Global Observer

Hong Kong's online sellers and buyers make novel use of subway

Posting in Cities

Want to buy something online in Hong Kong? Forget the mail. It's all about furtive underground meetings.

HONG KONG -- During after-work rush hour, dozens of people stand near the turnstiles at Hong Kong’s Mong Kok subway station, as if waiting for a friend to emerge from the escalators.

But they are waiting for strangers. Phone calls are made, eyes dart around the center of the station, until, finally, the pairs have found each other by clothing description and with a knowing smile.

One man who had been waiting for 10 minutes handed a shopping bag with two large sports figurines still in boxes to another man -- in exchange for US$420.

“These include the white jerseys, right?” said the buyer. With an affirmative answer and cordial thanks from both parties, they went their separate ways.

It is a procedure repeated perhaps hundreds of times throughout the day at this single station. In the super-busy Mong Kok district, throngs of people consistently cycle in and out of its rail stop. But this and other busy stations have also become underground centers of trade, where money and products change hands between online sellers who do not need to spend money on rent for a storefront and their buyers who want to see the wares in person before plunking down their money.

While online shopping has never taken off as one might expect in the thoroughly connected city of Hong Kong, using auction sites like Yahoo Auctions or discussion forums to find products is common — the main difference here is that buyers and sellers often arrange to meet in person at a train station.

Yahoo Auctions in Hong Kong -- the most-used auction site here -- receives 1.5 million monthly unique views in a city of 7 million, and 5.5 transactions are completed on the site every minute, according to a Yahoo spokeswoman. The site relies on ad revenue and collects only a small listing fee ranging from 12 to 80 U.S. cents, and most sellers include subway meetups as the preferred delivery method.

Collectible items like action figures or limited-edition shoes, as well as electronic gadgets like phones, are popular products to be sold at subway stations.

Sellers are easy to spot, often toting a telltale shopping bag, waiting for their customers to arrive at the agreed-upon time and place -- and with the agreed-upon cash.

“This way it’s cheaper because it cuts out the middleman,” said Elisa Fu, who recently took the subway to meet a seller halfway between his home and her workplace during her lunch hour, removing the need for transaction fees or payment accounts.

Fu had found someone trying to sell a secondhand iPhone 4S on the popular local electronics discussion forum DCFever and paid US$350 for it in person. This was her first time meeting an online seller for a transaction.

“In this case, it’s better to meet like this than to have it shipped, because it’s an expensive and fragile item. Also I got to turn on the phone and try it first, and asked him how long he’s had it, that kind of thing,” she said.

Buyers here may be particularly hesitant to part with their cash, sight unseen, because exchanges and returns are not a shopping custom here, while the city’s ultraconvenient infrastructure also makes it feasible to meet in person.

Crowded and compact in area, Hong Kong is networked by a single train system that is also significantly cheaper to ride than those in other international cities like London and Tokyo.

If the meeting parties do not exit through the turnstiles but wait in the paid area — sometimes trading across barriers with others who prefer not to pay to enter through the turnstile — and get back on the train, the entire trip costs almost nothing.

But the subway operator, MTR, is pushing back against the buyers and sellers who clog up the popular meeting places and carry on with their business activity without even paying full fare.

MTR workers began at the end of last year to fine people for buying and selling, while an announcement over the loudspeaker is repeated every few minutes at some stations: “To avoid overcrowding and becoming a nuisance to other passengers, please do not arrange the collection of goods and articles at the station.”

As evidenced by the number of transactions still taking place out in the open, many buyers and sellers are not deterred by the possible fines of up to US$640.

But that is because the rule is not strongly enforced. Just a few feet from a sale of diecast car models, with crisp banknotes changing hands, an MTR worker walked by while pushing a cart, and the startled seller glanced warily at her.

“We aren’t asked to leave. It’s just like this,” said a middle-aged woman who had just sold two Monsters University figurines, giving her hand a wave at the waiting crowd. “If you’re fast, it’s all right.”

Photo: Flickr/See-ming Lee

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure