CriticalIntel_3x3

Every expat lands in Hong Kong with a list in hand. First item: Immigration Office. Next, get a local bank account and cell phone. After that comes furniture – eight to ten hours in IKEA purgatory, looking at space efficient couches too practical to be comfortable. My list had all these things with one addition: “Find best place to buy games.”

Getting your hands on a game here isn’t as simple at it is in the States. There isn’t a Wal-Mart here, or a Target, or anything like that. You can’t go to a single location to pick up everything from breakfast cereal to BioShock. Product overlap isn’t a thing here. For clothes you go to a clothing store. For food you go to a grocery store. For over the counter drugs you hit up a pharmacy. If you can’t find what you want in the malls and community stores, you descend into the street markets and hit stall after stall. There seems to be a market for everything in Hong Kong: Cat Street for antiques, Tai Yuen for toys, Stanley for clothes big enough to actually fit expats. Kowloon boasts markets specifically for songbirds, flowers, sneakers, wedding dresses and goldfish.

There’s no such thing as a videogame store here. GameStop never gained a foothold, supposedly because local bootlegs drive down retail prices. While I don’t know if that’s true, the name brand retailers I visited seemed reluctant to invest in a healthy games section. Local electronics giant Fortress had a limited stock mostly given over to the big boys like Halo and Modern Warfare. One Toys “R” Us I visited – located in a fifteen story mall that felt like shopping in an ant farm – only had half a dozen games for each system, but an entire wall of Skylanders. Both places priced games between 350-450 Hong Kong Dollars ($45-58 USD), and that held true with another indie shop I visited – not exactly a steal.

It would be the markets, then.

My internet research back home had painted the city’s markets as a sprawling junk drawer of games. A place where you could find anything you wanted, get antique hardware fixed and play games you never knew existed. I was determined to have that experience, but more than that, I knew what exactly what game I wanted to walk away with: I wanted the first game I bought in Hong Kong to be Sleeping Dogs.

The first time I ran across games for sale it was in Stanley Market, and entirely by accident. Stanley is an expat suburb far removed from the crowds and housing blocks of the city. Streets there curve around steep emerald peaks, sweeping past cliff side mansions to give brief glimpses of the junks and yachts anchored in the bay. Stanley is charming, though it’s an expensive kind of charm. The market lies just up from the promenade and focuses on selling wares to tourists or well-to-do residents that don’t want to make the trip into the city. There are some storefronts and coffee shops, but the heart of the market is a collection of tin-roofed stalls. One of them was an electronics shop – phone chargers, game peripherals, strategy guides and consoles – and a single shelf of games. The prices were lower than the brand name shops, but still higher than my search engine had promised. Sleeping Dogs was 299 HKD, about $38.50 and was a good deal compared to the newer games in the case. I passed, walking on to Murray House and Blake Pier, resolved to find something better tomorrow.

Word-of-mouth tips from a local told me my next stop should be 298 Computer Zone, in Wan Chai. I heard rumors of games piled to the ceiling – it sounded promising. Wan Chai’s stock has risen recently, buoyed by the new convention center, but it still retains a bit of its old reputation as a place to get things on the cheap or under the table. Decades ago it was Hong Kong’s red light district – sailors would pour in the moment they cleared the gangplank and start blowing their wages at the brothels. While the sailors still meet there, the strip joints and go-go bars are still around and the sex trade still happens, Wan Chai is a far cry from its famous portrayal in The World of Suzie Wong. Hennessey Road in daylight is more chic than marginal, and mostly visitors just notice the street life. Walking to the Computer Zone, we pass through a dozen odors: bus exhaust, roast duck, motor oil, fish tanks. A half-dozen chickens hang in a restaurant’s front window, colored lemon merangue-yellow from beak to talons, heads lolling backward on broken necks. Certain areas of Hong Kong are obsessed with different products, in Central it’s watches. Rolex and Omega shops dotting every block – expensive watches for people with lots of money and not enough time. Wan Chai, on the other hand, favors cheap cell phone cases – when people here buy extravagances, they want to protect them.

298 Computer Zone is five floors of technological surrealism. Describing the layout is impossible, so instead I’ll simply say this: imagine a storage facility, the indoor air-conditioned kind with narrow corridors where you rent an 8′ x 8′ unit with a roll-down door. Now mentally roll up that door and imagine a store inside, complete with one or two employees, a cash register and products stacked to the ceiling. Or maybe it’s a fancy store, and has a counter. Now imagine a whole row of them, an entire floor, five floors linked by an escalator. Or maybe it was four floors – the place is nothing if not disorienting.

The place is nothing if not disorienting

There are different little fiefdoms. One section is nothing but computer printers. Another only hard drives. Here too, the ubiquitous shops full of iPhone cases. In one corner is a shop selling iPads and MacBooks, lit up in phosphorescent white like an Apple store. Across the way is another store full of Macs, but these have been butchered into component parts, like someone directed the Saw film specifically to spite Steve Jobs. In the middle, for some reason, is a travel agency. Walking down the narrow aisle, I see myself in a half dozen monitors of a CCTV stand, capturing my image with a fly’s-eye collection of cameras. My wife’s iPhone has a broken screen, so we drop it at a booth labeled “Dr. Phone.” Dr. Phone himself is a quiet man in his late twenties, wearing glasses. He has a gauze patch taped over one eye. We watch his expert hands pick apart my wife’s phone with a magnetic screwdriver and replace the shattered screen.

As I go up the switchback escalators, the prices get lower and the stalls get weirder. I step into a shop selling nothing but cell phone cables and have a look around. The only reason I know I’m not alone is that I can hear the shop owner whistling, and see his sneaker poking out from behind a massive pile of stuff, keeping time with the song. In one window I see headphones with the Joker screen-printed on them, “Wayne Enterprises Product,” declares the handwritten tag, “Made In Gotham City.” At the next shop, an iPhone bumper with the phrase “Masterpiece of Craftsmanship,” printed on the packaging.

Five floors up and I’ve found every cable, laptop, phone, software, service, printer, projector and instruction booklet I can imagine – but no games.

Then I come around a corner and see a Marvel vs. Capcom poster. There we go, an entire booth papered with game posters, boxes displayed in the window. I’d expected to find more game shops, but I put that behind me – Sleeping Dogs, here I come.

Hong Kong Skyline

“Hello, do you have PS3?” I ask the man behind the counter.
“No,” he says. “Only Xbox.” He gestures to a dozen games on the shelf behind him.
Usually that would be fine, but my 360 is somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and won’t arrive for another two weeks. Instead I point at some DS games. “Okay, how about those? Can I see Samurai Warriors?”
“No,” he says, clearly irritated. “It’s only a box.”
“Any other games?”
“No.”
“Okay, thank you.”

Sometimes in Asia, people will just tell you no. Maybe they’ll say you can’t order two dishes at the same time or that they can’t deliver to a certain address. They won’t tell you why the answer is no, they’ll just inform you something is not allowed. House rules are strong here, and no explanation is required. In the West the customer is always right, but in Asia the customer is a guest that can overstep his or her bounds. Perhaps I made some sort of faux pas when I approached the stand, or maybe he was closed for the day. He has a good reason, I’m sure, but it’s literally lost in translation. All I know is that he wasn’t going to sell to me, and that was okay. They’re his games, after all.

It isn’t until the next day that I realize my word of mouth tip was wrong. 298 Computer Zone only deals with computer hardware, the game market is on the other side of the block at Oriental 188. So back onto the subway, up through the escalators of the lime green Wan Chai station, passing cosplayers from the nearby Anime con – purple bob cuts and plastic katanas floating above the crowd. Out of Wan Chai station, past the dead chickens with their cracked necks, one street over, up the stairs past a sprawling wall poster of Gears of War: Judgement.
Everything’s closed. All the shops are shut up, their metal roll doors down and locked.

“Closed,” says the security guard, a middle-aged woman who seems to sympathize with my confusion.
“What time will it be open?” I ask, pointing at my wrist.
“Ahh…” she considers. “One. Two.”
“One to two?” I say. “Or twelve?”
“Ahh…” she sighs, opens her desk, and writes “12” on her hand with a felt marker.
“Ah, okay,” I say. “Twelve. Noon.” I make a giant clock with my hands and point both arms upward. She laughs. I thank her and leave, deciding to kill a few hours finding a coffee table that won’t bankrupt me.

When I return, and find Eden on Earth.

The first thing I see when I get up the stairs is a clerk training a Buddhist monk to use an iPhone. As if that image isn’t enough, he’s flanked by game shops on both sides – no, on all sides. Games fill my entire field of vision. Here a shop full of PC titles, there a dealer selling systems, across the hall a well-organized store with a glass counter, looking like a tiny little GameStop crammed into the floor space of a motel room. There are, indeed, games everywhere, floor-to-ceiling, three stories up. The bargains weren’t exaggerated either, I see last year’s games going for HK$95 ($12.25) in some shops – I avoid these, there’s such a thing as suspiciously low – but it’s more common to see them at around HK$200. PS2 games are a steal. I pick up a copy of Sleeping Dogs for HK$154, or about twenty U.S. dollars, and I’m not even bargain hunting in any serious way.

Hong Kong gamers crowd the place, watching demos on screens and chatting with each other about what they want. One guy sits in the DVD shop, carefully browsing TV boxed sets. Some are clearly fresh from the Anime con, too, on a high from being amongst their people for a long weekend.

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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