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Hong Kong's Shopping Spree Surges On, and on

Just west of Hong Kong's bustling Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district, bamboo scaffolding stretches like a web over a swathe of reclaimed land surrounded by tower blocks.

It's a seemingly unpromising piece of real estate, but by the end of this year should be home to a massive new complex devoted to Hong Kong's favourite obsession -- shopping.

A decade ago when Britain was handing the territory back to China, sceptics predicted an end to its decades-long shopping spree with a wealth exodus from communist Chinese rule.

It didn't happen. In fact, although its international reputation is often centred on global finance, Hong Kong's economy is actually driven by consumer spending. Lots of it.

Last year, residents and tourists spent 219 billion Hong Kong dollars (28 billion US dollars) in the city's shops, principally on retail goods.

Consumer power pulled Hong Kong from a seven-year recession sparked by the Asian financial crisis, and the subsequent economic boom has combined with an influx of bargain-hunting tourists from the Chinese mainland to keep the tills ringing.

In an indication of the city's cachet, Louis Vuitton has opened six stores here since the handover, more than it has in Paris or New York.

MTR Corporation, the company running Hong Kong's underground rail network, is hoping to cash in on the boom with a giant shopping centre beside Tsim Sha Tsui, to be called Elements.

It will provide the retail portion of a sprawling new development that will also include the city's tallest building, the International Commerce Centre.

Elements was designed by the architects behind Britain's Bluewater shopping centre. All but two of the spaces have been let, principally to international retailers including high-end British brands Mulberry and Pringle.

It will also house a 12-screen cinema with VIP suites and a martini bar, a 700,000-squa re-foot (16-acre) roof-top garden and a branch of trendy New York restaurant Megu.

"Shopping is almost Hong Kong's national pastime," said Betty Leong, MTR's chief retail development manager, who is confident there is room for another mall despite concern that traditional market stalls are being squeezed out in the rush for bigger, better and glitzier outlets.

"Hong Kong people are very stressed out, they are time-poor but cash-rich," she told AFP.

"Hong Kong is so condensed, people live in very small spaces and there are not a lot of places to go. This is the third place, somewhere away from office and home where they can go to relax."

The centre is on a direct rail link to Hong Kong's busy airport, making it easily accessible to the hordes of tourists -- 28 million last year -- lured here every year by tax-free shopping.

"The main purpose of most visits is to shop and eat," said Paul Husband, a Hong Kong-based consultant who advises on retail opportunities.

Far from sceptics' forecasts of an end to the consumer high-life, Husband said its continued allure could be attributed partly to Beijing.

"China has made huge efforts to ensure Hong Kong remains successful, for example by ensuring Chinese can have individual visas to visit the city, and allowing Hong Kong companies access to the mainland, rather than trying to clamp down on the city's success," he said.

Around 13.5 million Chinese tourists visited last year spending 27 billion dollars -- more than the rest of the world combined.

The bulk went on clothes, jewellery, watches and cosmetics, and despite a scandal earlier this year over the sale of fake jewellery to mainland buyers, their enthusiasm appears undimmed.

During China's early May holiday week, railings had to be erected outside a Louis Vuitton store to control the queues.

According to Chanel, far from losing significance, Hong Kong is seen more and more by international luxury names as "the trend-setting city for the rest of China."

"The luxury market in Hong Kong is large and it is a window to the region, particularly China," said Boris de Vroomen, managing director of Moet Hennessy Diageo Hong Kong, whose brands include Moet et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.

Proof of the central role of shopping in Hong Kong came when the visiting French president Jacques Chirac lent the city a huge Picasso, the first time the work had been shown in Asia.

Instead of being displayed in a gallery, the work was given pride of place in a downtown shopping mall.


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