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Christmas Is ‘Fake’ in Hong Kong

December 14, 1998

HONG KONG (AP) _ Talking Teletubbies, Rolex watches and Calvin Klein boxer shorts will fill many Christmas stockings across Asia this year.

But watch out if the goodies are from Hong Kong: They may turn out to be Telotubbies, Roluxes and Gioven Kelvins.

As Asia’s financial crisis persists, more holiday shoppers are turning to cheaper counterfeit products.

``People don’t have as much money now,″ said Calvin Leung, head of intellectual property protection of the Customs and Excise Department. ``Do you know how much it is to buy a designer suit for your wife? And do you know how much you can save if you buy a copy?″

Shoppers from around the world know the answer.

``They’re terribly fake,″ said Peter Schmidt, a German banker living here, who bought three counterfeit Ralph Lauren polo T-shirts from a hawker. Schmidt paid $3.80 per shirt _ compared with $55 for the real thing.

``You can throw them away after one day,″ Schmidt said.

In the Temple Street night market, tourists, trendy teen-agers and middle-aged shoppers browse at stalls selling clothing, toys, electronics, watches, inflatable couches and CDs.

At one stall, cheap speakers blasted out ``My Heart Will Go On,″ the theme song for Hollywood blockbuster ``Titanic.″ But the ``Celine Dion″ was conspicuously singing a couple of keys too low with a cold-stricken voice.

``This is the real thing,″ the vendor insisted.

Some of the goods look real enough to fool almost anyone. The $18 counterfeit Prada wallets smell like leather. Each carries a bogus ``certificate of authenticity.″

Other products are outright fakes, like the boxer shorts in boxes emblazoned with the initials CK. The fine print says ``Gioven Kelvins.″

A digital watch resembling the Casio G-Shock, popular among Asian teen-agers, was actually an ``S-Shock.″

Kim Jae Kyong and You Jong Dae, businessmen from Seoul, South Korea, haggled with a woman selling fake designer bags.

She displayed nothing more than photographs of her goods taped to a folding table. She recited some numbers on her mobile phone, and two assistants emerged minutes later with the products.

The woman wouldn’t identify herself but had a good reason to keep her products off the street. ``It’s quite dangerous here, and we don’t want to run into trouble,″ she said.

Despite the heavy penalty _ counterfeit dealers can face fines or up to five years in prison _ plenty of retailers are getting into the lucrative trade. Some of the newly unemployed are also at work selling fakes.

``I wouldn’t do this if I could find a job,″ said a man selling bogus designer bags who gave only his first name, Rodrigo. ``You go to jail if you get caught.″

Rodrigo, 18, lost his job as a waiter and now gets $449 a month selling fakes.

The counterfeits in Hong Kong are mostly from mainland China, South Korea and Southeast Asia, said Leung at the customs department. Hong Kong is also a conduit for shipping the goods into other markets including Taiwan and Singapore, he said.

Singapore officials, fearing hard times will prompt people to buy fakes, launched a pre-Christmas campaign featuring the slogan: ``Stop piracy! Be original! Buy original!″

In the first 10 months of 1998, Hong Kong customs officials arrested 619 people and seized countefeits worth $5.8 million.

But cracking down on piracy is difficult, Leung said.

Because Hong Kong is a relatively small market, many copyright holders won’t spend the money to sue pirates here. The government can do little without their help, Leung said.

``It is extremely easy to take a person to court. But how to prove to the court that the goods are fake is extremely difficult,″ Leung said.

At least one company is fighting back.

Wave Licensing International, which handles British Teletubbies products in Hong Kong, hired investigators to find people selling bogus products resembling the pudgy characters from the BBC kids show.

Visiting Belgian exporter Bart Pillart was excited to find some talking ``Telotubbies″ on Temple Street _ despite their low quality.

``Hey, it’s shaped like a Teletubbie, it makes noises and it looks like a Teletubbie,″ Pillart said. The toy is now headed to his 3-year-old daughter’s Christmas stocking.

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