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Bargain Hunting in Asia

Did you really think all those special discounts in Asia are just for tourists?

August 24, 2000

Did you really think all those special discounts in Asia are just for tourists?

The brochure says it all: “Welcome to the all-in-one shopping destination in Asia.” You might guess that the brochure is announcing the grand opening of a new Wal-Mart store — or any of the other Western retailers penetrating Asian markets. But this is not the case. Instead, it promotes the “Malaysia Mega Sale” taking place in August and September. Singapore hosts a similar event in the Spring, which takes place simultaneously with the “Singapore Food Festival.”

For that occasion parts of Boat and Clark Quay — two of Singapore’s main nightlife areas — are transformed into rows and rows hawkers’ stalls to cater to the hungry gourmets. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, one can witness the spectacle of visitors from other Asian countries arriving with empty suitcases to be filled with bargains during a three-day shopping spree.

Visitors from abroad are major income sources for Asian countries — and their numbers are impressive. Thirty million people, including tourists and business travelers, visited Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines in 1999. China and Hong Kong pulled in a staggering 35 million guests.

These visitors spend billions of U.S. dollars throughout Asia. Indonesia, for example, earned at least $5 billion last year from foreign visitors. Next year, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will launch an major three year campaign, called “Visit ASEAN,” to promote tourism in the region to Europeans and Americans. The sale of native crafts from Bali, electronics items from Singapore, and hand-tailored shirts and suits from Thailand are fuel for the region’s local economies.

Brochures like to point the visitors to the local markets, shopping malls or wherever one can spend money. To add a little bit to the local flavor, the visitor is encouraged to haggle over prices — because this is how things are supposedly done in Asia. Tourist guidebooks also provide lots of advice for where to find the best shops and how to bargain for the best price.

Armed with this information, shoppers make their way to to Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, the Orchard Road in Singapore or Makati in Manila and similar places in Asia’s other major cities.

Of course, even in these reputable shopping districts, it is more than possible to lose one’s shirt. Even shrewd shoppers occasionally find themselves on the wrong end of a bargain, plunking down several hundred Thai baht for an electro-plated copy-cat wristwatch that keeps great time for about as long as the vacation lasts. (Of course, they will be salvage some small amount of pride by telling how they were at least able to haggle the price down from 300 baht to just 150!)

Nevertheless, the wary tourist will pick up on the rather subtle language on the brochure of Malaysia’s nationwide “mega sale.” Described as “the national event for the people and the economy,” the brochure seems to make clear that the sale is for the benefit of Malaysians — not bargain-hunting foreigners.

To the Cantonese, there is simply no need to offer gwailos — a Cantonese term for white foreigners that roughly translates as “white ghost” — a better deal. Why? As Cantonese locals explain it, when Westerners want to buy something, they go directly to a shop, pick out what they want and pay whatever it costs.

As one shop owner puts it, “We all know there is no need to attract your interest. When we Chinese go to a shop, we don’t go to buy, we go just to look. But every shop owner knows that we save money for bargains. So, every shop owner will make us an offer.”

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