Race, Action, Culture: Working the street: distrust of immigrant street vendors is rising even as New York Chinatown’s counterfeit business grows

Working the street: distrust of immigrant street vendors is rising even as New York Chinatown’s counterfeit business grows – report

Amy Wu

At 9:15 a.m., Canal Street only begins to wake. The main artery of New York’s Chinatown looks no different than it does at dawn. Except for the locals who disappear into convenience stores or banks to run errands, the street of one of New York’s main tourist attractions is strangely quiet for a mid-summer’s Friday.

The street vendors who hawk vegetables, fruit, fresh coconut, fish still flapping their gills, and Chinese kitsch such as silk dresses and fake jade, see few if any customers. At 10:45 a.m. Mr. Ma, a street artist who paints names for a living, sets up his pastels and brushes on an ironing board on the corner of Mott Street, and waits for business. Since Sept. 11 and SARS, Chinatown’s businesses and street vendors have seen business drop and tourists disappear; businesses have recovered only 60 percent of what they were before Sept. 11, according to the non-profit Chinatown Manpower Project.

Mr. Ma, a matchstick-thin, middle-aged man, said that he didn’t see it getting any better; like most of the businesspeople in this closed community he did not speak English, and would not disclose his full name. “I don’t even know why the tourists come here, what is there to see? I mean there’s nothing here, no attractions, the food isn’t even that good,” Mr. Ma complained in Mandarin, as he fiddled with his pastels. “This place is filthy not like the other neighborhoods where with foreigners who keep it clean, that’s the problem with the Chinese.”

If Mr. Ma wanted the answer to his question, he only needed to turn a corner and peer down Canal Street, which was quickly filling up with tourists toting digital cameras and video cams. Just five blocks south of Mr. Ma’s easels a huge crowd was forming on the corner of Canal and Broadway. They weren’t coming for Mr. Ma’s art, they weren’t coming to buy bamboos or “I Love NY” T-shirts, and they weren’t coming for the roasted duck and egg foo young; they were coming for the Louis Vuittons.

“What’s going on over there?” a woman asked, as she pointed at the growing crowd. Nearby a double-decked New York Sightseeing bus screeched to a stop, and more tourists disembarked to join the throng. Through the spaces between arms and knees, one could see what all the commotion was about. A dozen or so Chinese were peddling fake Louis Vuittons handbags, Coach bags, Burberry wallets and Gucci purses, from black garbage bags. They congregated around the mouth of the subway stop leaving non-shopaholic pedestrians angry at the traffic jam, and forced to walk in the streets.

“Louvey, louvey, buy cheap, buy cheap!” the peddlers screamed, a disorganized chorus with knock-offs dangling from their arms. The sounds of bargaining filled the air.

“Fifty dolla!” a woman with a buzz cut screamed.

“Twenty-five,” the savvy tourist said.

“Forty dollar, that’s it,” the buzz cut woman said. The tourist turned a shoulder and began to walk away.

“Okay, come back come back, $35 cheapest,” the buzz cut woman said. The bag, in Louis Vuitton’s latest pattern, was sold for less than 91 percent than its price of $378 for a real Louis Vuitton.

The tourists say they came here just for the shopping. Esther Cruz, a wide-eyed woman from Colombia comes to New York to visit relatives every year, and always makes a pit stop at Chinatown to buy the counterfeits. “It’s so much cheaper here, maybe in my country all of this is for $300, but here it’s just $100,” Cruz said, carrying two bags filled with fake branded bags.

Leigh Sullivan, a 17-year-old from St. Louis, MO, said she had a shopping list ready a month ahead for her visit. “I have to get my morn an LV, a fake Burberry umbrella, a Crocodile bag and Gucci sunglasses.”

However, as with any illegal business, selling and buying the knock-offs comes with risks. The peddlers are frequently sought by the police officers who circle the streets on mopeds and motorcycles, in vans and cars.

Then at 11:20 a.m., a split silence. The chorus of “Buy cheap, buy Louveys!” stopped. The peddlers swiftly shut their garbage bags, threw them over their shoulders, and then disappeared around the corners. Mr. Li, a new immigrant from Fujian who jumped into the counterfeit business a few weeks ago, said to a potential buyer, “The police are here, I have to go, but if you want to buy I’ll be back later.” He disappeared around the corner.

Chinatown has always had illegal vendors who sell knock-offs and kitsch, but in the past year the industry has grown and the vendors are offering more sophisticated counterfeit goods that are in high demand. Most of these peddlers are new immigrants from mainland China who know exactly what tourists want: Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Burberry, and Chanel. The New York Police Department is keen to this problem, and has units that are especially trained to detect counterfeit items and includes undercover police officers posing as shoppers. But none of this is likely to drive out knockoff vendors, said the store owners, street vendors, and police officers interviewed for this article.

The police have responded to the surge of knockoff merchandising with frequent pinpoint raids and sporadic regional crackdowns. This is the latest in NYPD efforts to go after street vendors in order to sanitize the city’s image, a key portion of former Mayor Rudolph Giuiliani’s anti-crime policy and part of a longer history of New York City sweeps. For more than a century, immigrants fleeing political persecution or poverty have worked as street vendors, and the city government has consistently tried to clear them away. In 1938, Mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia went afrer Jewish and other ethnic vendors by requiring of them proof of citizenship. In the 1950s, as Robert Moses’ highways drove through neighborhoods in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, street culture and merchants were driven out too. In the 1980s and 90s, Mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani cleared the streets in the name of residents’ “quality of life.” In 1997, the city council capped the number of street food vending licenses at 3,000 and other types of merchandise at 853. Since 1993, no one has been able to apply for a permit, and today the waiting list is 25 years long.

The role of immigrant status also plays a significant part in these crackdowns: the Bureau of Consumer Affairs requires applicants to show proof of legal work status. However, New York labor law does not require this from anyone seeking to open a business. Sean Basinzki of Urban Justice Center comments, “I don’t understand why they are being asked for this sort of documentation, since street vendors are also small businessmen. Usually this is something that an employer requires of a person he or she is seeking to employ.”

In a large-scale crackdown May 2001 at Fulton Street, the NYPD used officers on horseback and helicopters that laid siege to the busiest shopping district in downtown Brooklyn. Every street vendor who worked illegally was removed from the area. Immigrant street vendors have suggested that race and cultural factors often play an unspoken and relevant role in the ongoing crackdowns. At a Spanish Harlem church in April, a group of female street vendors and their children gathered to find solutions to the constant ticketing and police harassment. Julia Villegas commented to a Siempre reporter, “The authorities don’t understand that our children help us in our work and that this type of work fits well with our way of life.” Virginia Ricon added, “We have been here for many years now. This country is made up of immigrants like us. Yet, we are victims of discrimination and racism. After Sept. 11, the harassment increased. They don’t trust us.”

Ironically, distrust of immigrant street vendors has grown simultaneous to the growth of the counterfeit businesses and vendor activity since Sept. 11. There are several reasons for this. The business is accessible and often lucrative for new immigrants who speak limited English. As well, some business owners hard hit since Sept. 11 shifted their business from legal goods to counterfeits. Some businesses even welcome the vendors. A Canal Street jewelry store owner, who would only identify herself as Ms. Nguyen, said that the counterfeit peddlers have brought foot-traffic back to Chinatown.

“I think it’s good, actually it helps us, it brings in the tourists, it attracts the business to here, and they are very open about it, the people who go buy it know they are knock-offs so they attract a different clientele,” she said.

Indeed, in the past few weeks street traffic and business has taken a sharp upturn thanks to the peddlers who have catered their merchandise to the desires of consumers.

“This is what the tourists want so we give it to them,” said Mr. Li, a Fujianese immigrant who emerged 15 minutes later when the cop car had disappeared.

What is Esther Cruz’s steal, and Mr. Li’s means of living, is now the NYPD’s headache. At 1 p.m. Officer Reilly, a blonde cop with a beer belly, emerged on the corner of Canal and Broadway, standing adjacent to a stall selling fake Louis Vuitton scarves and watches, and of all other oddities, turtles the size of Oreo cookies. Reilly said he did not arrest them because he was technically working for the fifth precinct on this day, and the illegal vendors were operating in the first precinct. Instead of arresting knockoff vendors one-by-one, police will whiz by on vans and conduct a fast round of mass arrests. Since February they have closed down at least 30 stores, but Reilly said that it was useless.

“We handcuff them, arrest them, we take away their stuff, they spend a night in jail, and they are out there the next day again,” Reilly said. “We’ll go in one corner and then to another corner, and then they’ll be at another corner. There’s a bunch of us but there’s a bunch of them too.”

Residents have complained that the counterfeit peddlers clog up sidewalks, block subway and storefront entrances, cause noise pollution, and trigger turf wars between legal vendors and legal businesses, other police officers said.

A little after the lunch crowd disappeared at 2:40 p.m., a fistfight between a peddler and Marney Patel, the owner of a perfume store ensued. “Get out of here!” Patel demanded as he shooed the woman who was peddling pirated DVDs away. The woman refused to budge and tried to slug Patel as she screamed expletives. Patel blamed his bad luck on the Louis Vuittons. “Before they only sold watches, now they are selling handbags like the Louis Vuittons and Guccis, it’s more of a craze now,” Patel said, adding that he and his partners pay $15,000 (check this number) a month for rent while the illegal peddlers pay nothing. “These people just stand out on the corner, they make a mess, they don’t pay any rent, and we get fined for it and lose money because of it.”

Over the years, some community residents, business interests and politicians have rationalized massive crackdowns on these grounds. However, the absence of available alternatives for the affected vendors, who are usually from poor and immigrant backgrounds, have made others argue for another approach. One solution has come in the shape of marketplaces, vacant city lots that are prepared for vendors. Marketplaces, though, have not been as successful in generating revenue for their participants as in assuaging community complaints. After the Fulton Street crackdown, some vendors who used to hawk there went to city lots in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Flatbush, and Washington Heights. All except those in Flatbush have seen their business flatten and fall. After Sept. 11, a proposal to resettle the street vendors of Chinatown was circulated by the Community Board 3, but the idea has not moved far.

Authorities’ failure to kill the counterfeits is in part because the vendors have found a way around the system. Mr. Li and fellow peddlers have developed a sixth-sense for detecting the presence of police officers. Mr. Li, not unlike his fellow peddlers, has a cell phone and warns other peddlers when he sees a police officer coming. Storefronts will draw down their metal blinds at the sight of a cop, and others will follow suit in a domino effect. Some vendors slip counterfeit goods into drawers, use cloth to quickly hide them, or use legitimate items as a front. The smartest street peddlers emerged after dark when the police had hung up their badges for the day. Other vendors have used the slices of storefront that they purchased from local businesses as a front.

Legal vendors such as Mr. Hu said they didn’t mind the counterfeit peddlers because they know how hard it is for them to make money. Also, he didn’t feel that they were taking business away from him. “I sell to a different clientele anyway, most of my business comes in around Chinese New Year’s to buy the bamboos,” said Mr. Hu, a native of Chinas Guangdong Province.

Mr. Hu has been a legal street vendor for the past few years. In Guangdong he was a veteran journalist and editor at the Guangzhou Daily, the largest newspaper in Chinas third largest city. He said he came to New York and became a vendor to travel, see a new culture, and make a living. He says he makes enough to pay his $300 a month rent, and saves money by wearing the six for $10 T-shirts that are commonly sold in Chinatown. Mr. Hu, who wore his vendor license around his neck, said he would never consider shifting from selling bamboo to Burberrys, because he was comfortable with the work he had.

“I’ve been at the same spot for the past few years, I can’t move back and forth and just imagine if I did, there would be fights everyday,” he said as he slipped the newspapers he was reading into a garbage bag.

Other street vendors gave up on selling counterfeits because they said they were tired of being questioned by police, and feared getting caught.

Xiao Lei, 21, has been working at his uncle’s stall since the start of summer. A few months ago the stall sold fake Cartier’s, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton watches, but the police came around often and asked questions about their merchandise. Scared that they’d have their goods taken away, they now sell unbranded watches for $10 a pop. “Before the business is good, now it’s terrible, very very bad,” Xiao Lei said. “They look at our watches, don’t see the brand and don’t buy.”

It is early evening and a light rain starts falling erasing away the humidity of the day. Mr. Ma has long packed up his paints, brushes, ironing board and left for the day. Ms. Nguyen’s jewelry store has closed until tomorrow. Officer Reilly can be found in the fifth precinct standing by a jewelry store helping tourists who ask questions like: Where is the Empire State Building, where is Greenwich Village, and which way is Little Italy?

“I’m doing the terrorist patrol now, but things are kind of slow, there’s not much crime here,” he says, when asked why he wasn’t paying attention to the peddlers selling the Louis Vuittons across the street.

The numbers of tour buses making pit stops have died down, bur the crowds of street peddlers can still be found at Canal and Broadway. The tourists with their digital cameras in one hand and wallets in the other swarm the peddlers who scream, “Buy cheap, buy Louvey!” at the top of their lungs.

Additional research by Kendra Field.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Color Lines Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group