Trading on Obsolescence on the Streets of Hong Kong
By Trang X. Ta, Australian National University
Hong Kong epitomizes a society of mass consumption in a technological age of convenience that produces an effluence of disposable consumer goods. The waste generated from the consumption activity of its global citizens feeds the second-hand street markets located in the interstices of the city. In contrast to the glamourous veneer of modern shopping centers distributed throughout Hong Kong, the district of Sham Shui Po offers an exotic, ahistoricized image of Hong Kong with its dilapidated sidewalks, lines of laundry hanging from windows overhead, old men sitting in the doorways in their undershirts reading the local paper, old women in their polyester leisure suits dragging carts behind them as they do their daily food shopping.
One of the distinctive characteristics of the area is in the evenings when a vibrant second-hand market emerges after the shops and street stalls have closed for business (see image 1). Concentrated around the neighborhood wet market, these itinerant sellers are a mix of locals and immigrants selling second-hand goods that run the gamut from appliances, electronics, mobile phones, computers, clothing, shoes, handbags, housewares, home décor accessories, furniture, books, videos, vinyl, personal hygiene products, foodstuffs and medicine (see image 2). This night market attracts elderly local residents, migrant workers, African businessmen, Mainland Chinese merchants, scrap recyclers, collectors, and various buyers interested in second-hand goods for resale elsewhere, for internal parts from old machines, or for personal use. The activity of the night market represents the collective work of rehabilitating and revaluing the remnants of material life salvaged from recycling bins, dumpsters, and renovation sites around Hong Kong. The spaces of exchange created on the street, however marginalized and even criminalized, make possible the redemption of things discarded and abandoned on the streets. Through this localized, but highly global landscape, temporalities represented in the castaway commodities converge and emerge to enable new circuits of value creation. The activity of trading obsolescence offers a form of sociality and a means to make ends meet for the urban poor in an economically stratified city.
Sham Shui Po is one of the oldest districts in Kowloon, traditionally known as the center of the garment industry in Hong Kong; it continues to have a high concentration of clothing, textile, metal ware, and leather ware wholesalers. Long the poorest (and thus affordable) districts in Hong Kong, the area attracts working class residents, newly arrived immigrants, and refugees who live among the large visible elderly poor. In recent decades, the district has become a computer, gaming, and electronic center attracting residents and tourists looking for inexpensive computer parts, cell phones, cameras, appliances, lighting, game consoles, and all conceivable manner of electronic equipment, gadgets, and accessories. The bustling streets are filled with market stalls selling all manner of cheaply made goods from Mainland China to make this one of the most eclectic neighborhoods for shopping. The frenzy of activity continues throughout the day and evening as men pack and load old electronics and appliances onto trucks to be delivered to waiting shipping containers and fashion wholesalers who receive manufactured clothing from mainland factories repack the bundles for shipment to customers abroad. The district embodies a curious juxtaposition of wholesale purveyors of the latest fast fashion sold in clothing markets around the world and recyclers who salvage old electronics and appliances for resale to parts of the world that do not move along the accelerated rate of product availability and turnover of commodities in a place like Hong Kong. The cycles of production and consumption of clothes and electronics is predicated on the continual demand for novelty, style, and performance that enables the materialization of a complementary circuit of exchange and valorization embodied in the second-hand markets of Sham Shui Po. The obsolete commodity that is traded on the streets represents a multitude of use and exchange values drawn from the “surplus” of values generated by the intentional temporal disjunctures in the product cycles of most consumer goods.
As early evening descends in the district, the permanent stall merchants aligned against the curb of the narrow sidewalks around the wet market pack up their goods for storage in their curbside cabinets. When 10pm approaches, the evening street vendors (evident by their carts and bags of goods) begin to take up their place in front of the now empty street stalls and begin to unpack their offerings onto the street pavement as cars slowly maneuver around the people and goods (see image 3). Between 10pm and midnight, the street vendors are able to sell their second-hand goods without risk of arrest, however, as the number of street vendors have grown in the past couple of years, more and more can be seen as early as 8pm risking arrest to earn some money while there is a steady traffic of pedestrians returning home from work or going out to dinner. The eclectic, haphazard display of goods on the street pavement is a carnivalesque convergence of temporalities represented in the castaways and the obsolete. The second-hand market illustrates how obsolescence is a source of value. The sheer variety and number of second-hand goods for sale is astounding as well as the juxtaposition of things such as expired medicines and foodstuffs nestled among piles of used shoes and clothing laid out on the pavement. This trading of obsolescence on the streets of Hong Kong is enabled by the temporal development lag between the people and places of modern consumption and the people and places aspiring to modern consumption. The leveraging of the temporal lag between the developed and the developing world by these local street vendors enables them to generate additional value from the discarded. Second-hand goods becomes the means to access the consumer society that is characteristic of global cities.
One of the distinctive qualities of Hong Kong is the convergence of commodities from all over the world, which makes it a popular shopping destination. This is true not only for transnational elites who are connoisseurs of designer brands, but migrants and traders from the global south who find their way to second-hand markets here. One pair of brothers from Lagos, Nigeria, have been coming to Hong Kong since 2007 to buy used cars and ship them back for resale. They also have a wholesale fashion business which brings them specifically to Sham Shui Po and in the evenings the brothers wander the night market to buy used household appliances that are later refurbished and resold in their family-run shop in Lagos. They rent a truck to store all the goods they have collected during their business trip and will pack them in along with the cars and clothing to be shipped together in a container. In the past, they went to the mainland but found the newly manufactured goods in China to be what they considered “of poor quality” and made the decision to come to Hong Kong where the quality and selection is better because there are more imported goods from Europe, Japan, Korea, and America found in the second-hand markets. The local street vendors know the African businessmen come here to buy used goods to resell back in Africa and are sometimes offered special discounts or deals if they buy in so-called “bulk.” And occasionally when the vendors themselves want to discard their used goods because it becomes too burdensome to pack up and carry back to their small living quarters, the African businessmen, and also fellow vendors, become the repository for the discarding of second-hand and scavenged goods left unsold that night. According to one long-time elderly vendor of second-hand goods in Sham Shui Po, her impression is that the African businessmen who come to Hong Kong to buy goods to ship back to Africa for resale possess more time and have access to cheaper labor costs so they are willing to buy older model goods that can be fixed and refurbished for resale in their home countries. Moreover, what is considered obsolete in Hong Kong is still unavailable in markets in Africa so there is always a market for these second-hand goods. Whereas in Hong Kong, it is cheaper and less troublesome to buy a new item than it is to fix something old and broken. Only people with attachments to particular items will go to the trouble to seek someone to repair something.
As geographers Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe discovered in their study of second-hand markets across Britain, “No longer automatically the dustbin, the skip or the householdwaste-disposal site, the proliferation of these worlds inserts meaning into disposal in a way that insists on the potential for objects’ revaluation as they are in the throes of devaluation, and simultaneously questions the essentialist, linear descent to ‘rubbish’ that is one of the core planks of representations of the consumer society” (2003: 202). In fact, second-hand markets in Hong Kong depend on a thriving consumer society and a world of designed obsolescence. For the elderly working poor who salvage and sell these second-hand goods in Sham Shui Po, it becomes an entrepreneurial way to pass time and have some means of a livelihood in a city that is gentrifying beyond their means. Moreover, as noted by sociologist Martin O’Brien in his study of rubbish society, in the process of wasting, “there is never a final residue of value: the final residue, as it is exposed here, is the trace of a political economy that never reaches completion: it is the unrepresentable constituent of a political economy in a state of perpetual emergence [original emphasis]” (1999: 291). In other words, in the process of “wasting,” value continues to circulate through a network of markets and through multiple cycles of production and consumption. This value conversion does not dissipate the value of the original commodity in its original form, rather the surplus value of the commodity, so to speak, continues to spill over and is a source of generative value in its afterlives.
Trang X. Ta is a lecturer in medical anthropology and the convenor of the Masters Program in Culture, Health, and Medicine, a joint initiative by the College of the Arts and Social Sciences and the College of Medicine, Biology, and the Environment at the Australian National University in Canberra. Her research bridges medical anthropology, cultural studies, and China studies by drawing together theoretical literatures on governance, public health, commodification, and media studies. This is from her current project on economies of waste and salvage among the elderly working poor in Hong Kong.
This post is part of a series on Emergent Socialities of Waste that includes:
Dumpsters, difference, and illiberal embodiment by David Boarder Giles
The Value of Time and the Temporality of Value in Socialities of Waste by Britt Halvorson
The Time of Landfills by Joshua Reno
Trading on Obsolescence on the Streets of Hong Kong by Trang X. Ta
Gregson, N. and Crewe, L. (2003) Second-hand Cultures. New York: Berg.
O’Brien, M. (1999) “Rubbish Values: Reflections on the Political Economy of Waste.” Science as Culture 8(3): 269-295.