City scope: Bad goods | South China Morning Post
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CITY SCOPE

City scope: Bad goods

Rong Xiaoqing in New York

 

New York's Chinatown has long been a magnet for tourists. Outsiders with a taste for the exotic are drawn by the amateur opera singers and tai chi practitioners in the parks, the live fish and frogs in the markets, and the red lanterns and embroidered slippers in the gift shops.

Over the past 15 years, the neighbourhood has gained another attraction, however: it has become the retail centre for fake designer bags. On any given day, an army of vendors stationed on street corners flash tourists pictures of their wares and murmur brand names. And for those interested, they'll fetch the bags from nearby secret storage areas and charge US$50 or US$60 for specimens that look like US$700 Louis Vuittons or US$800 Guccis. The racket is so well known that one tourism marketing website published a "how to" guide to purchasing fake designer bags in Chinatown.

With the city government claiming a US$1 billion hole in tax revenues from the sale of counterfeit goods, New York police frequently make arrests and mass confiscations of merchandise. The official penalty is up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to US$5,000, but most offenders spend one night banged up and pay a few hundred dollars - which many of them consider a business cost.

One city councilwoman, Margaret Chin, has offered an alternative solution - punishing the buyers as well as the sellers. She has faced stiff opposition, however - and not from vendors, but from law enforcement.

Hong Kong-born Chin, the first Asian-American to be elected to the city council, introduced a bill two years ago proposing a US$1,000 fine and a sentence of up to a year in jail for those found guilty of buying counter-feit goods. But the bill picked up only lukewarm support and was shelved - until last month, when the council held its first public hearing about it.

The city government and district attorney's office argue the law would be unenforceable as it would be impossible to prove buyers knew they were purchasing a fake. After the hearing, the Daily News ran an editorial mocking the bill with the words "Gucci, Gucci, goo". "The Council is a crazy body," it went on. "For proof, see the Chin Law."

But that won't put Chin off. Having failed three times to win her seat in the 18 years prior to being elected, in 2009, she knows a thing or two about persistence.

And as for the innocent tourists who really cannot tell the fake from the real, whatever the price? Having it wrapped to take home in a black rubbish bag is probably a giveaway.

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