Reporters on the Job: On the hunt for disappeared Chinese knockoffs

Staff writer Peter Ford questions a Chinese stallholder about why knockoffs went missing from a market in Beijing, when a man barrels up to him to aggressively video his interview.

Intrigued by reports from my sons that the Silk Street Market, an Aladdin’s cave of cheap counterfeit clothing that they frequent, had suddenly been stripped of everything bearing a false brand name, I went to have a look at the place last week.

Sure enough the stalls were almost bare, staffed by sales girls who did not want to talk about why they had nothing but unknown Chinese brands to offer.

On closer inspection, some of the shirts turned out to have Chinese labels hastily and inexpertly sewn over existing (fake) Ralph Lauren labels, which remained legible. I was questioning a stallholder about this when a man barreled up to me holding a camera phone in front of him and stuck it in my face as he video-recorded my interview.

He refused to identify himself, other than as “a passerby,” and continued to hold the camera close to my face. The stallholder said she did not know who he was, he ignored my requests to stop interfering, and eventually I ignored him.

Ending my interview, I made my way to the top floor, where I had arranged to meet the market’s general manager, Hu Wenli. The walls of her office corridor were covered with photos of local and foreign celebrities (including George Bush Sr.) in the company of … none else but the man who had just been harassing me.

He turned out to be Zhang Yongping, the owner and president of the company that has owned the Silk Street Market since it was moved off the streets and into its current premises seven years ago. He insisted on being interviewed himself (though he spent two hours simply evading my questions), but did not once apologize for his behavior downstairs.

He said he had suspected that I was an undercover investigator attending a meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) that was taking place in Beijing at the time (see accompanying article) and had been curious to hear what I was talking about.

I left the market none the wiser about why the normal counterfeit goods had disappeared, (although I thought the WIPO conference probably had something to do with it) and spent a couple of days puzzling about what I was going to write.

And then, on Sunday, one of my sons went on a reconnaissance trip to the Silk Market, and found that everything had miraculously returned to normal. On Monday I went down there to see for myself, and sure enough, it offered the same cornucopia of counterfeits as it had always done.

There was an added benefit: Who should I bump into as I walked down a corridor lined with stalls selling fake luxury watches but Mr. Zhang and his general manager Ms. Hu. They looked surprised to see me, and Ms. Hu looked a little shamefaced, as well she might have done considering that it was now obvious that she and her boss had spent Wednesday morning being more than economical with the truth. But Zhang was just as adept at not answering my questions as he had been a few days earlier.

He walked away from my questions. Too late, I thought of taking out my iPhone and filming him walking among all the counterfeits he had told me did not exist any more in his market. Then, perhaps, we would have been even.

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