If you were born to shop, chances are that if you die and go to heaven, the place will resemble Stanley Market on Hong Kong Island.
Which means there will be great bargains in heaven.
You'll find all major credit cards are honored.
Piles of clothes bearing designer labels will be stacked high and almost out-of-sight in corners of mom-and-pop stores.
And even though you'll be shopping for eternity, you won't notice the time.
Right up front, you should know that I'm not a professional shopper. In Washington, my home town, I don't browse through stores; I go in for a specific item and get out. Elsewhere, curiosity has led me through the markets of Jerusalem, the ancient souk in Cairo, the dusty side streets of Port Said, the underground shopping neighborhoods of Montreal and the obligatory chic streets of London and Paris.
But I go to those places more to watch the people and to take a measure of a city's standard of living than to actually shop.
That changed on my first visit to Hong Kong several years ago. For the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to be addicted to shopping. And like a true addict, each time I've had to buy more than the previous visit to satisfy my habit.
There are Western residents in Hong Kong who argue endlessly about the best place to shop. Go to the manufacturers' outlet stores at the Kaiser Estates in the Hung Hom area for designer labels at bargain prices. Visit Nathan Road on Kowloon -- a neighborhood lit as brightly as downtown Las Vegas at night -- for electronic items, cameras, jewelry and jade.
But for the best deals on clothes, don't miss the quiet, picturesque village of Stanley on the southernmost tip of Hong Kong Island, about seven hilly miles away from the hectic central business district downtown. If you're disappointed, I'll refund your bus fare.
There is a misconception held by some Americans who haven't visited Asia that its large cities teem with people, all jousting for a bit of sunlight as rickshaw drivers slog through narrow streets. It is an unfortunate, and inaccurate, stereotype that keeps some travelers from venturing farther west than Hawaii. (News features about those subway packers in Tokyo, who push passengers into cars during rush hour, don't help.)
Yes, there are still a few rickshaws in Hong Kong. Attended by their ancient owners, they park near the Hong Kong side of the Star Ferry, and their clients are usually tourists with a souvenir photograph in mind. There surely are narrow streets in Hong Kong; meander through the older part of the city and wonder at the herb stores and snake shops patronized by the Chinese community. And the sidewalks are well-peopled, but not much more than New York's on a spring day.
But take a double-decker bus (remember the British still run the place) or a taxi over the peaks (or under a tunnel through the mountains) that tower over the business section of Hong Kong and you might think you've passed through the earth's core and wound up in the south of France.
Tucked among the lush greenery that marks the southern side of Hong Kong Island are mansions and charming villages. Some have perfect beaches lapped by azure water. While the classic travel agency posters of Hong Kong emphasize the city's dramatic bay and urban skyline etched against Victoria Peak, few picture the tropical look of the other side of the island only minutes away from downtown Hong Kong.
It is on this side in which the tiny village (population about 6,000) of Stanley is nestled. Once one of the main fishing villages of Hong Kong Island when the place was ceded to Great Britain in 1841, Stanley eventually served as a garrison for British troops.
Today, the only troops there are shoppers ready to do battle with each other in the stalls of Stanley.
Shopping in Stanley is essentially conducted on a single street, Main Street, which is really an alley -- no vehicular traffic is permitted, and the alley is so narrow that when the store awnings are up, you can barely see the sky.
Crammed side-by-side are small, open-front stores selling all manner of clothes, many of them up-to-the-minute fashions. The storekeepers of Stanley are closemouthed about where they get their goods, but the consensus of government officials and residents with whom I spoke is that the goods are not counterfeit, unlike the phony Lacoste shirts ($1 each) you encounter on the streets of, say, Bangkok.
What the storekeepers of Stanley offer for sale are discontinued lines, manufacturers' overstocked items and slightly damaged goods. The flaws in that last category are usually cheerfully pointed out to buyers, but it's worth examining articles closely before closing a deal.
Browse through the racks at Stanley and you are liable to see sewn inside some garments the names of Philadelphia department stores and Washington or New York boutiques. Hong Kong, of course, is well-known for manufacturing designer-label clothes. It is almost meaningless to list brand names and prices because the goods on the shelves often change overnight. I've returned to Stanley after a first day's shopping, only to find the sweater I almost bought the day before long gone.
But here's a random sampling of items selling in Stanley earlier this year, with all prices expressed in U.S. dollars:
Valentino jogging suit: $7.
Bill Blass corduroy slacks: $7.
Pure linen pleated skirt: $26.
Silk blouses: $23.
Gloria Vanderbilt T-shirts: $5.
Harve' Benard women's wool suits: $45.
There were bins filled with quality men's shirts (some Gants sold at the rate of three for $10), as well as designer jeans at a third of what they sell for in the United States. Men's silk ties sold for $2 each. Silk robes (great gifts) cost $10. Children's clothing was equally inexpensive, and sweaters -- except for Missoni or other big names -- rarely topped $10.
Prices at the Stanley Market are so low that one's standard of comparison gets skewed. While I'd walk a mile in Washington to save $10 on a pair of Reeboks, a similar price break on a pair of tennis shoes in Stanley isn't all that impressive when compared with other goods that sell for 10 or 20 percent of their American prices.
And the prices are so attractive that it is difficult to stop buying. I have spent 30 minutes pawing through merchandise in a store half the size of your average 7-Eleven. I have arrived at the market intending to leave after two hours; I had to be ushered out five hours later as the shops closed.
There is little fancy merchandising here. I can't tell you the name of a single shop. There are no posters, no glitzy displays. Goods are simply stacked in bins. They hang from the walls and ceiling. They are piled up on the floor. Part of the fun is rummaging through heaps of designer sweaters and shirts looking for something that fits.
Need a pair of pants cuffed? No problem. Your sales clerk will disappear and return five minutes later with the task performed. None of this "Come back in two weeks" stuff.
Stanley Market, however, is not a place to find the legendary tailors of Hong Kong. This is not where men should shop for sport coats or suits. Stanley sells strictly off-the-rack wearables, though minor tailoring can be handled at the point of purchase.
Invariably, you will find yourself struggling with too many small plastic bags stuffed with purchases -- there's no gift wrapping or boxes in Stanley Market. Don't worry. Almost everybody winds up buying a new suitcase at the market to haul purchases back home. Shops sell great, large bags for as little as $15. I bought two bags there, the better to stash my loot.
If you tire of shopping, there are two beaches safe for swimming at Stanley, both with lifeguards, refreshment stands and toilet facilities. There are also two temples in Stanley, one dedicated to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea and protector of fishermen, and another that features a 20-foot statue in honor of Kwun Yum. She is the goddess -- and anyone who has put in a long day shopping in Stanley Market can appreciate the secular symbolism -- of mercy. Rudy Maxa is a senior writer at The Washingtonian magazine.