Hoping to Rid Chinatown of Counterfeit Goods, Council Member Faces an Uphill Climb

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Counterfeit bags in Chinatown Counterfeit bags in Chinatown (Sam Lewis/WNYC)

Trisha Desmarais and Kelly Chamberlain, friends on a visit from Calgary, Canada, got lost while shopping in Downtown Manhattan and ended up on Canal Street.

"Kelly's like, 'Oh, Canal Street, that’s where my mom said you can get purses,'" said Desmarais. "So we just started walking and literally people all over the street were like 'Coach!' 'Gucci!' 'Prada!' and so were like, 'Okay!'"
Chamberlain added: "One girl looked at us and said, 'Purses,' and winked."
They each ended up buying a knockoff designer handbag from vendors. Desmarais got a Chanel for $50, and Chamberlain picked up a Prada for $55. And the two came back for more the next day.

"To be honest, it's more about the experience, because we don't get that in Canada," Desmarais said.

"The characters and the personalities that approach you on the streets, it's kind of a fun buying experience, and you get a cheap bag out of it," said Chamberlain with a laugh.

But for Council member Margaret Chin, this illegal trade is no laughing matter. She has introduced a bill to make the buying of a counterfeit trademark product a Class A misdemeanor, punishable with fines of up to $1,000 dollars plus up to one year in jail.

Chin is the first Asian-American to represent Manhattan’s Chinatown, and said she's speaking up for her constituents fed up by the unsavory activities brought by the trade.

"You have these people who sell these illegal trademarked counterfeit goods blocking [residents and merchants’] doorways, going into their buildings, playing cat and mouse with the police, using their hallways as public toilets. I mean, this goes on constantly everyday," said Chin before the City Council meeting where she formally introduced the bill last week.

A longtime advocate for the city’s immigrant community, Chin said repeated crackdowns on vendors have not worked because the appetite for cheap designer bags is so strong. That's why she wants to send a message to shoppers looking for knockoffs to cut it out.

"The profit from this illegal counterfeit trade is linked to all this negative stuff, like organized crime, terrorism and child labor. And people need to know that there are consequences when they buy these things," Chin said.

David Louie, a lifelong New Yorker who heads the city's Chinese Chamber of Commerce, understands what Chin is trying to do. He said he's in favor of cleaning up Chinatown’s image, and promoting its strengths.

Although similar laws targeting buyers exist in France and Italy, Louie said the rule would be unenforceable and counterproductive here.

"Is it going to help any to lock up a tourist and try to set an example? I mean, that's even more bad publicity. Lock up the person selling the illegal stuff, and that's the end of it!" Louie said.

Back on Canal Street, Calvin Zubby said he's been selling knockoffs for about a year because he's had a rough time finding a real job. He works more than 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and on a good day he can make $250. Zubby said counterfeiting won't go away because bargains are what people want, and that with Chin's bill, Chinatown has more to lose than just bags and watches.

"Ask them what would happen if this place gets shut down? They wouldn't come no more," said Zubby, pointing at Damairais and Chamberlain, who are back on Canal Street looking for more handbags.  

"We wouldn't come to Canal Street," said Chamberlain.

Zubby quipped: "You should tell Mayor Bloomberg and City Council that."

Chin knows she’s picked an uphill battle; her bill has five cosponsors, but at her announcement last week in front of City Hall, the type of occasion when council members are usually flanked by as many colleagues and supporters as possible, Chin stood alone.

More in:

Comments [4]

J.Wills from Singapore

Maybe it's true that the top designers don't lose money from those consumers who are buying fakes but the fakes industry does debase their brand. I for one would never buy a genuine LVH handbag now, even if I could afford one, because you they are everywhere and I'd be spending a ridiculous amount of money on something that most people would assume was a fake anyway!
The best way to deal with discouraging counterfeiting is to inform consumers on the ethical and humanitarian issues involved in the making of those cheapy handbags they delight in buying, i.e child labour, and where the money is going, i.e. funding terrorist activities and lining the pockets of gangsters.

May. 02 2011 11:21 PM

No one in their right mind would shop or even just walk down Canal Street from East side to West side, if they truly knew the things that go on down there. These thugs, riff raff, and terrorists and well organized underground "communities" have had years and years to refine their craft. No tourist in their right mind would go there, if they realized how extremely dangerous it is. In fact, the more any works to "improve" the outward attractiveness of this area, can be say to be promoting the corruption. Officers are routinely paid off to look the other way. Others, know THEY will be targeted, if they even try to effectively intervene, using the law. It is really a shame, and one of the last bastions of a third world cesspool of true crime. Families and citizens who have children will NEVER leave a child alone, to walk through the area, ever. Culturally, the Chinese Community understands the problem only too well, and people and families work carefully to avoid the worse nightmare for their children. However, visitors, and 'tourists', are not so experienced. And children, teens, and the innocent will continue to suffer, until something truly serious is done to stop this menace. It is worse than TIMES SQUARE ever was, because it is carefully and skillfully crafted. I am shocked by Mr. David Louie's response, and I would look carefully at his motivation to snuff out any attention to this extraordinary disgusting criminalized area of Manhattan. Doing nothing, will only solidify the our nations belief that New York City is a dangerous city that will take you, and your money and everything else from you. It is never worth it to go there and it is a very sad situation for New Yorkers that have to battle through the area to go to the Post Office, one of the largest Postal Offices in the City.

May. 01 2011 11:11 AM
Bowerygals from Lower East Side, NYC

Where were Chin’s colleagues in the City Council? In whose interests is this allowed to continue?

Our neighborhood foot police have told us that they are continually pulled off their Lower East Side beat (protecting our neighborhood) to "sweep" these sellers. Residents in Chinatown and Soho have been beaten, harassed, and threatened. Their homes made unsafe to live in.

- The city loses 1 billion in (estimated) tax revenue.
- Our limited local resources are drained.
- The street level sellers are exploited.
- Crime is allowed in the open (sends quite a message).
- Our police are constantly sidetracked to make utterly ineffective, though showy, efforts to end the trade.
- Residents are attacked and threatened.
- The profits have been linked to child trafficking and terrorist groups. (re: the NYTimes)

The plus side?
- Some tourists get a thrill. Oh, and a cheap knock-off.

The sweeps can’t and don’t work. As the article made clear – no one does this work on the street level because it’s their dream job. They are desperate. You can’t get the supply side to stop when it means the end to their livelihood. (Use the money we spend on police enforcement that goes nowhere to fund job creation?)

And, if there is even a shred of doubt that this money goes to fund terrorism, child trafficking or any other human rights violations, why WOULDN'T we take any measures that might work?

As we arrive at the anniversary of 9/11, I suggest that those opposed to Chin's bill either prove the "terrorist funding" charges wrong and propose a realistic alternative.

And please not one word about “grief” over 9/11 until that happens.

More of the same is sheer pretense and opportunism.

May. 01 2011 10:18 AM
Jeff Pappas from Ct.

Oh come on now, most people understand these are fakes, or perhaps an unauthorized "Print" of the real thing.
Top designers are'nt losing any $ because folks buying the fakes could never afford to pay for the real thing.
Kinda like the lose of the middle class, where there are only wealthy buyers of top expensive handbags etc and the poor wannabees.
To arrest the consumer is wrong, if you want to go after the producers.

May. 01 2011 09:35 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


Latest Newscast




WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public


Supported by