From Rolex watches to Mickey Mouse, Southeast Asia is cracking down on counterfeiters and, for the first time, the tourists who keep them in business.
The counterfeit clampdown is a determined bid to boost Asia's image in the eyes of Western trading partners, who say the thriving fakes business is cutting into both the reputation and export figures of the real thing.Seoul, Bangkok, Singapore, Taipei and Hong Kong vie as the fake capitals of the world. In any of these cities, business at hawkers' stalls on sidewalks is far brisker than in the plush boutiques like Chanel and Christian Dior.
A careful Hong Kong shopper may pay HK$350 ($45) for one variety of fake Rolex watch, compared with HK$15,000 ($1,900) for the real thing. A fake Louis Vuitton handbag goes for HK$400 ($51) on the street, one-tenth of the cost of the genuine article in a central Hong Kong shop.
Fake Rolex watches, Gucci wallets and Louis Vuitton bags are among the most sought-after items, but the list goes on to include Reebok sneakers, Lacoste polo shirts, Cabbage Patch dolls - and anything with Mickey Mouse on it.
The fakes may be to amuse - or perhaps even deceive - friends back at home, but tourists are having to look harder to find them. At least one airport has full-time customs officials looking for caches considered large enough to cross the line from personal use to commercial gain.
H.Y. Tong, director of Hong Kong's Customs Investigation Bureau, said customs checks for counterfeit goods were tightened six months ago.
"Hong Kong has an international image to protect," he said. "If we get branded as a major counterfeit center, our trading partners will impose sanctions on us."
Most fakes found by customs officials are clothing or watches, but counterfeiters also produce medicine and spare parts for well-known makes of cars, Tong said.
He said tourists coming to Hong Kong from other counterfeit capitals, such as Bangkok, Taipei and Seoul, should think twice before loading themselves with fakes.
"If someone brings one, two or three counterfeit pieces through customs, we want to be reasonable. But people touring Asia sometimes come to Hong Kong with 10 to 20 pieces. Then we have to take action. Even if we know their reason is genuine - Christmas gifts or what have you - we have to detain those tourists, question them and cause them unnecessary trouble."
Some prestigious manufacturers take their own precautions. Paris-based Hermes makes, among other things, sought after and widely copied silk ties.
"Hermes is very strict," said a Frenchman in Hong Kong whose company produces ties for the French fashion house. "They insist on very precise counts. If they order 100 pieces, you don't give them 95 and say that five ties didn't work out. They want 100 pieces no matter what."
Eleanor Lee, the general manager of Chanel's boutique division in Hong Kong, said: "Whenever we find fake Chanel, we just have to buy one piece and get the receipt as evidence. Our attorney does the rest. The shop has to let us know how many pieces they bought and who they bought them from. "Usually they cooperate, because we prosecute if they don't."
In Seoul, the Union Des Fabricants of France has a branch with the specific task of protecting popular European trademarks.
Walt Disney Inc., keeper of the lucrative Mickey Mouse logo, issued a strict warning to counterfeiters in the region, as well as China, to stop using the cartoon character without going through proper legal channels.
France zealously guards its reputation as one of the world's premier producers of classy fashion by confiscating fakes at its end. "If someone comes through customs carrying a fake Vuitton bag, we let them go through," a French customs official said. "If they have 10, we take them."
Taiwan, reputedly home to the best fake Rolexes, has cracked down hard over the past four years, organizing regular police sweeps and completely overhauling its copyright laws.
But some say pure economic factors, such as the rising value of the Taiwan dollar and spiralling labor costs - and not the tougher laws - have strangled Taiwan's fakes industry.
"Taiwan manufacturers are slowly being driven out of the counterfeit market," said Geoffrey Harris, a Taipei-based private investigator who specializes in copyright cases.
He said counterfeit watchmakers have been shifting entire factories to Thailand, where the currency is stable, labor is among the cheapest in Asia, and laws are relatively lax.
Indonesia and the Philippines have also picked up Taiwan's fakes business in everything from shoes to spare car parts.
Harris said it was unlikely that Taiwan would follow Hong Kong's lead and confiscate fakes at customs posts. "Authorities here don't see anything wrong with bringing in fakes for personal use," he said.
Customs officials in Singapore normally only check passenger baggage for drugs, but strict copyright laws and constant vigilance by authorities have ended the once thriving market in fake goods.