Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Adventures in Hong Kong's Game Markets

Robert Rath | 1 Aug 2013 14:24
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What strikes me most is how many non-gaming shops there are. One shop is an eyeglasses store - smart move placing that in the geek mall - I check out some new frames myself. Next door is an apparel shop hawking fashion tees and attractive blazers. At one point, I follow a chattering noise and find a middle-aged man making custom suits on an old, blocky sewing machine. There's food, too: crockpot dumplings and other homemade treats to go.

This is, of course, Wan Chai, so the sleaze brigade lurks in the corners as well. Adult DVD shops float on the margins, their entrances curtained off and papered with porn star glamor posters to keep away prying eyes. I watch a group of middle school boys nervously inching toward the door as if to peek inside - they lose their nerve and fall back to a nearby store to look at PS3 games and argue about who chickened out first. Further down the hall I see a squad from the Department of Health's Tobacco Control Office writing someone up -smoking indoors, by the looks of it.

Then there are the toys. Oh God, the toys.

I don't recognize most of them. My exposure to Anime and manga doesn't go much further than the classics, and you'd have to be a scholar to place all the plastic robots in just one of these stalls. Some shops walk the line between store and private collection. In one, I found myself standing in a clear space the size of a phone booth, literally only able to turn in place in order to see the merchandise hanging on the walls on all sides of me. Seeing so many unfamiliar toys arrayed like treasures left me a little cold, even slightly amused at the importance placed on those silly little objects.

Then there are the toys. Oh God, the toys.

Then I saw the collectable LEGO minifigures for sale, individually, out of their random packaging, and suddenly those silly little objects became my silly little objects. I bought a radiation suit figure I'd been trying to get my hands on forever - HK$55 for an out-of production piece? No winding up with figure skaters and skateboarders when I just want the Viking and Mad Scientist? Sold, my friend, and apologies for the nose marks on your display case.

I walk out of Oriental 188 with less money in my pocket, a game, a toy and a big smile on my face. There's a lot to be said for convenience, for digital downloads and Wal-Mart and GameStop and places where you'll know what they have and when they'll have it - dependable places that'll get you in and out in ten minutes - but there's something truly special about a market like Oriental 188. I felt more connected to the things I'd bought and the people I bought them from. Foraging in bins and winding through the narrow market paths made me invest in the activity of buying a game in a way I hadn't in years. Going there was like a convention, a street festival and a midnight release all at once. Securing my copy of Sleeping Dogs wasn't just a shopping trip, it had become an open world adventure in itself.

And you can't put a price on that, no matter the exchange rate.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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