At 9:15 a.m., Canal Street only begins to wake. The main artery of New York's Chinatown looks no different than it does at dawn. Except for the locals who disappear into convenience stores or banks to run errands, the street of one of New York's main tourist attractions is strangely quiet for a mid-summer's Friday.
The street vendors who hawk vegetables, fruit, fresh coconut, fish still flapping their gills, and Chinese kitsch such as silk dresses and fake jade, see few if any customers. At 10:45 a.m. Mr. Ma, a street artist who paints names for a living, sets up his pastels and brushes on an ironing board on the corner of Mott Street, and waits for business. Since Sept. 11 and SARS, Chinatown's businesses and street vendors have seen business drop and tourists disappear; businesses have recovered only 60 percent of what they were before Sept. 11, according to the non-profit Chinatown Manpower Project.
Mr. Ma, a matchstick-thin, middle-aged man, said that he didn't see it getting any better; like most of the businesspeople in this closed community he did not speak English, and would not disclose his full name. "I don't even know why the tourists come here, what is there to see? I mean there's nothing here, no attractions, the food isn't even that good," Mr. Ma complained in Mandarin, as he fiddled with his pastels. "This place is filthy not like the other neighborhoods where with foreigners who keep it clean, that's the problem with the Chinese."
If Mr. Ma wanted the answer to his question, he only needed to turn a corner and peer down Canal Street, which was quickly filling up with tourists toting digital cameras and video cams. Just five blocks south of Mr. Ma's easels a huge crowd was forming on the corner of Canal and Broadway. They weren't coming for Mr. Ma's art, they weren't coming to buy bamboos or "I Love NY" T-shirts, and they weren't coming for the roasted duck and egg foo young; they were coming for the Louis Vuittons.
"What's going on over there?" a woman asked, as she pointed at the growing crowd. Nearby a double-decked New York Sightseeing bus screeched to a stop, and more tourists disembarked to join the throng. Through the spaces between arms and knees, one could see what all the commotion was about. A dozen or so Chinese were peddling fake Louis Vuittons handbags, Coach bags, Burberry wallets and Gucci purses, from black garbage bags. They congregated around the mouth of the subway stop leaving non-shopaholic pedestrians angry at the traffic jam, and forced to walk in the streets.
"Louvey, louvey, buy cheap, buy cheap!" the peddlers screamed, a disorganized chorus with knock-offs dangling from their arms. The sounds of bargaining filled the air.
"Fifty dolla!" a woman with a buzz cut screamed.
"Twenty-five," the savvy tourist said.
"Forty dollar, that's it," the buzz cut woman said. The tourist turned a shoulder and began to walk away.
"Okay, come back come back, $35 cheapest," the buzz cut woman said. The bag, in Louis Vuitton's latest pattern, was sold for less than 91 percent than its price of $378 for a real Louis Vuitton.
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