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Copycat stores common in China

Post Time:2011-08-15 Source:The Straits Times Singapore  Author:Ho Ai Li Views:
BEIJING: While global titans like Apple and Ikea are still reeling from the copycat stores recently uncovered in China, lesser-known brands have long had to live with such rampant piracy here.

From Crocodile menswear to karaoke chain Party World to ramen chain Ajisen, established brands have been cloned across a country where intellectual property is still largely an alien concept.

And they are so common and widespread that there appears little that the authorities or original brands can do.

'China has 160 cities with a population of at least a million,' said retail expert Paul French from the Shanghai-based Access Asia consultancy. 'Every one of them has a fake store.

' Imitation stores in China have become a talking point ever since recent reports highlighted fake Apple and Ikea stores in Kunming in south-western Yunnan province.

But the fakes go far beyond the top brands and consumer products. Famous restaurants are especially popular targets, with copycats lifting not only the design of the shops, but even the menus, presentation and waiters' uniforms.

Knock-offs of popular Chinese hotpot restaurant Dolar Shop and Japan's noodle chain Ajisen, for instance, are common.

The copying even goes online. Search engine Google may have exited China last year, but netizens can go to a carbon copy called Gujie. Even the name is a clever play on words: Google is known as Guge in China, and ge sounds like elder brother, while jie means elder sister.

Indeed, the art of copying has risen to new levels in China, with businesses replicating not just products, but design and service as well. The fake Apple store discovered actually sold real iPhones and iPads, noted observers.

And in the ultimate rip-off, entire cities modelled after the likes of London and Amsterdam can be seen in China.

Residents of Hallstatt in Austria, for instance, were incensed when they found out in June that a Chinese developer plans to replicate their town in southern Guangdong, down to every balcony and roof.

Analysts say that the widespread copying reflects a China moving very much in sync with worldwide trends and the latest gadgets.

They also believe that it is a result of unmet demand in China's smaller cities, where foreign brands are less likely to set up shop.

'They should open more stores and control their supply chain better,' said Mr French. Ironically, the Western knock-offs also reflect an increasing appreciation of the importance of design and innovation among Chinese, said design scholar Ying Fangtian of Zhejiang University.

Entrepreneurs have cottoned on to the pay-offs that design and innovation can bring, he said, but they lack the confidence to do it themselves.

'They don't think what they can come up with is good. They'd rather go for what is considered safe,' he explained.

Lawyer Xu Xinming, who specialises in intellectual property rights, believes that a 'get rich quick' mentality is also to blame.

'Shan zhai products show how businesses want a free ride and want to profit without effort,' he said. The word literally means 'bandits' fortress', and has since come to denote crudely fashioned clones.

Aware of the impact of rampant imitation on the country's reputation, Beijing has been trying to crack down on the problem. In April, it said that it was ramping up efforts to tackle the problem, and had prosecuted 40 per cent more intellectual property rights cases last year.

But the battle has a long way to go. Last year, some 85 per cent of confiscated fake goods found arriving in the European Union were from China, even more than the 64 per cent the previous year. But some Chinese observers believe that it will change when the country develops further and grows more confident in its own design and innovation. Copying, they say, is just a phase.

Noted Professor Ying: 'In the 1960s, Japan also went through this stage and was known as she ji xiao tou (design thief).'

Additional reporting by Lina Miao
A Chinese copycat store of the Crocodile apparel brand in Jinan, Shandong province. Imitation versions of established brands are so widespread across China that there appears little the authorities or original brands can do. -- ST PHOTO: PEH SHING HUEI
August 5, 2011