For diecast collectors around the world southeast Asia, namely the city-state of Hong Kong, has always been that mythical mecca of miniature cars. It is the place where they are made, and it was always said to be best place in the world to find scale models. Or so they said. Stories abounded about shops filled to the ceiling with thousands upon thousands of cars, enough to make otherwise rational men sell their camera gear with the film still inside and get on the horn to their friends back home to ask for loans, making up stories about being in the hospital and needing money for surgery after food poisoning. Or having been robbed. Or being held for ransom by vicious Hong Kong salarymen and their administrative assistants turned kidnappers. Because of, umm, the turmoil in the city’s financial district and everything.
Living in Hong Kong for a summer, I decided on a whim to visit every diecast store in the city and neighboring areas. Since they were all listed in the phonebook as well as lists compiled by diecast aficionados, finding them was easy enough (except for the ones that moved years ago and now hosted stores selling insects the size of guinea pigs). But just how well would the diecast meccas they square up to their legends, and what treasures might lurk there?
My goal was to find 1:43 cars from the late 80s and early 90s, by makers such as Minichamps, Schabak, Herpa and others, ones that are now almost impossible to find without trawling the world’s eBays for months on end, and spending upwards of a hundred dollars on a poorly photographed car that will take a month to reach you from some island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. In a box that someone had clearly been using as a cricket ball on the deck of a postal cargo ship during its month-long voyage to North America.
To accomplish this I had to get past the 100 degree heat, the 200% humidity, as well as the reality that I could instead be wolfing down some of the world’s best and most affordable sushi, Caligula style, from the airconditioned comfort of my apartment while watching Conan at 3:00pm in the afternoon. I also had to contend with the fact that my Cantonese reading skills were limited only to numbers. But navigating Hong Kong was never a problem thanks to the fact that a lot of the signs are in English, and because of the availability of Google maps on my phone. And no, Google did not pay me to say this (what’s wrong with you, Google?)
Let’s get one thing straight though: the market for scale models in the US is almost non-existent. Most people who buy 1:43 scale models in the US are buying them only for scenery for their O Gauge train layout, which is 1:48 by the way. So what they spend on model cars tends to reflect their commitment to any one particular scale model, and often this means just a random domestic car from the 1950s for five to seven bucks. Anything beyond generally will not make sense for this type of purchaser, so that rules out the availability of anything but the cheapest 1:43 cars from Minichamps.
The same goes for 1:18, the next “popular” scale. Very few collectors on the US actually stockpile cars in this scale, because very few manufacturers make models that would actually interest American collectors. So there’s not a whole lot of that either, unless we’re talking yawn-inducing 80s Ferraris by Maisto which have been trading pretty freely for around 20 years now. Actual car dealerships are about the only places one can find a limited selection of 1:18 scale models for sale, and needless to say they tend to be from a single marque. And horribly overpriced.
So I set off on my quest, armed with a very slow 2007 vintage Blackberry for navigation and a partially outdated list of stores. Most of the shops seemed to be located in Kowloon, a district just across the bay from the Wan Chai area of Hong Kong where I was living at the time. While Wan Chai is a sleepy apartment and hotel district bordering the financial center, littered with expat bars and pricey real estate, Kowloon was without a doubt the inspiration for the city depicted in Blade Runner, and essentially exists as such in real life. Over the decades Hong Kong’s construction companies have perfected the art of building 40 story apartment buildings that occupy the same footprint as a 2-bedroom suburban home in Minneapolis. If you have seen The Fifth Element then you have essentially seen modern Kowloon or Hong Kong. Even though Kowloon has become somewhat gentrified since the bad old days of Borg Cube-like structures like the Kowloon Walled City, it still retained a distinctly Blade Runner aesthetic that only exists in Japan’s electronics districts.
Finding the shops themselves took very little effort, or at least finding the buildings they were housed in was easy. But locating the right floor and area of a building occassionally required some trial and error, as I had to navigate through mazes hosting dozens of other shops and smells you don’t want to experience. Most of the diecast stores I found lived in grimy Japanese-style arcade malls, right next to other Nerdistan haunts like video game shops, action figure shops, and pet shops featuring beetles the size of rats straight out of The Wrath of Khan or Dune. Other shops set themselves up in slightly more swank locales, down the street from high end clothing boutiques and department stores. The locations of the diecast shops varied, but they inevitably neighbored stores filled with giant anime robots and action figures.
I thought about learning a special phrase in Cantonese, one that would let me get access to whatever secret stashes of diecast cars the shop owners kept for their close circle of customers, a situation that I envisioned unfolding in about the same manner as Uma Thurman’s “I need Japanese steel” request to Hattori Hanzo. “I need Japanese cars” I would say to the shop owner in mangled Cantonese. The shop owner would size me up, slowly extinguish his cigarette, and then gently nod and wink at me, motioning me to follow him the back of the shop. We would then walk through a dark hallway, past a room filled entirely with cigarette smoke where old men would be playing Chinese checkers or placing bets on giant insect fights, past a dead-looking protocol droid from Jabba’s palace, and then the shop owner would a flick a light switch on the wall and a bookcase would slide open. As the room would come into view, with thousands of cars stacked from floor to ceiling, he would say to me, with a heavy Middle-Eastern accent for some reason “Just for you, my friend, I have been saving this for you!”
But then I remembered that since all the shop owners were fluent in English, I could just ask them to show me their best model cars. So that’s what I did. The shop owner would size me up, slowly extinguish his cigarette, and then gently nod and wink at me, motioning me to follow him the back of the shop. “All I have is on the shelves. That’s it!” he’d then say and excuse himself to go use the restroom. And that is actually how it turned out every time I asked them if they had any old diecast from the 80s and 90s.
“You don’t have anything in the back?” I’d ask.
“Everything’s here” the shop owner would say wearily, without looking up from the game he was playing on his mobile phone.
And that was it, though I still allow for the possibility that a lot of stores stashed the good stuff to be hawked online, once the appearance of a shortage for any one item would arise. Perhaps they had even risen to the art of creating artificial shortages by buying up upwards of 50% of production of a limited edition model and then withholding it from sale for months at a time, creating a deficit. That’s something that’s been perfected by Eastern European diecast dealers.
The myth of finding model cars in Hong Kong from decades back turned out to be just that, a myth. Most shops were filled with models made merely in the last three years. And that makes sense in retrospect, as there is always the pressure to keep the newest things in stock and always keep up with trends. So finding models of Audis made by Schabak or Solido in the late 80s simply wasn’t going to happen. But the stores were overflowing with hundreds upon hundreds of new releases by Minichamps, and for the past few years this meant yet another Porsche 911 racer in some new racing livery. And that simple fact right there defeated the myth of ready availability of rarities from years ago.
The local collectors were also seemingly unimpressed with all the racing models by Minichamps, and instead focused on buying things like large 1:18 scale models of everyday cars fom the 90s, like the Mercedes-Benz W124 sedan, or the Volvo 850R. And that raises the question of just whom Minichamps is stamping out all these racing cars for, year after year. The European collecting community, perhaps? But those liveried Porsches certainly weren’t the cars that the local collectors were buying.
Another major myth turned out to be that the model cars would be laughably cheap, to the point where you could sweep dozens of cars into a suitcase. They weren’t. In fact, both for selection and price, they were about par with the internet, ignoring for a moment the reality that many of the stores on eBay are actually operated out in these very shops in Kowloon. A couple times I stumbled on the very cars that I had seen on eBay months or even years ago, like a green BMW E38 L7 ministretch in 1:43. Months prior I had glimpsed it a few times on eBay, squinting at the screen to see if all the details were glued properly, but I’d never thought I’d be holding that very BMW in my hands in a shop neighboring a giant beetle emporium in the center of Kowloon. About the only thing one would save in buying model cars in person would be shipping costs, which are surprisingly modest out of Hong Kong, unlike some closer locales (I am looking at you, UK).
Has eBay killed the diecast hobby shop? Since hobby shops that carry diecast cars don’t really exist in our part of the world, I would surmise that eBay has really only raised the interest in the hobby. If there was a huge decline in the number of physical stores in Hong Kong, it certainly didn’t appear that way. eBay only strengthened the retail business, as a sizeable fraction of their sales are now over the interwebs, a worldwide audience these shops didn’t have a mere fifteen years ago.
What did I end up buying? Certainly not what I came looking for, as packing 1:18 and 1:43 scale models into a suitcase would have meant leaving other things behind. So I loaded up on models of cars that I had never seen in real life in a scale that was travel friendly – the Tomica Limited Vintage line of classic Japanese sedans in 1:64. The details on these cars put many 1:43 cars to shame, and among other elements they feature photoetched trunklid badges that can barely be read with the naked eye. This disturbingly futuristic level of detailing was achieved in larger scales like 1:43 only fifteen years ago. The Tomica 1:64 cars were a bit pricey for their scale, about 9.00 USD each, but the attention to detail like on the Corolla above was amazing. These turned out to be infectious to the point that two cars weren’t enough, and I ended up coming back for more of them every few days. (That’s how they get you).
If you’re ever dealt a 3-day layover in Hong Kong during what was supposed to be a short hop from Cleveland to Kansas City in your Kennedy-era MD-80 which still reeks of stale Winstons, and you want to scope out some model cars or giant insects (or both), might I suggest simply visiting one location in Kowloon, the area of Dundas and Nathan Road in Mong Kok. There are at least half a dozen shops there, selling everything from RC cars to model airplanes to street cars in any scale. They’re great for impulse buys or loading up on gifts, and the mere sight of a thousand model cars lined up in a window is amazing.
But better yet, don’t buy anything there and just take in the sights and sounds of the city. Not the touristy sights that people flock to, but walk the streets and parks of the city without any goal aside from passing the time. I guarantee it will be more memorable than spending your time rushing from one tourist trap to another, and a much more real way to experience the city.
As I wandered through the neon-lit streets of Kowloon at night, I half expected to find Bill Murray just standing and staring passively into some storefront window with a sour expression on his face, as if he’d seen all this before. I’d slowly walk up alongside, and we would stare into the same storefront for a minute or two.
“So, what are you doing here in Hong Kong?” I’d ask in a disinterested tone without diverting my gaze from the storefront.
“Just doing a whiskey commercial” Bill would say.
“Wanna go see some model cars I found?”
[Images: Copyright 2013 Hooniverse/Jay Ramey]