The knock-on effect for Bangkok's knock-offs
Last week, a man came to tell Jasmine, a vendor in the Nana area, that the Department of Special Investigation would be conducting a raid. He took the unusual step of telling her not only to temporarily close down, but to move all of her counterfeit goods back home for two days.
- Published: 20/01/2013 at 12:00 AM
- Newspaper section: topstories
TIMES ARE TOUGH: Shopping for counterfeit watches at the Patpong night market.
While it was another setback in a series dating back to Lady Gaga's visit to Bangkok eight months ago _ when Jasmine was caught in a DSI raid following the furore caused by a message by the singer on Twitter _ this time it was a necessary safety measure. Jasmine said she had recently paid a 400,000 baht bribe to a high-ranking police official in order to receive such early warnings.
Her 20-year business selling high quality copies to predominantly Middle Eastern tourists once brought profits of up to 10 million baht a year. Times are harder now, she said, due to rising demands for bribes, increasing competition and savvier tourists _ but the goods are still available at various shops and markets around town, often sold quite openly.
Spectrum followed Jasmine's story and took a look at where the business of counterfeit goods in Bangkok now stands.
Jasmine, whose name and some details have been changed to protect her identity, sold knock-off designer bags, handbags, wallets, watches and pens, among other goods. She said she used to net around 10 million baht in her best years _ up to 60,000 baht a day on a good day. Even after paying bribes, overheads and trips to China to make purchases _ it was a lucrative business.
Over two decades she has seen a lot of police rotation in and out of Nana, she said; each new team has had to negotiate new terms with Jasmine.
Those new to the game or unaware of how much their predecessors were making often asked for relatively little, but it never took them long to wise up, she added.
Meanwhile, she said, the shippers and manufacturers in China were generous in offering credit, and because of payments to facilitate shipments, Thai Customs hasn't been a big problem.
Problems for Jasmine _ whose school-learned Arabic has been an invaluable asset in her dealings with Middle Eastern customers _ began at the end of May last year, when Lady Gaga arrived.
"I just landed in Bangkok baby! Ready for 50,000 screaming Thai monsters. I wanna get lost in a lady market and buy fake Rolex."
The tweet caused considerable protest. Confusing Bangkok with Hong Kong's Ladies' Market was not the offensive part; rather, it was the notion that Bangkok has fake watches readily for sale _ which any visit to a touristy night market area will testify to.
It was considered a slight on Thailand, as thousands vented on social media and the Intellectual Property Department made a formal complaint to the US embassy. The DSI and police made several arrests in subsequent weeks, with the names of vendors and photos of confiscated goods released to the media.
Jasmine claims she was never arrested, only held temporarily, and all of the seized items were later returned to her. One Indian vendor had his pirated goods returned but, shocked by his arrest, he sold his inventory and returned to his homeland.
Jasmine had her court case postponed several times, and she said she was asked to pay a 200,000 baht fine to clear the case. When she told them she didn't have the money, a stalemate of a few weeks ensued. Eventually she was asked to pay a 16,000 baht fine, she said, reduced to 8,000 baht because it was a first-time offence.
Of greater aggravation to Jasmine was the tens of millions of baht in police bribes she said she had paid over the years. The aim of the payments had been not only to allow her to operate but also to avoid such unpleasantries.
After the case was cleared by the court, going back to business was more difficult than she'd imagined. She had lost some regular customers during her absence, and rents in the area had gone up. And, she said, the local police had become more demanding in requesting payments.
Her next step, she said, shocked the police. Still furious at the bribes she'd paid that hadn't protected her from the DSI, Jasmine gave away all of her counterfeit goods. She told police they'd received her final pay-off, and she was going into legitimate business.
A buying trip to China landed her new items to sell that weren't high quality forgeries. The police, she said, were flabbergasted, but left her alone. The problem was the income disparity; she was making only a fraction of what she had before, and her past customers had little interest in legitimate goods. It became hard to meet the cost of overheads, wages and rent. Whereas she once operated a large shop and several street stalls, the operation was scaled down considerably. Missing their payments, she said, police came by and suggested she return to her former trade. She could make big profits again, they said, and this time they would protect her from arrest.
She fought the idea for a while, but eventually decided to return to the business, saying she paid a 400,000 baht bribe to a high-ranking police officer to ensure she wasn't bothered again. She thinks it was this payment that most likely saved her from last week's crackdown.
The problem with re-entering the knock-off trade, Jasmine said, was that the landscape had changed. Where previously the police had only allowed three or four big vendors to sell fake high-end bags and watches in her area, now several others have also been allowed to operate. Counterfeit bags, watches, scarves and pens are more readily available than before the crackdown. During the months she had sold legitimate goods, her regular customers disappeared. The word that she was back in business was slow to reach buyers.
Another problem is that there are more frequent flights and more convenient connections from the Middle East to Phuket, Koh Samui and Chiang Mai. Visitors flying from Dubai, Doha or Bahrain are more likely to bypass Bangkok, and sellers in Phuket and other holiday destinations have been quick to meet the growing demand for fake goods.
Also worrying for her is the new breed of customer. The few buyers still coming now have photographs of what they want, along with a set price. They no longer seem willing to bargain; if she doesn't have what they want at the right price they walk out.
Meanwhile, she said, police have been coming regularly, pressuring her to deliver regular pay-offs. For the time being she has been able to hold them off by saying her business is close to bankrupt. Although this is true, she knows she won't be able to ward them off much longer.
When asked for comment, Pol Gen Chiroj Chaichit, an adviser for the Legal Affairs and Litigation Department 1 of the Royal Thai Police, told Spectrum, ''Such accusations have to be looked at on a case by case basis. Often it's the mafia demanding payments rather than police, or of individuals posing as police officers. Similar to accusations by motorcycle taxi drivers that they have to pay police bribes in order to operate, when in fact it is the military mafia, or individuals unrelated to the police. Anyone with specific evidence should make a complaint, but we haven't found concrete evidence of wrongdoing by police in such cases.''
Meanwhile, those dealing in pirated goods stand to face additional obstacles. On Friday, Deputy Commerce Minister Nattawut Saikuar announced that the National Intellectual Property Bureau would set up an operations centre for the suppression of intellectual infringement, which would seek to prosecute pirates.
IMITATION NOT FLATTERING: Clockwise from left, fake Chanel bags and other brands, copied brand name sneakers, pirated Chanel and Prada wallets and ‘Joe Louis’ copycat handbags in Patpong.
CHILL PILLS: Counterfeit goods in the Nana area.
Pirated goods at every turn
CHILL PILLS: Counterfeit goods in the Nana area.
Although vendors are extremely sensitive to anyone taking snapshots of counterfeit goods, they are openly sold throughout the capital. What is curious is that some items seem to be allowed to be sold at some markets but not others, so a buyer seeking a specific type of knock-off has to know where to look.
At central shopping centres such as Mahboonkrong (MBK), Fortune Town and Pantip Plaza, copied software, DVDs and CDs are readily available. Quality varies wildly and some software lacks security codes that allow for updates or renewals, but prices are low and the selection is impressive. Counterfeit bags and watches are not on open display, but at MBK some copied designer clothes, such as underwear and dress shirts, are sold. One vendor showed us a legitimate Louis Vuitton catalogue and said that for almost every item a copy was available _ with prices from 1,000 baht _ that he could retrieve from the car park. Such items were kept hidden in cars, he said, to evade police oversight.
Patpong Night Market is a hot spot for fake goods. On Patpong Road and adjacent sections of Silom and Surawong roads a vast number of brand name copies are openly sold. Our clandestine photography attempts were quickly pounced upon by nervous or angry vendors, but there were otherwise no attempts to disguise the nature of what was being sold. Watches included Rolex, Rado, Breitling, Tag Heuer, Casio and other brands _ with prices usually beginning at 1,800 baht and falling to 1,000 baht or less after negotiation. Bags included Prada, Chanel and a Louis Vuitton imitation called Joe Louis. Proper Louis Vuitton copies were available, vendors told us, but had to be retrieved from secret stashes nearby as the police cracked down on these sales. Some famous names are notably absent, so it seems that some brands are more stringent with attempts at enforcing intellectual property laws than others.
The majority of bag vendors we spoke to in the area had moved from Myanmar in recent months, although they said that the owners of the shops and inventory were Chinese-Thai. They said business was good but that police payments had to be made weekly or sometimes daily to ensure that the goods weren't seized. They claimed that many of the bags were shipped in from Korea rather than China.
Pratunam market also sells high-quality knock-offs, more often aimed at bulk purchases by middlemen from west and south Asia and central Africa.
The Nana area of Sukhumvit Road, especially between Sukhumvit Sois 3 to 7, is another zone where knock-offs are frequently sold. Fake Mont Blanc pens and real and repackaged generic sexual enhancement pills are readily available, while counterfeit watches and handbags are harder to find than at Patpong, Buyers here are more likely to be in-the-know tourists than at Patpong, seeking out individual traders they found out about from friends.
As at Patpong, other popular knock-offs on sale included Nike and other trainers, Beats by Dr Dre headphones, sex toys and pharmaceuticals such as Viagra and Valium, and Calvin Klein underwear.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY IN THAILAND
Copyright infringement is big business. From digital copies of the latest CDs and DVDs to mass-produced or hand-crafted replicas of designer handbags, watches and accessories _ Thailand has it all. Even pirated Ferraris have been sold here, as the Italian marque found out in 2008.
The Kingdom is a perennial offender on the US Trade Representative (USTR) Office's priority watch list, making the list for the fourth consecutive time last year in the office's ''Special 301 Report''. The USTR praised some progress in Thailand's efforts to battle copyright infringement, while admitting that ''piracy and counterfeiting remain widespread''. Thailand was placed alongside a dozen other serial offenders _ China, Russia, Argentina, Canada, India, Algeria, Chile, Indonesia, Israel, Pakistan, Ukraine and Venezuela _ while a number of areas were singled out as ''notorious markets'', including the Khlong Thom, Saphan Lek and Ban Mor shopping areas; the MBK, Pantip Plaza, Fortune Town and Fashion Island shopping centres; and the commercial districts of Silom and Sukhumvit.
In response to Spectrum's request for comment, the US embassy provided some information on anti-piracy efforts being taken locally.
''For the sake of artists _ whether they be Thai, American, or from anywhere else _ and to encourage creativity and innovation by all, the protection of intellectual property rights is very important to Thailand and the United States,'' said embassy spokesman Walter Braunohler. ''US trade law requires an annual report of all countries in regards to intellectual property rights, and we continue to work with the Thai government at all levels to work on the challenge of protecting these rights.
''If you ride the BTS, you will see our latest collaboration with the Thai Ministry of Commerce. Together, we teamed up with several prominent Thai artists to produce posters for the BTS highlighting the importance to artists of buying real, not fake, products.''
It remains to be seen whether the latest campaign will have an effect. High-ranking officials at the DSI have told Spectrum in the past that they only handle big players in cases of piracy, such as ''factories, storage places, distributors or big retailers where the value of goods seized exceeds 500,000 baht'', and that street stalls and small shops won't be raided, ''as this is the duty of other agencies''.
We asked one artistic director of a luxury leather brand made in Thailand whether he was also affected by piracy.
''Unfortunately,'' he said, ''we are also victims of people who copy models, packaging, even our web texts! Unfortunately all brands struggle here and copyright laws cannot be enforced in any way so it's better to forget about them.''
The Intellectual Property Department has said it is doing its best to control the proliferation of pirated goods in this country. Key to efforts by the DSI and DIP, however, may be cooperation of individuals overseeing street sales in local police districts, for whom such sales remain extremely lucrative.
About the author
- Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker
- Position: Writer