MANILA, SEPTEMBER 19, 2006 (STAR) CULTURE VULTURE By Therese Jamora-Garceau - Dressed in T-shirts and their most comfortable running shoes, 40 people from all over the world dashed through an arch outside Times Square mall in Causeway Bay. Some hurled themselves into the nearest MTR station. Others plowed across the street at the risk of life and limb. All of them had the same intent look in their eyes: they were in a race and not only were they going to win, they were going to shop.

Call it what you will, but the Hong Kong Shopper of the Year (SOY) contest is the shopping Olympics for inveterate spenders everywhere. If you’ve ever claimed that shopping is your cardio, Hong Kong is the place to be, and not only during the months from June to August, when the annual HK Shopping Festival takes place. You can bargain your way into a great deal pretty much 365/12 in Hong Kong, where the food is good, the prices are never fixed and the country itself is one huge, interconnected shopping mall.

In Asia, Hong Kong has long had a reputation as a shopper’s paradise. To cement that reputation, as well as lure new arrivals from as far away as Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) devised the Shopper of the Year competition.

Now on its fourth year, SOY attracted two-person teams from 20 countries, with Mexico and the Netherlands joining for the first time. Last year the Philippine team placed second to Indonesia, so hopes were high this year that our team would win. After all, no one has the determination to shop quite like the Pinoy, right?

Our candidates were Albie Sia and Rica Chan, friends since Grade 5 at St. Stephen’s High School. Albie, a fashion designer whose label, Blade, is available at Tonic, has been to Hong Kong at least 15 times. Rica, who travels regularly for her family’s hardware business, is on her 21st visit. Together they scour Hong Kong at least once a year for fashion finds and pet accessories (mainly for Albie, a self-professed "cat slave" whose animal-print designs are inspired by his five gorgeous felines).

The two chums won handily during the local selection process when Albie told the judges he planned to take Rica to Hong Kong not only to shop but also to find her a husband. Albie’s standout fashion creations didn’t hurt, either. "They turned up for the final interview in matching zebra bottoms," recalls Noel Nieva, director of Perceptions, Inc. and the Philippine representative for the HKTB, "and they both knew Hong Kong like the back of their hands."

Must Buy, Must Eat, Must See

August 30 dawned clear, hot and sunny – it was a perfect day for shopping. The 40 contestants, plus over 60 print and broadcast media from their respective countries, gathered in Times Square for a briefing before they were let loose on the city.

The two-man team from Bangkok wore white sashes as if they were beauty contestants. The male half of the Mexican team got a lot of attention, not because he was a first-timer but because he looked like a cross between hottie Mexican actors Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. Albie and Rica stood out once again in matching white cutoffs that Albie had hand-painted with cow prints, with matching cowprint watches they found at Temple St. Night Market the night before. They also passed around colorful leis for the Philippine delegation to wear. Set to track them all over the city were Angel Jacob and her crew from the Lifestyle Network show Good Finds; Bryan Enriquez, who would be doing live feeds for radio station 99.5 RT; and The Philippine STAR, with Lifestyle artist Felix Suerte and yours truly.

From 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. that day, SOY contestants had to complete four Shopping Tasks and two Treasure Hunts, with the whole of Hong Kong as their hunting grounds. Each team was given a shopping bag with HK$3,000 in cash for shopping (they had to spend at least $2,500), $200 cash allowance for food, a Sony Ericsson mobile phone with pre-paid SIM card, two Octopus cards for public transport, maps and brochures, and a user guide for Hong Kong Mobile Host, an audio tourist-information service that dispenses tips via mobile phone.

Before they set off, each team was given one shopping task: to buy a gift that would delight a friend, colleague or boss. Once accomplished, they had to text "Task completed" to the Control Centre, which would then text back the next shopping clue.

They were also given two treasure hunts: one, to sample a must-eat Hong Kong snack; and two, explore one must-visit discovery under one of the assigned categories (family, culture and heritage, nature, and local lifestyle). They had to take photos of these treasures on their phones and present them to the judges the next day.

For their second treasure hunt Albie and Rica had to discover a "nature" attraction, so promptly at 11 a.m., off we all dashed into the Causeway Bay MTR station on what would turn out to be a seven-hour-long Amazing Race. Unlike that race, however, it wouldn’t matter which team came in first. What was important was to finish within the time frame, then do well in the presentations the next day before the panel, who would judge their finds based on diversity, value for money, thoughtfulness, and creativity. The grand prize was a diamond bracelet from Chow Sang Sang Jewellery Co. Ltd., a leather handbag with Swarovski crystals from Bean Pole, and a Sony Ericsson K510i mobile phone, which all the teams got to keep.

The Amazing Race Of Shopping

Albie and Rica consult a book no one else has, a Guide to Quality Shops that Albie found at the airport. From it they get the idea for a unique Chinese snack: the noodle dish ho to tai. Only thing is, the noodle shop they want is located all the way in the New Territories, so we end up taking three trains to Yuen Long, a town an hour away that looks as if it’s been frozen in time.

Savvy down to the last Hong Kong dollar, the two have brought discount coupons along so they get $5 off Autobus cards good for one day.

For the first shopping task they’re thinking of getting bird’s nest soup, but they say you can easily get it in Central so they’re going for the snack first. "Albie is a smart guy," says Michael Yeung, our HKTB tour guide. We have him and Fred Cheung, an HKTB freelancer guiding the Good Finds crew, along for the adventure, but they’re not allowed to coach or help our team, of course. Other HKTB staff documenting our every move make sure of that.

A nice lady in Yuen Long points us in the right direction, and we go into the Ho To Tai shop at 67 Fau Tsoi St. "According to this guy, this is a very remote area where Hong Kong people really go just for these noodles," says Albie. They order Shrimp Roe Loe Mi, a delicious and unusual dish that we taste for the first time. The restaurant is quaint, displaying jars of noodles in the window, and so tiny there’s not enough room for all of us to squeeze in. In addition to shrimp roe, noodles are topped with scallops, prawns and other kinds of seafood. "This restaurant is more traditional than those in the city," observes Michael. "It’s been open for more than 27 years," adds Fred.

Albie and Rica complete the first treasure hunt at 12:35 p.m., and despite the time, we all decide it’s best to stop for a quick lunch at nearby Tai Wing Wah restaurant, run by award-winning TV chef Leung Man To, affectionately known as Tow Tow. Though so remote not even the locals come here often, Tai Wing Wah is worth a trip for the house specialty alone – Pun Choi, or five-spice roast chicken served in a bowl of steamed rice.

For the second treasure hunt Albie and Rica discover the natural wonders of Yuen Long Park, a serene patch of green that boasts a pagoda on top of a hill. They go up to take pictures, then we rush back the way we came to Causeway Bay and the Times Square mall. After a mad dash underground, Albie and Rica enter the PST Bird’s Nest and Ginseng Shop Since 1920 to buy a bottle of bird’s nest. Costing $255 for a whole set and $36 for a small bottle, Albie chooses the smaller bottle. "We’re always cheap when it comes to giving gifts," he jokes.

They text for task no. 2, which is to buy something for the family. Albie and Rica decide to hunt for it as well in Times Square, which has nine floors above ground and God knows how many below. They go into Fortress , then Broadway – currently the two most reliable stores for buying electronics – trying to get a DVD movie or camera. After Albie has a brief dizzy spell that leaves him nauseous, we end up at Disc Plus, which has all the latest DVDs and box sets. They decide on the complete eighth season of The Simpsons for $368.

The third shopping task is to buy a souvenir that represents Hong Kong and, feeling better, Albie decides they’re going to buy gold jewelry. Weaving our way through tiny alleys and on to Hennessy Road, we enter jewelry store Chow Sang Sang, one of SOY’s sponsors. Albie is looking for a phoenix: "It represents Hong Kong," he says, "which is vibrant and always renewing itself." They look at gold bangles with phoenixes on them, but those break the bank at $4,000 so they look at cheaper rings and pendants instead. Albie knows his gold, which comes in different classes. "The highest should be 999.9, which you’ll see engraved in the gold." After debating between a dragon or a phoenix, a pendant or a ring, Albie settles on a gold phoenix ring, priced at $1,291. He haggles for a discount, fingers dancing on a calculator, asking for $1,000. The salesman can only go as low as $1,270. After some to and fro, Albie finally agrees, and asks for a nice silk box. He calculates how much they have left: $1,326. "They budgeted wisely," observes Angel Jacob. "They still have a lot of money."

Albie and Rica receive the final task: "Now reward yourself and return to the 7th floor of Langham Place Hotel by 6 p.m." Since they decided earlier that Rica would keep the cell phone, Albie can now splurge on something for himself that he normally wouldn’t buy: a belt buckle from Vivienne Westwood. "We need something at least $826 so we’ll reach the minimum of $2,500 spent," he says.

With mission almost accomplished, the Philippine delegation is jubilant. It’s 4 p.m. and we only need to find a Vivienne Westwood boutique. After debating on whether to go to the IFC mall (the International Finance Center), we enter Landmark in Central, and Harvey Nichols, with all its top designer names, including local-girl-gone-Vogue Bea Valdes. We finally spot a Westwood shop in Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui. The buckle is out of stock, so Albie opts for a short pendant necklace with Westwood’s ringed logo and angel wings. He calls in Sarah Poon from the HKTB to tot up the final purchase and make it official.

Back in Mongkok, it’s 5:35 p.m. and we’re still running, trying to get to our five-star spa hotel by 6 p.m. On the seventh floor of Langham Place Hotel, Albie and Rica get a heroes’ welcome before presenting their receipts and assortment of small shopping bags to the Receiving Centre. We get the scoop on how the other countries did. The Japanese team went all the way to HK Disneyland to buy a gift. The Mexican team got so excited about the last task they were already a block away from the hotel in Kowloon and wanted to go back to Times Square in Hong Kong. The German team went over budget and had to shop with their food allowance. The Italian team came in a few minutes later, carrying a huge box that said "foot massager." Must be their reward, I think.

Judgment Day

The next day, each team got eight minutes to present their finds. The judging panel included Clara Chong, executive director of the HKTB; fashion designer William Tang; Pamela Chan, chief executive of Consumer Council; Emily Li, brand general manager of Chow Sang Sang; Won Jong Woon, EVP of Bean Pole; and Dr. Allan Zeman, CEO of Lan Kwai Fong Holdings Ltd.

Knowing that an attention-getting presentation didn’t hurt, all the Asian countries had dramatic skits that entailed acting, singing or comedic performances, while the Western countries generally just explained their finds.

Playing on their back story of Albie trying to find Rica a husband, the Philippine team drew a lot of laughs when Rica greeted the male judges with a "Hi, boys" and started blowing kisses, while Albie presented the items and warned, "She’s very dangerous."

In the final reckoning, though, the four special awards were given to Thailand, Korea, Japan and Italy.

The "Most Diverse Shopping Discovery" Award went to the Bangkok team. For the friend, colleague or boss, they bought a Mobile Host Tips for Travel guide. For the family, they got a mooncake mold for their mom. For the souvenir that represented Hong Kong, they bought Chinese cakes. Their reward was a Handycam from Sim City in Mongkok, which they haggled down to $2,890 from $3,500. Their must-eat snack was egg tarts, while their must-see nature attraction was the Hong Kong Wetland Park, an hour away by train.

The "Most Value for Money Shopping Discovery" Award went to the Seoul team, also composed of two young men. It was their reward that impressed the judges most: for a mere $1,388 they were able to score two suits, two dress shirts and two silk ties from a department store.

The "Most Thoughtful Shopping Discovery" Award went to the young gal pals of the Tokyo team, mainly because they had trekked all the way to Disneyland to buy a gift for a friend – a crystal dragon for good luck.

The "Most Creative Hong Kong Discovery" Award went to the team from Turin, Italy. Composed of a couple who were both filmmakers, they said they’d fallen in love with Hong Kong after viewing Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. For their must-see treasure they happened upon a film crew who were shooting at the Avenue of Stars, which tickled the judges, who are justifiably proud of Hong Kong’s burgeoning film industry.

But the contest wasn’t over yet. To determine the grand-prize winner the four teams competed in a Price is Right-type quiz where they had to guess the total value of products shown, from a Sotheby’s antique replica to a Chinese tissue-box cover. Bangkok and Seoul tied with three points each, so they had a final face-off where they had to identify photos of five Hong Kong landmarks.

The winner? The two male friends from Bangkok, an entrepreneur and a hotelier, who were obviously experts in every aspect of the former Crown Colony.

While the winners point to the fact that Asians are still the best shoppers (with the advantage of living close to HK), and that Westerners (by virtue of looking like tourists) have a harder time bargaining, my world was turned upside down when the Shoppers of the Year turned out to be men, and non-Pinoy men, at that. Maybe next year will be the year my world will be turned right-side-up again.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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