out the door and on my way.

You never know where a shopping trip will take you.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 4 December 2015, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Thanks Edward, what an interesting story.

I'm going to be in Hong Kong next Sept for a week or two, and hope to make a trip from there to Vietnam or ? ? ?

Posted by: John, 12 December 2015, 10:16 (10:16 AM)

@John -- Depending on your interests, you could spend a week or two (without the cost of flights to Vietnam or wherever) exploring the Pearl River Delta region around Hong Kong. Shenzhen is surreal, Dongguan completely untouristed, and Guangzhou is one of the most underrated destinations for tourists in China, at least to my taste. See my earlier articles about travel in this region, including these:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 12 December 2015, 11:37 (11:37 AM)
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