A government weak spot


I passed through Tuen Mun yesterday as the protest against parallel traders/cross-border smugglers was starting. Although small, the assembly blocked a road and walkways for a while. And it was emotional. Barely an hour or two after I had hacked my way through their crowds of suitcase-dragging Mainlanders, shopping malls Trend and TMT were scenes of scuffles and pepper-spraying. Firemen were out in force in case anti-locust arson broke out.

The demonstration was organized by a couple of minor nativist-type groups on the fringes of Hong Kong’s broad pro-democracy spectrum. Their targets were Mainland shoppers and the stores selling vast quantities of milk powder and other items. Picking on the shoppers is unsavoury; whether they are individuals buying family groceries or part of organized smuggling rings, they are mostly just plain folks doing what they can to get by. But it’s also understandable: they are literally crowding local residents out of their own TM-scmpneighbourhood. (Basically: when it gets to the stage that I am so frazzled that I kick suitcases out of the way, rudeness has become excusable.)

The South China Morning Post headline calls Tuen Mun a ‘town selling its soul’. This suggests the residents are complicit, when in fact most are victims of economic distortion beyond their control. The arbitrage phenomenon arises from Hong Kong products’ superior price/quality compared with goods available just across the virtually open border. It is compounded by Hong Kong officialdom’s ethos that property owners’ rights naturally override any public interest – no retailing-based nuisance is so great to require regulation. To make it impossibly sensitive, the influx is of Mainlanders, with whom we are supposed to be happily integrating in one harmonious motherland blah blah. (If they were Gambians, it would just be ‘screw you’, problem solved.) Tying officials’ hands even more, the protesters are part of the Umbrella movement, which Beijing classes as subversive and foreign-influenced – so merely acknowledging their complaint is potentially unpatriotic.

So the activists have found a particular weakness in the government’s defences here. Officials point out that 25,000 parallel traders have been identified and barred from Hong Kong, but it is clearly a drop in the bucket. They say there are no signs of the problem getting worse, when the situation is already intolerable.

Tuen Mun is a classic example of Hong Kong’s psychopath urban planners’ approach of laying out elaborate road networks first, then wedging retailing, housing, and finally space for pedestrians, into whatever bits are left over. This misallocation of space has exacerbated the street-level impact of the influx of outsiders. But it works both ways: as they found out yesterday, it takes only a small number of activists to bottle up herds of Mainland shoppers – tailing back hundreds of yards – trying to get to a particular bus stop. Talk about easy. They will no doubt be back.


Separated at birth: (l) Robin the Boy Wonder; (r) Tuen Mun cop yesterday.

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27 Responses to A government weak spot

  1. Joe Blow says:

    “Picking on the shoppers is unsavoury……they are mostly just plain folks doing what they can to get by.”

    What kind of nonsense is that, Hemlock ? The supermarkets in Guangdong are just as well stocked as Wellcome. Maybe you should venture out there a bit more and see for yourself. These locusts are smugglers and parallel traders. Not Mom and Pop buying spring onions.

    By the way, did you know that Robin was the ‘ward’ of Bruce Wayne ? Fishy.

  2. Red Dragon says:

    What an absolute ass that copper looks.

    Don’t the fuzz realise what fools they make of themselves when they walk about dressed like this?

  3. Cassowary says:

    We know we’ve entered Upside-Down Bizarro World when the way to avoid the tourist crush is to visit tourist attractions. Something’s off when anonymous suburban supermarkets are more packed with tourists than the Lantau Buddha, Peak Tram and Temple Street.

    I tried to go into a Prizemart this weekend. It was so crowded, the line for the cash register stretched up to the second floor and they had a staff member standing at the door to make people queue to get in. All I wanted was some cider vinegar. I gave up and left.

  4. PHT says:

    Joe Blow – Let’s boycott LKF and leave the grocery shoppers/parallel traders/smugglers alone.

    I agree with Hemlock and don’t think people should blame individuals for just trying to make a living and/or feed their kids food they have confidence in. Blame the system/CCP/central government. Besides, I remember reading government statistics a couple of years ago when the milk powder limits first took effect estimating that approximately 1/3-1/2 of the “traders” were HK residents. Add in the shop owners and their employees, it might turn out that there are actually more locals than mainlanders involved in this business. If the government cracks down further on mainlanders, this will definitely be the case. All of the locals in TST selling cookies, cruise tickets, etc. would just take the train north a few stations for more lucrative business opportunities.

    By the way, I have a <2 year old daughter and have never had a problem buying milk powder for her, and the price has not gone up since she was born. Is it more expensive than what it would cost in Ireland, where it is made? Yes, about 15% more. However, many things in HK are more expensive than in Europe or the US. Look at the local prices of Lego building blocks, Gap t-shirts, Colgate toothpaste, Gillette razor blades or any other international commodity consumer products. Some of my friends work in the local logistics and retail industries, and they all tell me it is the producers that generally set the local prices for these items, not the retailers. Sure, some shops will accept lower margins, so there is some price variability, but if the local wholesale prices are higher than elsewhere, the retail prices will also be higher.

  5. Jason says:

    It’s pressed the China Daily’s buttons!
    On the front page they remind us the organisers of the protests support ‘the separatist agenda’.
    Their ‘To The Point’ opinion piece on page 10 is full of amazing contradictions as well as tantalising possibilities:
    The writer tells us that HK is a free port, has ‘the rule of law to protect the interests of the local society’ and that parallel trading ‘is unique to HK because of the unbreakable bonds with the mainland which will remain for many years to come, if not forever.’
    Hmmm, bonds may not be so unbreakable…?
    He ends by saying that many ‘parallel traders’ are HK Permanent Residents and that the great majority of mainland tourists are not ‘parallel traders’, but that ‘we should trust the SAR government will soon take necessary measures to regulate ‘parallel trading’ more effectively.’
    So there’s hope then…?

  6. Stephen says:

    To fix this the mainland government needs to reassure people that it’s foodstuff are safe – then no need for the roundtrip to Tuen Mun (What were you doing there?). It’s been at least a couple of years since the mainland milk producers were adding harmful chemicals which resulted in deaths. Of course the CCP default position is to cover up, threaten Ai Weiwei and others and pretend it never happened.

    Why doesn’t the PRC look to that old decrepit, third rate nonentity, Britain on how it handled it’s tainted beef issues ?

  7. PHT says:

    Cassowary – Prizemart and similar local stores seem to base their business models on “parallel trading” and get their goods from abroad where wholesale prices are lower and then ship them here themselves. No one seems to be criticizing them!

  8. Scotty Dotty says:

    Reading Hemlock’s piece I was reminded of China’s old FECs – the Foreign Exchange Certificates. Fellow Old China Hands reading this… remember those?

    Same thing as today, really, where the underlying purpose was to stop nasty and inferior foreigners buying local stuff meant for, well, patriotic locals

    I bet you some Einstein in the Treasury (John Tsang himself?) has openly floated an FEC-esq solution for Hong Kong

  9. Sen says:

    Something is very wrong when one has to go to Prizemart for a bit of cider vinegar.

  10. Haddock says:

    These days the urban planners in this town are promoting the pedestrianisation of Des Voeux Road I’ll have you know http://www.hkip.org.hk/En/Content.asp?Bid=12&Sid=38&Id=893 Without a civic champion (a la Ken or Boris in London) it may never get past the decision shy engineers in the Transport Department.

  11. NIMBY says:

    Separated at birth: (l) Robin the Boy Wonder; (r) Tuen Mun cop triad yesterday.

    Superman probably got just that much more itchy to be free of Watsup(prices, natch!) and Pack’min Shop. After all he can get the same effect in Tokyo or Berlin without the political risks. Jardines offspring have got Nestle and a few others to share the tumble, but Superman has been a one-man band bank too long.


  12. gumshoe says:

    Folks…. I buy laundry detergent at prizemart. I’m sorry!

  13. Cassowary says:

    I have no problem with parallel trading in principle. But parallel trading on foot and by handcart is enormously inefficient. It’s only because of the Mainland’s regulatory clusterfuck that as soon as anybody ships a truckload of groceries to Shenzhen it automatically becomes suspect and people would rather buy something brought back in their cousin’s sister-in-law’s uncle’s former high school classmate’s suitcase.

  14. old git says:

    Me and my missus live on top of V-for Vault City in Tuen Mun. It is purpose built for mainlanders to shop. They also buy their own vaults upstairs into which they can walk and store their gear, far from cadres. Yesterday’s rumpus, of which I had a bird’s eye view from our own vault, was definitely home-grown because local shopkeepers lose out to Trend, TMT and V City.

  15. Scotty Dotty says:

    As a sidenote, what’s going on with restricting Gambians from Hong Kong?

    From the link which Hemlock posted:

    “The Immigration Department in Hong Kong, which is regarded as a Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of China, announced on Friday that nationals of the Republic of the Gambia would require a visa to enter Hong Kong for whatever purpose (including those who remain on the airside in transit) from February 12. At present, Gambian nationals may visit Hong Kong visa-free for a stay of up to 90 days.”

    The possible reasons seem to be:

    – Muslim ferral thugs?
    – drugs problems from Gambians sneaking stuff into Hong Kong then oveland into China.
    – Ebola?
    – Hong Kong supporting the Motherland punishing Gambia for not selling their assets at knockdown prices.

  16. Nightmare on Lockhart says:

    After five years of trying to come to terms with ever increasing numbers of tourists at my end of Lockhart (CWB) I have reluctantly decided to throw in the towel and relocate to what I hope will be a relatively quieter part of Caine Road. I will miss Wanchai: the best place I’ve lived in HK in over 30 years – convenient, friendly people, great restaurants and all the rest. I’m not so much bothered by parallel trading as an activity but having had friends and colleagues tell me what places like Sheung Shui, Fanling and Tuen Mun have become it’s clear that things are out of control. Expect more trouble! 60m plus tourists in a city of just 7m plus people is crazy – pure and simple. A few days ago I watched with amusement four Mainland tourists with the mandatory trolley cases trying to get on the MTR at CWB station during the morning rush hour. The MTR wasn’t designed for luggage – it’s a mass people mover. Rant over!

  17. Joe Blow says:

    Cass, are you my long-lost twin, Gino ? I also walked into Prizemart yesterday and immediately walked out again when I saw the queue. Then I schlepped all the way to Gateway in Sheung Wan where -I sh*t you not- I was the ONLY customer in the store. Then I looked at the prices and realized why I was The Lone Shopper. But I still stocked up on artichokes, olives and jalapenos.

    @Scotty: I remember those fecking FECs in the eighties. Popular with taxi cowboys. They used them to buy in “Friendship Stores” where you had to pay in foreign currency.

  18. Monkey Reborn says:


    Problem with milk production (and many other food production supply chains in Glorious Motherland) is structural/fundamental, and is facilitated by deliberate government blind-eye to lax quality control at the point of bottling / distribution, in order to keep end-user prices artificially low. Using industrial contaminants to dilute raw dairy milk remains standard practice in milk production industry. Primary supply chain (many, many small local farms) are forced to sell to local gov supported gangs of middlemen, who perform the dilution to increase margins, and then sell on to branded or OEM milk production and bottling factories.

    Problem of low-quality milk is compounded by pollution and degradation of agricultural environments, as well as shoddy adoption of new agricultural production techniques, including over-medicating farm animals instead of improving animal husbandry and care.

    This is why if you are in Starbucks (until recently this was true; dunno about last 6 months or so) and ask for a dry cappuccino the staff will refuse: crappy diluted milk don’t foam.

    Mainland Compatriots, switched on as they usually tend to be about this kind of thing, are well aware of the unreliability and lack of integrity in the milk supply chain, as well as the very temporary effects of heavily publicised government quality improvement schemes. If the gov implements food safety legislation as written, without fundamental structural reform to reduce the influence and access control of the local gov supported “intermediaries” (as well as development of direct purchasing mechanisms for bottlers and producers), then a massive shortfall of product and immediate price increase would occur. Big price increase in staple food product = very negative effect for social harmony and cohesion of Great Worker Peasant Proletarian Alliance.

    Another rock / hard place dilemma for Glorious and Vanguard-ly Revolutionary Socialism with Chinese Characteristics Party! I vote for Rock!

  19. PD says:

    I spent a harrowing couple of hours in Taipo and Sheung Shui today. But it’s not the driving, where one is more or less on equal terms, and in any case the parking is free just about anywhere because the wardens are too frightened of being surrounded by an angry mob.

    And it’s not the crowds of short, fat middle-aged women, indifferently Cantonese or Mandarin speaking, who at least congregate in well-defined areas.

    It’s the local men: the wizened 50-somethingers who lurk on each street corner, just looking for trouble; the young bucks trying to impress giggling pre-teens; the aged hags who elbow you out of the way.

    The pollution today was pretty horrific. I wonder if the crime rate/traffic accidents/heart attacks go up on such days.

  20. Probably says:

    Unfortunately this plague has spread to what some might regard as more civilised areas. I routinely visit Elizabeth House in CWB in vain attempts to shed excess pounds only to be confronted with massed hoards who are subject to some sort of parallel trading quasi-Amway-lets move this dodgy product-type of ring.
    Now it is not so much the inability of lift access behind a queue of several hundred putonghua speakers that upsets me but the obvious complicity of the building management that has turned off all of the escalators to prevent their own queue jumping by the smugglers. Last weekend only 1 out of 8 escalators were functioning and this has only started since the “occupy CWB” movement started 2 years ago.
    I would just like to know to whom I can complain in order for action to be taken on behalf of local residents? How about Christine?

  21. Scotty Dotty says:

    @ Probably

    Christine! She’ll help you!

    Sign her latest petition! Read her stock email with the latest website links about environment-harming consumption! Unfortunately, Christine won’t mention any more that it’s locust mainlanders from China causing such harm in Hong Kong – too sensitive lah!

  22. baldleon says:

    @Scotty Dotty

    re: Ghanians requiring visas to visit HK

    same reason that every single Western country requires visas for Ghanians to visit

  23. nulle says:

    I vote to have someone/something permanently picking off a small percentage of those parallel trading mainlander in HK…that would give them serious pause…

  24. Andrew says:

    Parallel traders – bring it on.


    Love ’em. Wish I was making some of that money. When I ran The Chamber, used to have random Europeans calling up asking me if I could find them importers for their milk powder.

  25. reductio says:


    Not Ghana, Gambia. As fate would have it, I’ve got a Gambian bloke who works next door to where I live. Nice guy, works hard, ex-Gambian police. He’s teaching me a few Mandinka phrases – i ning baraa! (How’s it going?).

  26. Herr Torquewrench says:

    Er – ‘faraway countries about which we know very little’ – Gambia and/or Ghana?

  27. Stephen Bolton says:

    A number of Mainland shoppers have said they come to Hong Kong because products here are more reliable and healthier. In order to be consistent, the CCP should track down and arrest/harass/intimidate/imprison any Mainlander who so blatantly displays such unpatriotic sentiments.

    They might also want, in the interests of self-preservation, to make it more difficult for citizens of the PRC to see that it’s possible to be happy, prosperous and Chunese without having quite so many gulags.

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