The lights seem dimmer along Petaling Street

With shopping malls and e-commerce platforms, businesses at Chinatown seem to have suffered a major setback

By KEVIN WONG

ONCE upon a time, it was the place for wannabes and posers (and tourists) to find their knock-off designer goods.

Petaling Street, or known to many as Chinatown, was the spot for cheapskates hunting for good bargains.

Take a walk along the street and you’d be greeted by aggressive individuals who were peddling bags, jeans, dresses, watches and electronic items, as well as your other needs.

Way before the place was known as a bargain hunter paradise, it was known among the locals as “Chee Chong Gai”, which means “Starch Factory Street” in Cantonese, a name that was a reference to a tapioca mill which was built by Yap Ah Loy, the third Kapitan China, on Jalan Petaling.

The mill was part of an initiative to promote trade and agriculture, following a setback of the mining industry after the Selangor Civil War in 1873.

For some reasons, years after it was established, the street became a shopping haven for many who would flock the place day and night for their fix of counterfeit products (and sometimes, food).

During its heydays, it was also part of the must-go list for foreigners. Even Harry Connick Jr was spotted there once during his last visit to the country.

With recent economic uncertainties, the emergence of more shopping malls and the shift in retail into the e-commerce platforms over the last few years, businesses at Petaling Street seem to have suffered a major setback.

“We used to be able to hit an average target of RM400 — one bag would cost an average RM80 — but looking at the state of our economy, people are not spending.

“Many of them, both locals and foreigners, would just walk pass our shops without batting an eye,” 35-year-old Hussein Md Yusri, an employee of a bag shop, told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).

He said sales have dwindled tremendously over the last five years to a point that it has become almost impossible to hit any sales target.

Hussein said there were difficult days when no sale was recorded.

“It has gotten so difficult to make a sale even after agreeing to meet the lower prices as haggled by the customers.

“It is really frustrating as there are many ‘customers’ who’d just enquire for the best price, but only to walk away without buying anything.

“If this continues, I could soon be out of job as my employer has been making losses,” he said.

A watch peddler, Jimmy, who is from Myanmar, said sales had continued to drop, despite the huge number of people still thronging Petaling Street.

“My employer has been pushing me to be aggressive to get sales, but it has been difficult. Visitors, usually foreigners, would just take a look and walk away. The environment is no longer the same as it used to be five years ago,” he said.

Jimmy believes that both locals and foreigners are not as keen on buying goods that are deemed fake.

“This is not true as we do get our products from a licensed supplier,” he claimed.

Jimmy, however, acknowledged that there are vendors who are selling fake goods and they have tarnished Petaling Street’s reputation.

“It is unfair to assume all of us are selling fake goods as most of us are not. Rather than pointing fingers at us, the authorities should take the initiatives to seek out these vendors as it will help improve our reputation, so that we could sustain our livelihood,” he said.

Jimmy said if the authorities do not take action to nab the unscrupulous vendors, Petaling Street might just go out of business. A florist, who only wanted to be known as Shandini, has been operating for the last 50 years in the area.

She claimed that Petaling Street has experienced quite a change, especially over the last decade.

“Chinatown used to be the place where people brought their friends and families to enjoy shopping and taste the local street food.

“However, today, it can get pretty quiet here. Personally, my business has taken quite a hit where most of my customers are locals, as tourists are not drawn to buy the flowers that I sell,” she said.

She added that she had to increase the prices of her flowers in order to make ends meet.

Kuala Lumpur (KL) Hawkers and Petty Traders Association chairman Datuk Ang Say Tee told TMR that retail sales in Chinatown had dwindled over the years due to several reasons.

“The implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) has been one of the major factors affecting sales in Petaling Street.

“On top of that, the emergence of more and more shopping malls in the city centre is another factor. It is more convenient to shop in the malls that are air-conditioned,” he said. Ang said 20% of the vendors in Petaling Street went bust after the GST was introduced.

“Just a few years ago, Petaling Street was crowded with people. You could hardly walk in there. There wasn’t enough space for you to fall! Look at it today…there is hardly any crowd.

“Tourists, particularly from China, would rather shop in malls, such as Pavilion KL, as they have bigger spending power for the high-end brands,” he said.

Ang said the overall business in Chinatown had dropped between 30% and 40%. While retail is suffering, Ang said food business in Petaling Street is still doing well.

“Both locals and tourists are still drawn to Petaling Street as it is known for its variety of street food like roasted duck, claypot chicken rice, chee cheong fun, Hokkien fried noodles, wan tan mee and porridge,” he said.

A noodle hawker, who wanted to remain anonymous, said her business has continued to flourish despite the area being not as “attractive” as it used to be.

“Most of my customers are locals who are working at nearby offices. We do get tourists every now and then. Yes, times are hard, but people still need to eat. My business is rather safe,” she said.

A rice hawker, who only wanted to be named as Lee, said his business has not slowed down. Moreover, he increased the price during the Chinese New Year (CNY) period.

“I expected to see a drop in my customers as I had to increase the price during the CNY period. However, it is business as usual, which is quite a nice surprise,” he said.

Meanwhile, first-time tourist to Malaysia, 36-year-old Adolfo Steinenhomer from Argentina, said he was advised not to purchase any goods in Chinatown as the products might be fake.

“I am here to just enjoy the local street food and experience Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown.

The traders’ aggressive attitude in pushing their products also put me off.

“And despite the watches and bags being cheap, I’d rather spend more on the originals than ending up with a fake,” he said.

Carolina Coldhomer, 29, a tourist from Germany, said she was initially surprised to see branded bags and watches sold at lower price tags.

“I was dumbfounded by the prices, so I decided to check online and I discovered that items sold here could be counterfeits. Luckily, I checked before jumping the gun to buy them. I would have been swindled and ended up purchasing a fake,” she said.

As a substitute for her retail therapy, Cold homer settled for the soybean milk jelly pudding from Kim Soya Bean and air mata kucing herbal drink, which she said was scrumptious.