At a chic ladies' lunch in a Peak apartment, Mrs X - the wife of one of Hong Kong's biggest property developers, and a woman who routinely spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a month on herself - told of a recent enjoyable excursion: buying fakes in Shenzhen. She and three of her best friends had piled into her Rolls-Royce (the one with the China number plates) and crossed the border to Shen-zhen Golf Club for a round or two. Later they climbed back into the Roller, quaffed a couple of bottles of champagne and stopped at a dirty grey building next to the border. There, Mrs X and her cohorts, all in this season's real Dior and Gucci, spent two hours roaming small, hot, noisy stores, haggling for $20 off an imitation Fendi baguette, $35 off a black nylon Prada tote ... 'Did you see the denim Dior shoulder bag? Only $70!' interrupted one of the lunching ladies. 'And the Burberry raincoats? So cheap for $150!' Shenzhen, or at least the building that houses five packed floors of counterfeit-product shops, has reduced some of Hong Kong's most glamorous, polished women into screeching penny-pinchers as sophisticated as New Territories fishwives. Mrs X and her friends are not the only ones. There's the woman who spent $12,000 on two Chanel handbags one afternoon, then went to Shenzhen the next to buy the fake versions. She couldn't find the same styles, but bought a couple of others, used them twice, then gave them to her domestic helper. There's the group of wealthy Singaporean women who flew to Hong Kong, were wined and dined at the China Club by a Hong Kong fashion industry insider, then revealed they were really here to 'shop in Shenzhen'. Then there's the wealthy tai-tai who bought bag loads of fake Vuitton ... when her husband has 30 genuine monogrammed suitcases. And there are plenty of tales of women who bought fake Gucci wallets and sent them to the factory in Italy to be repaired if a stitch came undone. A friend who usually buys at least two real Gucci bags a season has just made her breakthrough trip to Shenzhen. 'I defy you to tell the difference,' she said, producing a real Prada wallet and a fake. 'Everyone is doing it - even the rich.' But buying fakes can backfire. The wife of one local billionaire went to Japan loaded with fakes for her friends. They were thrilled to see the booty, but were not amused when told they weren't the genuine articles. 'The Japanese don't buy fakes,' said the socialite. Patrice Brendle, who runs the Hong Kong branch of French luxury-goods association Comite Colbert, has a simple explanation for the Shenzhen sprees. 'Boredom,' he says. 'It has become a fashionable sport, and to be there when there is a police raid is even more thrilling. It's a combination of things: finding a bargain, the fact that it's illegal ... these people who go in their Rolls-Royces, they go for the fun of it.' I had to see for myself what would lure the tai-tai shopper, someone accustomed to moving seamlessly through the pristine interior of The Landmark, to a grotty building on the mainland. These are the women, after all, who cheered when Joyce moved from the Galleria to the New World Tower in Central because their chauffeurs were able to pull up right outside. Carrying a capacious shoulder bag for all my booty, I set out at 10.30am and took the MTR to Kowloon Tong, then the KCR to the border at Lo Wu. In my compartment were two women in the tai-tai category: solitaire diamonds sparkled in their earlobes and their toes were prettily pedicured. One carried a lime canvas Gucci bag (later seen in large quantities) and both had small, empty, canvas Prada suitcases. It's easy to spot the shoppers at Lo Wu: they're the women towing empty wheelie bags. Our target - officially called the Spread LiYang Commerce Building - stands on the far side of a walkway from the border crossing. During my pre-trip research I was told to 'start at the fifth floor', which is apparently home to the best-quality merchandise. Shenzhen counterfeiters are now grading their merchandise A, B and C, and most of the A-grade stuff is at the top of the building. A-grade items are about 20 per cent more expensive than B-grade. The difference is also in the packaging: the top grade (also called 'advanced leather') comes with guarantee cards, brand-imprinted tissue packing and correctly coloured boxes. If the game is finally given away, it's often because of imperfect printing. The original idea was for me to compile a 'where to shop' list - an unofficial buying guide to the best bargains. But after a couple of hours in Shenzhen the notion seemed increasingly distasteful. Yes, there were Hermes Kelly bags, Vuitton Vernis cigarette holders and beaded Fendi baguettes. And yes, after much prodding and probing - by now I know the construction of the real things inside and out - it's clear that in some cases it is almost impossible to tell the genuine article from the fake. But about an hour after arriving I was wishing I had a blowtorch with which to burn the place down. The shops are all run by girls who look about 12 and who have conspired to turn rudeness into an art form: they make Hong Kong sales staff look like Singapore Airlines first-class flight attendants. Of course, nothing is priced, so questions as to how much something costs yield random, off-the-cuff responses. Anyone who has ever travelled in Asia knows first-quoted prices mean nothing: women were haggling items down from $200 to $50, which was amusing given that some of them could have bought the building. Then there is the layout - or the lack of it. The edifice is a vast, mirrored maze: the shops look the same and sell virtually the same thing. They are numbered, but inconsistently, so it's not inconceivable to see No 5 next to No 15. If you lose your party, consider it lost forever, so if going in a group do what the public service announcements for hikers tell you and stick together. By noon, the place was jammed. The shops heaved with people bargaining loudly and yelling at sales staff for a size 8 or a different coloured bag; the managers usually sat on stools slurping noodles. It became an exercise in humour: as well as the letter-for-letter rip-offs, there were bags emblazoned with 'Giant' Versace, 'Parda', or 'Alfred Dundill'. My favourite was 'Gulli'. I had planned to buy some fakes, thinking overseas friends might get a thrill out of them. But despite the ultra-low prices and acceptable quality, I couldn't bring myself to do it. I don't buy much of the real thing, but I certainly wasn't going to buy the rip-offs. There seemed something dishonest and distasteful in it, even if it was just 'for fun'. More than that, I came to resent the crass salespeople to such an extent I didn't think they deserved my $100. So I decided if I bought anything it would be some no-name item ... of which there are also plenty in Shenzhen (see sidebar). As the day ended, it seemed as if everyone on the mainland was trying to get on a train to Hong Kong. The carriages were packed and noisy, with people screaming into their mobile phones; don't expect to get a seat, even if you are sick, 70 and loaded down with bad buys. Since my trip I've been told that, like other micro tai-tai trends, the shopping-in-Shenzhen craze is on its way out. 'They're slowing down,' said one socialite who professed never to have been there herself, although all her friends have. 'It was simply curiosity. So many famous tai-tais were going, but now they're not as eager. They used to buy the fakes, wear them once or twice, then give them away.' Lately, it seems, the rich have found another sport in Shenzhen. Their flashy cars are bypassing the infamous building and parking up the road at a centre offering ballroom dancing lessons. Only $500 for three hours, and yes, you can bargain. Best buys If you must go there are some good no-name buys to be had. These include: * Sequinned, beaded and mirrored sandals in hundreds of colours. Shop No 9 on the fifth floor gets my vote for the best selection, with everything from chunky platforms to slim denim thongs. They are what you might find in Causeway Bay or the lanes in Central for $200 a pair; in Shenzhen, you can buy four pairs for that. The fit is fine, and for holidays they are unbeatable value. Another word of caution: after I'd worn them three times the heels on my $50 pink, beaded slides looked as wrinkled as linen that had been slept in for three days. And do NOT wear them in the rain: mine fell apart. * Embroidered cotton goods. Shop No 31 on the fifth floor sells bargain embroidered tablecloths and napkins, tissue-box covers ($7 each) and lace doilies and cushion covers threaded with satin ribbons. * Beaded, crocheted and denim bags. Shop 72A on the fourth floor had plenty which were sufficiently well made to fool anyone into thinking you bought them at Barneys. * Clothing - for those who are an American size 8 or smaller. Next to Shop No 2 on the fourth floor is an unnumbered boutique selling funky, embroidered clam-diggers (a bit last season, but who cares?), soft camisoles and printed T-shirts. The tops are easier to fit than the pants: the 'one size fits all' jeans had a 26-inch waist. * Tailors. There seems to be one on every corner, offering to make suits for $70 and anything else you might want cheaply. You have to return a week later to collect the goods, but I know one woman who makes the trip three times a month and has a fashionable new wardrobe - straight from the pages of Vogue - to show for it. DO * Take food if you plan to spend the day - or expect to queue if you want to eat from noon to 2.30pm at any of the numerous restaurants. I tried the Lee Yuen restaurant on the fourth floor, which was acceptable, although we were given an English menu offering 'dork' and 'fnuifs' like 'Hatermelon'. * Take an extra layer - most restaurants are freezing. * Take tissues. The washrooms are surprisingly clean and functional, give or take a missing toilet seat here and there, but expect long queues for the few Western-style loos. * Remember haggling takes time, and staff often have to run off to the nether regions of the building to find the item you want, so it's not exactly in-and-out. I didn't get home until 8.30pm. Don't * Whack the whining women who pop out from everywhere offering $25 manicures. Some Hong Kong women apparently go to Shenzhen for cheap massages, manicures and pedicures, but nothing looks sterilised, or even clean. * Go at the weekend, when the building is crammed with Hong Kong men and their mistresses searching for bargains. * Go to the first-floor podium, unless you want your eardrums blasted. A string of shops sells counterfeit CDs, VCDs and DVDs, and their salesgirls insist on playing music so loud you can hear it in Kwun Tong. Also, the fakes are of pitiable quality (one counterfeit Hollywood thriller I watched stopped, frustratingly, just before the finale), and aren't worth the $20 they cost.