The air is hot and heavy, like wearing a towel in a steam room but I’m only wearing demin cut-off shorts, a bleach white polo shirt and gray rubber flip-flops–a real American tourist, ponytail and a Yankees baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, wrinkled city map in tow. Leaving the refrigerated air of the hotel lobby and stepping out onto the sweat-drenched streets makes me pause for a moment–my instincts tell me to go back into the comfort of my hotel room, to the crisp, cool sheets and ice cold water bottles waiting for me in the mini-bar but I tell myself that I didn’t come all the way to Hong Kong to be culturally immersed in a Western hotel so I join the sticky-skinned, sun-squinting pedestrians on the crowded sidewalk, just another person making their way around town.
The Ladies’ Market is said to be one of the best places to bargain shop in Hong Kong. Located in the Mong Kok district of the Kowloon peninsula, its central location in the urban area makes for a shopping haven for both locals and tourists alike. It’s not one of the air-conditioned megalithic malls that people cram into at all times of the day and it’s not even indoors for that matter. The Ladies’ Market is simply four city blocks of tented stalls that overtakes a four-block stretch of street selling ladies’ clothes, copy watches, knock-off handbags, and just about anything imaginable for a fraction of the price anywhere else. Usually factory over-runs or fake brand names, the market is the place to bargain for goods and one of those “cultural experiences” that I look for when traveling. But this is only what the brochure says–I am going to see, and experience, for myself.
The walk there isn’t long, 5 or 6 blocks from my hotel at most but with heat wave and mercury up in the 30’s, I’m drenched in sweat and parched for water by the time I get there. The back of my polo is wet with sweat and I can feel the beads of moisture on my forehead, making my hair stick to my skin. The hotel concierge told me that I wouldn’t miss the market when I arrived and he was right. The noise of hawkers promoting massages, sellers bargaining and tourists haggling back, the occasional car horn blaring to make its way through one of the adjacent streets fill the air and add to the thickness and pollution. The bright red and blue striped tents stand twenty feet tall and fill the whole street until there is only just enough room to walk between the parallel lines of stalls. The open-faced tents are filled with items, each tent specializing in a different product–on my right a tent covered with Chinese silk dresses, pajamas, purses, jade bracelets, figurines. Bright fabrics in turquoise, fuschia, jade and violet lined with gold embroidery fill the space and the owner of the stall, with her fanny pack of money, immediately walks toward me. I continue through the row of stalls. The next is full of Converse tennis shoes in every color of the rainbow and the next sells luggage and backpacks only, all three walls covered with backpacks of every size, the smell of leather wafting out of the tent. I am overwhelmed walking through the market–amazed at the choices available, and the volume of goods. I learn that the market is open until eleven at night and the heat is so intense I decide to come back later.
As I head back to my hotel I think over all the things I saw that I want to purchase. My head fills with images of Chinese dresses with golden-threaded dragons, the smell of leather handbags and the smooth coolness of the jade bracelets. But shopping in the Hong Kong Ladies’ Market will have to wait for later because the cool air of the hotel on my sweat-damp skin is calling. There is an ice-cold glass of water, a luke-warm shower and cool, crisp sheets waiting for me. It may not have the sensory explosion of the market, but the quiet and cool of a hotel room is a welcome refuge from the bursting energy of Hong Kong.