Behind Chinatown’s Counterfeit Handbag Industry

With giant tears rolling down her face, waving her hands frantically through the air, a tall, slender African woman hurriedly followed a group of three policemen in New York City’s Chinatown. She watched as they confiscated and carried away a large, black-and-white suitcase filled with counterfeit purses on September 25.

“I didn’t do nothing, I didn’t do nothing,” she repeatedly said, following the policemen several blocks down to their van as they wheeled her suitcase through the layer of filth on Canal Street, begging them to give it to her.

Ten minutes ago, her business partner, a tall man with fake Ray-Ban sunglasses, dreadlocks and a Louis Vuitton shirt, had been caught selling a counterfeit Coach handbag to a tourist. When the police arrived, the tall African-American man ran away, leaving behind tall black garbage bags full of counterfeit purses, piled next to a suitcase with the same contents.

“There’s a special unit that takes care of these guys,” said one of Chinatown’s patrol officers, a heavy-set, gap-toothed man, Justin Lowe, “If they see a tourist buy a bag, they’ll sit there and watch the transaction before proceeding to make the arrests.”

After charging the naïve tourist with a misdemeanor for purchasing a counterfeit item, the policemen confiscated the items around them – including the suitcase the young African woman claimed was hers, and although bulging with purses, she said contained no counterfeit items.

With no evidence that the woman was selling the handbags, the police left her behind as they closed the trunk of their van, now stuffed with fake purses, and disappeared into the traffic of the congested road while the woman angrily cursed them out.

“No! Don’t go! You have my things,” she said as the van sped off, following it for several steps down the street before giving up.

But the liveliness of Chinatown continued, with eager tourists and salespeople trading cash for glamorous-looking items.

“Handbag, handbag? Miss?” a gray-haired Asian woman asked repeatedly, every time a female tourist passed by.

“Louis Vuitton? Coach? Gucci?” was the never-ending line robotically repeated by an African vendor, holding a wrinkled printout that illustrated dozens of designer purses.

“Handbags and watches, handbags and watches, handbags and watches,” another African man enunciated in a machine-like tone, whose phrase was drown out by Chinatown’s screeching of cars, endless honking and the chatter of the other vendors.

The illegal business of the counterfeit handbag industry thrives in New York City’s fifth precinct. The vendors, mostly immigrants, are lined along the storefronts of the local mom-and-pop shops, which sell everything from cheap sunglasses to colorful suitcases, with counterfeit brands including Prada, Rolex, Coach and Louis Vuitton hidden from the public eye, but available to those who ask. Waiting for tourists to pass by, the vendors make a living by selling counterfeit trademarked items, whether it’s an illegally burned movie disc or a fake expensive watch.

Being caught selling these items is a felony, so the vendors rush their buyers through the exchange as quickly as possible.

On April 28, Councilwoman Margaret Chin introduced legislation criminalizing the intentional purchase of items with a counterfeit trademark in New York City. Chin, who is Chinese-American and was elected to represent the city’s Chinatown district, has introduced a law that classifies the knowing purchase of fake handbags as a misdemeanor punishable by one year’s imprisonment, a fine of one thousand dollars, or both.

Counterfeiting is a booming international business, accounting for 5 to 7 percent of global trade, according to the International Chamber of Commerce. The cost to the city in lost jobs and taxes runs into several hundred million dollars annually. A 1994 study by Mark Green, the commissioner of consumer affairs at the time, pegged the cost in unpaid taxes alone at $350 million. While the New York Police Department (NYPD) does not release the number of vendors arrested for selling counterfeit items, the crime is considered grand larceny, of which there are about 376 cases in the Chinatown district each year.

A tall, dark-skinned man wearing bootleg plastic reflector sunglasses, a white shirt and military shorts, was apprehensive about wasting time making small talk with buyers.

“You go in the back of the van, you go on that trip, you go to jail, you see the judge,” he said. “If I could just find the bag you like, we could move faster and this would be better for me.”

Further down the sidewalk, another man, a Bob Marley lookalike hidden behind a pair of fake Rayband sunglasses, was selling fake designer purses, having an accomplice pull them out of a trash bag for tourists to look at. A natural businessman, he did the math for tourists to calculate how much they would save by buying his bags.

“The people who go to the store pay six, seven hundred dollars,” he said, claiming that his handbags are authentic. “People gonna come out here, pay hundred dollars, two hundred dollars per bag, you save four hundred.”

The man continued to persuade tourists to save money by buying one of his items, which he claimed were “the real thing from Italy.”

When asked how he had so many of these “authentic” designer purses, he said with the help of the Chinese, he finds them online.

“From computer. We get from the Internet, man,” he said. “It’s no easy like that. Sometimes the people in China have a big collection.”

A gap-toothed, heavy-set patrol officer in the fifth precinct, Officer Justin Lowe, said he has more important worries than cracking down on these vendors.

“Let me guess, all y’all are doing research because you want to sell fake bags right? You know it doesn’t really matter,” said the officer in a Brooklyn accent “Honestly it’s not really a big deal for us, because we’re worried about people getting robbed, and pickpockets.”

The NYPD reports that so far this year, the Chinatown district has been subject to eight cases of rape, 88 cases of robbery, 84 cases of federal assault, 73 burglaries, 376 cases of grand larceny and 22 cases of grand auto larceny. Not including the crackdowns on the illegal street vendors’ activities, the fifth precinct’s police officers have had to handle 651 crimes this year.

“In New York City, everything lasts long until it becomes a nuisance,” Officer Lowe said. “Once it becomes a nuisance and everyone starts complaining and it gets to the mayor’s office, now it’s like ‘oh, we want to crack down on the fake bags.’ And next thing you know, now we’re out there after everyone who has fake bags, and locking up whoever doesn’t have their licenses and now we’re bringing them in and it slows down the business. And now you’ve only got one or two guys out there sneaking around selling them. So that’s the way the NYPD works.”

Lowe compared the fake bags industry to the habit of cooking on the streets, which is now outlawed, partially due to what he deems the result of gentrification. Lowe said that in the 1990’s, Chinatown inhabitants would start fires on the street and cook meals publicly with their friends.

“The Chinese used to sit out in little tents and cook on fires in the streets – no one cared until a few people started writing letters and calling the mayors’ office, and then action was taken to make it illegal,” he said. “You don’t see too much of that anymore, because you got a lot of people coming here from like Idaho and places, and they’re not used to that.”

The same thing is happening to the fake bag industry, he said. No one cared that it was happening until the mayor’s office received complaints from the companies whose items were counterfeited, as well as residents in the district.

“Back in the days Canal Street was flooded with vendors. You couldn’t even walk. It was crazy,” he said.

Although illegal, the purchase of fake designer handbags on Canal Street is still a popular activity, especially among naïve foreign tourists, who intentionally visit Chinatown to find the perfect counterfeit purse for a knockoff price, said Officer Lowe, rolling his eyes as he described the materialistic interests of tourists on the search for a perfectly stitched Louis Vuitton lookalike.

Some of the African vendors are from French-speaking countries, and Noémie Bouzie, a stylish 22-year old business student from Paris, frequented Canal Street shops during her six-month internship in New York.

“She knew exactly where to go and which guy she was looking for,” said her German classmate, Robin Lundberg, 22, after accompanying her on one of her many shopping sprees. “When we got there she started speaking French with the guy, who first showed my friend the assortment of bags he had on a piece of paper.”

Lundberg, a young marketing intern, described the experience in a thick German accent as she pushed back her long, blonde hair, speaking in an annoyed tone about her friend’s “cheap” interests.

Throughout the transaction, Lundberg and Bouzie were surrounded by accomplices to the charismatic salesperson, keeping watch for the constantly patrolling police – a setting that made Lundberg nervous.

“There were many helpers standing around him,” Lundberg said. “Two looking out for the police and one woman, who would go around the store to get the bag. When she brought it in a plastic bag my friend wasn’t allowed to take it out and look at it, only quickly and inside the plastic bag.”

When her friend found the Louis Vuitton bag she had been searching for, an almost identical copy of the trademarked product at one tenth of the price, she purchased it for 100 dollars, a price she found reasonable for a fake item.

While speaking French may have helped the young Parisian bargain, a 21-year old American University student had a different experience.

Following a Chinese lady who motioned for Kelly Holiday, a brown-haired tourist from Washington D.C., to come to the back of the store, Holiday and a friend found themselves in front of a hidden opening in the wall of the building. The Chinese lady punched a number into an area of the wall, which, like an oversized safe, opened up to reveal a glittering array of counterfeit handbags.

“It was some secret door that opened, and was obviously a crawl space,” she said. “It was lined with all these floor to ceiling shelves, packed with purses.”

Being rushed to make a decision, Holiday chose a small, $30 Louis Vuitton purse, while her friend opted for a larger and more expensive tote with the Coach trademark.

Officer Lowe said many women actually believe that the handbags they are buying are real, and upon discovery of a tear or a stain, they mail the fake bags to the designer and demand a replacement, he said. By doing this they are turning themselves in, and can be charged with a misdemeanor for purchasing a counterfeit trademarked item.

But Officer Lowe has not arrested anyone in this business. It is solely the responsibility of a small unit that deals with the counterfeit trademark industry, he said.

“Things like that with the clothes and the fake things, people like us, the patrol cops, don’t even get involved,” he said.

In Chinatown, the young brunette caught buying a handbag stood somberly as the officer took down her information. A friend stood beside her, fear spilling over her face. The officer asked several questions and the teary tourist nodded every few seconds, signaling that she understood. But it was clear that she didn’t understand. And neither did the vendors, or the African woman chasing after the officers or even officer Justin Lowe.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Lowe says. “It should be no big deal, but because someone was annoyed, it now suddenly is.”

 

By Nicole Glass


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