The Good Life

Eastern splurge

The shopping experience across the near and far east is as varied as it is surprising

A diplomat’s wife whose husband was once posted in Tokyo makes a case for the city as Asia’s most happening destination, but I’m not convinced. While many of us might leap at the chance to visit Japan on work, it doesn’t hold the same appeal as a holiday destination. Do I know it has a vibrant nightlife? Given the popularity of its karaoke bars, I shudder — I’m not up to spending my evenings in alcohol-soused lounges where badly sung international favourites pass for music. In any case, the touchstone for a family vacation must include, besides the obligatory sightseeing, exciting dining options and even greater shopping opportunities.

Tokyo might have passed that test in the 1970s — think Panasonic two-in-ones — and may have been responsible for most Western fashion and cosmetic brands to test the Asian luxury market, but even my diplomatic friend has to admit that finding a fit for clothes and shoes for Indian bodies in Japan can pose a problem, and as for bags and stuff, have you ever heard anyone ask for a Ferragamo, or Birkin, from Tokyo or Osaka?

But Asia’s East, popular with outbound Indians with rupees to burn, does offer diverse shopping attractions. The trouble is that despite the variety and attractive prices, Bangkok is getting jaded. Its famed night markets, so much fun the first couple of times, get boring after a few visits — how many jute or woven bags with wooden handles can you carry back as gifts? Besides, Mumbai and Delhi are flooded with Bangkok variants of everything from furniture to flip-flops to clothes that fit better than those in Bangkok where the availability of generous sized clothes (the plus-plus that is still demoralisingly small for many Indian women) takes a bit of finding.

In Korea, I’ve found the clothes a better fit, but they require you to try them out since a “medium” in Seoul might be an “extra large” in Bangkok, a “large” in Singapore, and a “small” in Hong Kong. And given the language problems there, it’s traumatic asking where the changing rooms are, and though it’s a technology paradise, you’d better be sure of your requirements else you could end up with quite different merchandise from what you had imagined in the sealed packages.

For my money, the best shopping — and I’m not including China here — is to be found in Singapore and Hong Kong, but where Singapore is expensive, Hong Kong is more affordable for the same brands. Singapore resembles a giant shopping mall and, like Hong Kong, is strongly driven by Western brands, and has a bewildering range on offer within the Orchard Road vicinity alone — from electronics to fashion, make-up and accessories — and given the strong Indian presence as both residents and tourists, you can count on your size being more easily available there.

The expat population of Hong Kong too guarantees that — and how. Till a few years ago, it was still possible to pick up quaint Chinese artefacts, porcelain articles and so on from Hong Kong, but less so now beyond the obligatory “touristy” nod to such objects. Hong Kong is where shopping is the most convenient in the East, since the sizes match closest to those back home, and the fits could almost be customised, they’re so good. Mostly, though, this is a smart clothes paradise, and if you’re a brand junkie, Hong Kong is the place to go shopping, its visa on arrival facility making
it convenient too.

If anything, Macau, an hour’s ferry ride from Hong Kong airport, is even better, with the shopping centralised in a manner that allows one to walk seamlessly from one hotel’s shopping mall to another (with wayside distractions like the casinos). Great for clothes, it’s fantastic too for watches, jewellery (especially diamonds), children’s toys (with a huge Toys“R”Us outlet), and duty free stores with an eye-popping range that could make airport shopping almost redundant — especially with regard to make-up and perfumes. Don’t be surprised if the Ladies-Who-Shop groups that head for Bangkok twice a year want to switch henceforth to Macau.  

—The author is a Delhi-based writer and curator