Parmod Giri, HT, 13 Jun 2016, Kolkata, The market that sold all things ‘foreign’ to the entire Northeast and tourists is today a shadow of its past, struggling to retain its niche against the relentless onslaught of the mushrooming city malls in Siliguri.

Hong Kong Market, as the name suggests, had an unmatched charm as the only market for contraband goods in entire West Bengal, during the days of closed economy.
From cut-piece cloths to foreign wine, anyone was looking for anything ‘foreign’ could not do without stepping inside this market. The charisma of 50,000 square feet market even attracted tourists in a town bereft of tourist points.
The market started during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. With young and homeless people trooping into the border town the struggle for existence pushed the young Bengali immigrants to sell contrabands along the roadsides in Bidhan Market.
The risk was large so were the profits but the struggle was immense. Touched by the desperate situation the then chairman of Siliguri Municipality Aloknath Chowdhury allocated a large plot of land in 1974 so that these young immigrants and few locals could set up structures to secure their future in a new world.
The beginning was humble. Only 16 shopkeepers could afford to set up permanent structures in the market. Their source lied across the border of Nepal. Smuggled goods from the nearest Nepalese towns of Kakarvita, Dhulabari and Pasupathinagar found their way to the market. With India’s market closed to the outside world the foreign items found in Hong Kong market made this place a household name across Darjeeling, Sikkim and the rest of the Northeast.
Business flourished so did the market. By the early 1980s, over 450 structures had come up at Hong Kong Market.
The market a must- visit place for many tourists initially thrived on army men who trooped down in large numbers to buy foreign umbrellas, cut-piece clothes of polyester and gabadin. Soon the market turned into a heaven of contrabands. Reports poured in that customers were often cheated and harassed while police regularly raided the market.
Gone are the days of insecurity. Bidhan Market Cut-Piece Bebasaye Samiti the committee that runs the market has strict orders not to harass the customers. “The Samiti takes stern action against the shopkeepers and the staff found misbehaving with the customers,” said Paritosh Saha, the secretary of Samiti.
Saha the first among the 16 to set up their shops said, “The golden days are over”. The onslaught of big businessmen, big shopping malls and open economy has hit the market hard. The market now is largely banking on the tourists and customers from Darjeeling Hills and Sikkim. But a large chunk of high-end customers and army personnel have vanished. “The market would hardly survive if the Centre further eases imports,” said Saha.
The market initially drew large number of buyers from all across the country and tourists looking for nylon, polyester and gabadin clothes. Most of the items used to reach the market from Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Italy through different smuggling routes via Nepal. The carriers used to collect the contrabands in different markets of Nepal and carry them to Siliguri by crossing Mechi River at Galgalia in Bihar and Panitanki in West Bengal.

The items had huge demand as nowhere in the country they were available so cheap and easily. The market though had no official name as such, for tourists and military persons it was Hong Kong Market. The name became so popular that it became one of the most sought after tourist destinations.

Forty years later, the market still draws huge crowd. Unlike other establishments and shopping malls, people here get foreign goods under one roof. The best thing both the sellers and customers enjoy here is bargaining over the price of almost all commodities.
But old-timers of Siliguri feel the market does not have a bright future. The Centre’s decision to liberalize import policy in early 2000 came crashing on the shopkeepers in the market.
The Centre’s policy resulted in big investors and businessmen in Siliguri directly importing Chinese goods through Kolkata Port. Taking advantage of Siliguri’s strategic location, these importers are catering the foreign goods market to entire Northeast states. Dhulabari the erstwhile foreign goods hub in eastern Nepal has virtually dried up and the businessmen have relocated themselves in Siliguri. Many said the Maoists movement in Nepal also forced many Nepalese importers at Dhulabri to set up their business establishments in Siliguri.
Sanjiv Saha, a shopkeeper at Hong Kong Market selling readymade garments, rued: “The onslaught of importers is such that a large number of regular customers have found parallel markets of foreign goods at every nook and corner of Siliguri.” The importers are not only selling goods on wholesale, they are even retailing.
The shopkeepers who used to procure foreign goods from Dhulabari are now forced to buy from Siliguri-based importers. Alok Saha another shopkeeper said as the importers are also retailing, the customers invariably would go to them as they are cheap. “We need to keep profit margin after we procure goods from Siliguri-based importers, while the customers get the same goods in the same price at which we procure from importers,” said Alok.
There are about 500 importers in Siliguri who directly bring the goods from China and send them to different markets, including the Hong Kong Market and those in the Northeast.
The availability of almost all foreign goods in shopping malls and other retail foreign goods markets in Siliguri has made the future of small Bengali businessmen at Hong Kong Market insecure.
One such foreign market is Golden Plaza housing more than 100 shops. Prem Agarwal the for mer president of Siliguri Golden Plaza Cultural Association said “The Plaza has more than 100 importers and nowhere in the country has so many importers in a single building.”
Agarwal who relocated himself from Pashupatinagar in Nepal to Siliguri pointed out: “Siliguri importers procure the largest number of commodities from Thailand and China and metros like Delhi and Mumbai are nowhere near Siliguri.” He said shopkeepers from Hong Kong Market buy almost everything from Golden Plaza, Golden Plaza Annex and International Market. “What they do not buy from us are readymade garments and sports shoes.”
The Chinese goods reach Siliguri from Guangzhou in Guangdong province and Yiwu in Zhejiang province. The goods containers come via Hong Kong, Singapore, Kolkata to finally Siliguri in 20 to 25 days. It’s much easier to import goods from China, Agarwal said the Siliguri importers go to China every three months. On an average 3,000 containers come from China every year and every month Chinese goods worth Rs 25 crore come to Siliguri from where they are also sent to different markets in the Northeast.
The only forte the shopkeepers in Hong Kong Market now have is non-import of readymade garments and sports shoes which fall under antidumping law that invites huge import duty. These contrabands are only available in Hong Kong Market.
Vivekananda Das, the president of Bidhan Market Cut Piece Bebasaye Samiti, summed up the plight of shopkeepers of Hong Kong Market when he said that some of them even fail to pay Rs 150 per month that the Samiti collects to maintain the market.
Secretary Paritosh Saha who started selling foreign made banyans and umbrellas in 1974 said, “I do not remember selling items worth Rs 10,000 to a single customer in last three years.” He said there were days when he sold goods worth Rs 1 lakh to a single customer in a day.
Now they feel the market which once helped Bengali shopkeepers to maintain their livelihood is in a serious crisis. And the situation will only worsen unless there is a miracle.