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The Best Markets in Hong Kong

Chinese markets are hectic and crowded, but great fun for the savvy shopper. The intensity of the bargaining and the variety of goods available are well worth the detour.

Nowadays Hong Kongers may prefer to flash their cash in department stores and designer boutiques but, generally, markets are still the best places to shop. Parents and grandparents, often toting children, go to their local neighborhood wet market almost daily to pick up fresh items such as tofu, fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables. Food markets are also great places to mix with the locals and engage with the touts.

Some markets have a mish-mash of items; others are more specialized, dealing in one particular ware. Prices paid are always a great topic of conversation. A compliment on a choice article will often elicit the price paid in reply, and a discussion may ensue on where to get the same thing at an even lower cost.

Great Finds

The prices we list are meant to give you an idea of what you can expect to pay for certain items. Actual post-bargaining prices will of course depend on how well you haggle, while pre-bargaining prices are often based on how much the vendor thinks he or she can get out of you.

Jade. A symbol of purity and beauty for the Chinese, jade comes in a range of colors. Subtle and simple bangles vie for attention with large sculptures in markets. A lavender jade Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) pendant runs about HK$260 and a green jade bangle about HK$280 before bargaining.

Silk. You'll find silk items at certain markets, from purses to slippers to traditional dresses. Silk brocade costs around HK$35 per meter, a price that's generally negotiable only if you buy large quantities.

Mah-Jongg Sets. The clack-clack of mah-jongg tiles can be heard late into the night in many public housing estates during the summer. Cheap plastic sets go for about HK$50. Far more aesthetically pleasing are ceramic sets in slender drawers of painted cases. These run about HK$250 after bargaining, from a starting price of HK$450.

"Maomorabilia." The Chairman's image is available on badges, bags, lighters, watches, ad infinitum. Pop art-like figurines of Mao and his Red Guards clutching red books are kitschy but iconic. For sound bites and quotes from the Great Helmsman, buy the Little Red Book itself. Pre-bargaining, a badge costs HK$25, a bag HK$50, and a ceramic figurine HK$380. Just keep in mind that many posters are fakes.

Pearls. Many freshwater pearls are grown in Taihu; seawater pearls come from Japan or the South Seas. Some have been dyed and others mixed with semi-precious stones. Designs can be pretty wild and the clasps are not of high quality, but necklaces and bracelets are cheap. Post-bargaining, a plain, short strand of pearls should cost around HK$40.

Propaganda and Comic Books. Follow the adventures of Master Q, or look for scenes from Chinese history and lots of gongfu (Chinese martial arts) stories, like Longfumun (Dragon Tiger Gate). Most titles are in Chinese and often in black and white, but can be bargained down to around HK$15.

Retro Finds. Odd items from the prewar '30s to the booming '70s include treasures like antique furniture, wooden toys, and tin advertising signs. Small items such as teapots can be bought for around HK$250. Retro items are harder to bargain down for than mass-produced items.

Shopping Know-How

At the Markets: Make sure to put money and valuables in a safe place. Pickpockets and bag-slashers are becoming more common. When purchasing, check for fake items, for example, silk and pearls.

Bringin' Home the Goods: Although that faux-Gucci handbag is tempting, remember that some countries have heavy penalties for the import of counterfeit goods. Likewise, that animal fur may be cheap, but you may get fined a lot more at your home airport than what you paid for it. Counterfeit goods are generally prohibited in the United States, but there's some gray area regarding goods with a "confusingly similar" trademark. Each person is allowed to bring in one such item, as long as it's for personal use and not for resale.

When to Go: Avoid weekends if you can and try to go early in the morning, from 8 am to 10 am, or early evening for the night markets. Rainy days are also good bets for avoiding the crowds and getting better prices.

How to Bargain

Successful bargaining requires knowing your prices and never losing your cool. Here's a step-by-step guide to getting the price you want and having fun at the same time.

Do's

Start by deciding how much you're willing to pay for an item.

Let the vendor know you're interested.

The vendor will quote you a price, sometimes using a calculator.

At this point it's up to you to express either incredulity or loss of interest. But be forewarned, the vendor plays this game, too.

Name a price that's around 70% of the original price—lower if you feel daring.

Pass the calculator back and forth until you reach an agreement.

Don'ts

Don't enter into negotiations if you aren't seriously considering the purchase.

Don't haggle over small sums of money.

If the vendor isn't budging, walk away; he'll likely call you back.

It's better to bargain if the vendor is alone. He's unlikely to come down on the price if there's an audience.

Saving face is everything in China. Remain pleasant and smile often.

Buying more than one of something can get you a better deal.

Dress down and leave your jewelry and watches in the hotel safe on the day you go marketing. You'll get a lower starting price if you don't flash your wealth.

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