Once again, speculation fever hits Hong Kong’s resident scalpers

Yonden Lhatoo despairs at the number of people who try to turn a quick profit on tickets, gadgets, stamps - and, most recently, HSBC banknotes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 9:11pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

So let me get this straight. HSBC has printed two million HK$150 banknotes and is selling them for HK$380 each. And the good people of Hong Kong practically climbed over one another to get their hands on them.

They had to enter a lottery first to earn the privilege of being selected to buy these notes at prices more than double their face value, and then lined up for hours to pick them up.

Is it just me or is there something ludicrous about this? HSBC must be laughing all the way to the – well, bank. OK, the profits will go to charity, so that makes this circus all right then.

But the point is, this peculiar exercise highlights what I consider to be a scourge of Hong Kong and the wider world: the culture of scalping.

What most people are after is the set of three uncut notes going for HK$1,380 or the sheet of 35 uncut notes costing HK$23,880.  They expect to at least double their investment by scalping their purchases on internet platforms targeting cash-rich mainlanders. Some are already charging HK$108,000 on the Taobao auction site for a set of 35 notes.

When the notes were distributed at the Convention and Exhibition Centre on Tuesday, mainland touts were already gathered in the lobby to pounce on the buyers. For the past three days, they’ve been creating a public nuisance by hawking their goods and clogging up human traffic on one of the busiest thoroughfares in the world – the Immigration Tower footbridge. Apart from the handful of genuine collectors at such events, the vast majority were just locals trying to make a fast buck.

This happens every time Apple releases a new gadget, and manifests into criminal behaviour when some flavour-of-the-month pop star comes to town.

I sympathised with Hong Kong’s Lady Gaga fans back in 2012 when ticket scalpers were making life a living hell for them. I wouldn’t watch her concerts for free, but, putting my personal prejudices aside, I can understand how frustrating it must have been for the fans.

It’s the same year after year at the Rugby Sevens, when fans from all over the world travel to Hong Kong to be fleeced by touts and fraudsters. It’s a blight on our city’s reputation.

As we’ve seen at the Sevens, the culprits are not poor people but well-heeled rugby club members and corporate types who snap up their share of allocated tickets and go and scalp them online or through brokers. Ticket scalping is illegal in Hong Kong, but that’s no deterrent when instant profits eclipse the statutory fine of HK$2,000.

Our city takes this unsavoury phenomenon to new heights, with organised syndicates hiring gangs of South Asians to stand in lines, and housewives sending out their domestic helpers to do the dirty work in the heat and rain.

One way to curb the practice is to simply ramp up supply to meet demand, as the Post Office was forced to do when speculation over special edition stamps went out of control in the late 1990s.

There’s nothing wrong with people trying to make some extra money, but there should be limits. It’s not something to be proud of when people involve their children or entire families in wholesale scalping and price gouging. Greed is not good, folks.

I’ve heard the reverse side of the argument. After all, doesn’t most of basic global commerce boil down to scalping at the end of the day? Buy cheap and sell dear – that’s what all retailers do. It’s what drives the stock market and the property business.

But what happened to making money through productivity and creativity? What happened to innovation, to actually making something that’s worth buying, and contributing to society?

And to all of you who are not collectors yourselves but are the proud owners of these HK$150 banknotes: I hope you end up having to actually spend them one day and you get your money’s worth – HK$150 to be precise.