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Food Fight

3 Nov

The Intern Fear Project

13 Oct

Counterfeit Chinatown

29 Feb

Let me out!  I don’t want to be sold into White slavery! the voice inside me screamed as I was shoved into a dimly lit, closet-sized room behind a corkboard wall.  I was too scared and confused to open my mouth.  Just moments ago I had been looking at cheap imitations of designer purses in a tiny shop on Canal Street in New York City’s Chinatown.

Before I knew what was happening, I felt someone behind me push me into the back room.  I thought it was like the holding cells of the Chinatown White slave trade I had seen depicted in the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie.   I didn’t want to end up like Mary Tyler Moore!  But then the lights came on.

Designer purses, actual ones with the real logos, were stacked high along the walls around me and the ten other tourists in the room.   It was like a dream.  I wanted to buy them all, and I didn’t care they were being sold illegally.  Apparently neither did anyone else in the room.

Many tourists go to Canal Street to buy knockoffs, intentionally following shady-looking characters for blocks or going in hidden back rooms of stores.  Though selling these counterfeited goods is illegal, Canal Street tourists care as much about respecting the law as people do when they download songs from fileshare software like Limewire.  If people want something, they don’t care about copyright law—they care about getting the best deal.

Counterfeit Rolex bought in New York City

That is exactly what my sister, Karen, and I wanted.  We came to New York City in March 2006 with our parents for spring break vacation.  On our “Must Do While in NYC” list were many of the landmarks of the city: see the Statue of Liberty, tour Ellis Island, journey to the top of the Empire State building.  Karen hates anything having to do with history and tours, so she pushed for another bullet on the list: “Buy Coach purses in Chinatown.”

It wasn’t like we had never been to a Chinatown before.  My family has been to the Chinatowns in Toronto, Los Angeles, and Chicago.  However, the Chinatown in New York was completely different from any other Chinatown we had seen.

My dad says New York’s Chinatown was not as “authentic” as the others.  Compared to the Chinatowns in Los Angeles and Chicago, he thought there was not as much Chinese architecture or statues in New York.  While some vendors, especially off the touristy Canal Street, sold smelly fish and chickens hanging in store windows, it seemed like New York’s Chinatown thrived more from hawking knockoffs to tourists.

But that’s why we went to Canal Street.  We’d already experienced the “authentic” Chinatowns.  This time, we wanted to experience the “underground” Chinatown and in New York, the underground isn’t so hard to find.

When we first stepped on Canal Street, my family and I had no idea what was going on.  Tourists were moving in groups like schools of fish among the sardine-packed stalls on the street.  The stalls were filled with shoddy jewelry and purses with labels like “Prado.”

“If I wanted this crud I could’ve stayed in Chicago,” I told my mom.  “Where’s the good stuff?  I want Coach!”

“I’m not really sure how this all works,” she said.  “Let’s just go into this store and see what happens.”

My mom, my dad, my sister, and I went into the first stall we came upon that looked a little less crowded than the others.  I headed to the back and picked up a purse that kind of looked like Coach, but had a repeating “G” print instead of the trademark “C” print of Coach.  As I put the purse back on the peg in the corkboard wall, I heard a little commotion behind me.

A group of about ten people started moving towards the back wall of the stall, pushing me along with them.  The little Chinese woman who worked in the stall removed some of the purses hanging on the back wall, and then pushed the wall in like a secret passageway in a mystery movie.

That’s how I ended up in my first illegal merchandise display room.  My sister, Karen, had also been pushed into the room with me, and had a very similar reaction.  She had been listening to her mp3 player, so she was even more confused than I was.

The look on Karen’s face when we first entered the room was priceless.  I’d seen that look only once before, when we were on a “ghost tour” on the Queen Mary in California.  She was scared out of her mind.

When the lights came on, though, her eyes lit up.  Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Chanel, and Coach purses—the real stuff—were hanging on the walls by the hundreds. Karen and I dove under the other tourists, searching the Coach merchandise for purses we thought were “pretty.”

Although there were some good choices, we thought we could do better, especially now that we figured out where the knockoffs were hidden.  As a few of the tourists left the room, we followed them out.

My family went into another stall next door.  This time, we stood by one of the Chinese men working in the store and pretended to look at the purses.  “Eh, this one’s okay,” I said.  “I wish they had something more authentic-looking though.”

The man’s ears perked up.  “You want see back room?” he said to my family.

“Sure,” my mom said.  “I guess it couldn’t hurt.”

We had figured out the secret to getting in the illegal storerooms: act like you want something better, but don’t make a big deal about it.

Sometimes the rooms with the knockoffs were actually in the basement of the store, so we’d have to follow the workers down a few flights of stairs, around stacks of cardboard boxes, through metal gates.  The buildings were poorly constructed, probably didn’t have any kind of fire alarms, and should have been condemned.

Mott Street in New York City's Chinatown

Often the clearance above steps to the basements was very low, so most people had to duck in order not to bang their heads.  Once, while I was walking up the stairs, a man who was about six and a half feet tall came down the stairs.  He had to bend over almost completely at the waist in order to make it down the stairs safely.

The people running the illegal operations usually had walkie-talkies and right before they took us into a knockoff storeroom, they would quickly speak into the walkie-talkie.  Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying since I don’t speak any Chinese dialects, I assumed they were asking look-outs for an “all clear” signal.

Selling counterfeit merchandise is illegal in the United States, although most Americans seem either not to realize how illegal it is or don’t care.  When I later told my sister that we had been dealing with criminals on Canal Street, she was confused.  “It wasn’t stolen,” she said.  “It just fell off the back of the truck.”

While I was in Chinatown shopping for knockoffs, I had no idea how illegal and dangerous the business actually is.  In his article “The Hoods Who Move the Goods,” Sam Cocks said that the value of the illegal drug market worldwide was $322 billion in 2003, but value of the counterfeit merchandise market worldwide was over $600 billion.  Cocks said of all merchandise sold worldwide, almost seven percent is either counterfeit or pirated.

Organized crime groups have taken over the counterfeit goods market and since most of these goods come from China, most of the organized crime groups are Chinese, called triads or tongs.  According to Cocks, “Canal Street functions as the hub of the triad-operated counterfeit goods distribution system with tendrils extending throughout the northeastern United States.”

The people I had followed seemed a little suspicious, but I never thought they could have been involved with organized crime groups.  An article in the New York Times, “The Knockoff Squad,” said that in the 80s and 90s, Canal Street was much more violent.  When private investigators in tandem with the police would raid illegal goods operations, members of the Born to Kill gang would throw bombs made of nails, tin cans, and M-80 firecrackers.

“The Knockoff Squad” also showed how the knockoffs industry is tied to sweatshop labor.  In the mid-90s, Robert Holmes, a prominent counterfeit investigator, discovered an elderly man working in a hidden room in the back of a Canal Street store.  Locked in the room for seven hours, sitting in his underwear and a t-shirt with two bottles of water and a jug for a “bathroom”, the man sat on a stool, labeling counterfeit purses.  Holmes figured the man was working off a debt to a smuggler.

Had I known things like this were happening, or had happened in the past, I would have never even looked at any of the merchandise.  I would have stayed on Fifth Avenue.

After our first day in Chinatown, my family decided to pop in the real designer stores on Fifth Avenue, a mere five blocks from Canal Street.  Like Canal Street, Fifth Avenue was a whole different world than I was used to, but on the opposite end of the spectrum from Canal Street.

While there were many tourists and locals crowding the stores, it seemed much more posh and upscale.  The air even smelled cleaner, but that might be due to the fact that Canal Street used to be Manhattan’s primary sewage drain.

In the stores on Canal Street, two or three Chinese people would be working in the store.  One would be sitting in the front, usually holding a walkie-talkie and looking down the street for cops.  The others would be in the back, sometimes eating noodles and but not seeming to care too much about helping customers.

The stores on Fifth Avenue, however, had generally about fifty employees, wearing high-end fashion, standing around waiting to sell someone something.  “It seems like overkill to have that many people,” my dad said.  When I entered the Coach store  in my jeans and t-shirt, I felt like the employees were scoffing at my clothing, thinking I was just another sucker tourist.

“May I help you?” asked a woman in a ruffled top and tailored black pants.

“No thanks,” I replied.  “I’m just looking.”  What I didn’t tell her was that I was looking for the style of purse I wanted to get when I returned to Canal Street.

Part of me felt guilty.  I knew that these companies were getting ripped-off by counterfeiters, but when a purse is priced at $500 on Fifth Avenue and I can get it for $30 on Canal Street, I’d rather save my money.

Besides, buying knockoffs isn’t illegal in the United States, just selling them is.   According to an article in the Toronto Star, the French and Italian governments made it illegal to buy knockoffs in 2005, but such legislation has not been enacted yet in the United States.  If I had brought an obvious knockoff into the Louis Vuitton store on Fifth Avenue, the store couldn’t do anything about it, but I’d still feel bad.  Louis Vuitton is a multi-million dollar corporation, but buying illegal merchandise that rips-off their design is still like stealing.

The fashion industry isn’t taking this stealing without a fight.  Hermes, famous for the “Birkin” bag, sued a retailer who was selling a transparent rubber version of the “Birkin” design.  Eight companies, including Burberry, Givenchy, and Marc Jacobs, sued the Vincent Terranova estate in November 2005, claiming six Terranova properties in New York’s Chinatown were connected to the selling of counterfeit merchandise.  In 2004, Louis Vuitton reached an agreement with some Canal Street landlords, requiring the landlords to take action against knockoff-sellers on their properties.

These lawsuits and agreements haven’t done much damage to the counterfeit purse business on Canal Street, though.  When I was there in 2006, the most popular brand of knockoffs was Louis Vuitton.   Police and private investigators regularly make busts on Canal Street, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping the knockoff business there.   It just becomes more underground, with the walkie-talkies and fake walls.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Francesca Sterlacci of the New York Fashion Institute of Technology said that most designers don’t do anything about the knockoffs.  Lawsuits are expensive and a win isn’t guaranteed.  Once Sterlacci even saw her own designs being copied, but she knew she couldn’t do anything about it, much like how there isn’t much the music industry can do about pirating and filesharing.

I felt bad for these designers, seeing their hard work being duplicated and getting no cut of the profits.  Yet, I really wanted a Coach purse and there was no way I was going to spend hundreds of dollars on one.

A few days later, my family returned to Canal Street.  This time, Karen and I were more determined in our mission.  “Today, I get my purse” she declared.

We went back to the first stall we had been in, because we remembered that the selection there was pretty good.  Following our finely tuned routine, we headed towards the back and talked about how we wished there were better-looking purses.  When there was no response from the Chinese woman sitting in the back, we tried again.  No luck.  Finally, my mom went up to the woman and asked “Do you have anything else in the back room?”

The woman feigned a puzzled look.  “What back room?” she asked quietly.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Disappointed, we left the stall.  Outside, we heard some tourists saying that block of Canal Street had been busted pretty badly by the cops the day before, which was why many of the workers were reluctant to take people to the illegal storerooms.

While completely ending the counterfeit goods sales on Canal Street may be impossible, New York City police have been cracking down much harder in the past decade.  According to an article in the New York Times, because the rate of violent crimes has decreased in that area over the past decade, the police are able to devote more time to busting Canal Street vendors.

Canal Street Photo by Derek Jensen

ABC News reported in February 2006 that 13 buildings connected to the selling of counterfeit goods had been targeted by Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-counterfeiting program.  As a result, $47 million of counterfeit goods had been seized.

I knew that the police were just doing their job by shutting down stores selling knockoffs, but I was mad.  I wanted my Coach purse!

Luckily, hope came in the form of a tiny Chinese woman with a bobbed haircut and a walkie-talkie.  “Gucci?  Prada?  Chanel?  Louis Vuitton?  Coach?” she asked my mother.

“Coach?  Yes, Coach!” she exclaimed.

“Follow me,” the woman said, her eyes darting back and forth before she took off down the street.  We followed her as best we could, dodging cars and tourists along the way.  My poor dad, dragged along by the women in the family, wasn’t paying attention and almost lost us before he realized what we were doing.

The woman stopped in front of what looked like an apartment building a block off Canal Street.  She pulled out her cell phone, said something I obviously didn’t understand, and then opened the gate in front of the door.  My family followed her up two flights of stairs, down four hallways, and into a room filled with boxes.

She moved the boxes aside, revealing a door that led to the display room.  A Chinese man and three tall, blonde women were already in the room.  The women were sorting through the Louis Vuitton luggage, while the man told them the prices of each piece.

Karen and I headed towards the Coach section.  Immediately my eyes were drawn to a purse just big enough to fit my TI-83 calculator, indicating that it would be perfect to bring to school.  The fabric was light pink with the signature “C” print and the trim was white leather.  I had to have that purse.

In the 15 or so other back rooms I had been to on Canal Street, I had seen other people buy purses, so I had an idea of how to act.  I picked up the purse, and unzippered it, examining the inside.  The man who had been helping the three women came over to me and asked if I liked the purse.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “I don’t know though.”  I knew I had to play it cool.  This was how you haggled on Canal Street.

“45 dollar,” he said.  “Good price.  Nice purse.”

“Eh,” I said.  “I don’t know.  Mom, do you think we could go look somewhere else?”

“Okay,” the man said, starting to panic a little. “40 dollar.”

My sister had bought her purse earlier for 30.  I wasn’t going to settle for anything more than that.  I didn’t want to seem like I couldn’t haggle as well as my mom haggled for her.

“Well,” I said again, putting the purse back on the rack.  “I don’t know if it’s really worth it.  It’s cute and everything but, I don’t know.”

“30 dollar,” the man exclaimed as I headed out the door with my family.


“Hmm, alright,” I said.  “I think I might buy it then.”  Sucker.

I returned home with my prize, eager to show it off at school.  In my high school, like many high schools, designer labels are status symbols, especially among girls.  I couldn’t wait to get compliments on how cute my purse was, and I was especially excited to tell my friends about how I flirted with the law to get it.

“Coach” Purse from Chinatown © Copyright 2006 Linda Hays

It seems as though people will do just about anything nowadays to be “cool” while still being “thrifty,” even if it means possibly supporting terrorism by buying counterfeit merchandise.  Limewire and BitTorrent are popular for downloading songs and movies for similar reasons: people want to have the latest media, but would rather support illegal operations than having to pay for it.

In the end, though, karma comes to bite you back.  Many songs off Limewire are not as good of quality as the original, and some may even come attached to viruses.

My sister told me the other day that she rarely uses the Coach purse from Canal Street any more because “it looks like something ate it.”  When I asked her why, she replied “Why do you think?  It wasn’t even real.”

I learned my lesson too.  The strap on my purse had broken only three months after I got it, but luckily a tailor was able to fix it for me.

However, last year, I was at the train station downtown Chicago with some friends.  We went into the bathroom, and when I went into the stall, I hung my purse on the hook.

When I went to take it off the hook, I saw a piece of metal fall to the floor.  The magnetic clasp on the outside strap had fallen apart.  That was something the tailor couldn’t fix.

“Damn!” I yelled.

“What happened?”  my friend Lyndsey asked.  “Did you fall in?”

“No,” I said, emerging from the stall.  “My stupid purse just broke.  That’s what I get for buying a knockoff.”