Working through the Maze at
Mustafa Zaman and Kajalie Shehreen Islam
is finally here this year, and the temperature can be
felt at Bongo Bazar where sales have shot up considerably
over last week's cold spell. "Our sales have doubled,"
says a salesman at one of the "booths" at
Dhaka's most popular clothes outlet. Sweaters, jeans,
hats, scarves and even gloves are selling fast at the
current 10-14 degrees Celsius. This winter season, SWM
guides you through the maze at Bongo Bazar and shows
you what's in and at what prices at Dhaka's very own
first morning of the New Year is veiled in heavy fog.
The wind is chilly and wet. Bongo Bazar is late to see
its daily bustle. "The buyers are taking time,
after all, last night was a night of party and all…"
puts a shop owner sarcastically who at around 11 has
not yet made his first sale, the event that all shop
owners refer to as 'bauni'.
The market is a trove of clothing for those who have
their eyes set on regular or even trendy wear as well
as making a good buy. Although it is commonly known
as Bongo Bazar, there are four adjacent markets that
make up the whole. It is a conglomerate of rows of 2275
tin-shaded stalls in one big precinct. It is a four
in one. On its west façade, which mostly serves
as an entrance, is the first market -- Bongo Bazar.
Deep inside, the other three markets are found one after
another. Firstly, the Gulisthan Municipal Hawkers' Market,
secondly, the Mohanagar Hawkers' Market and lastly,
and at the farthest end of all is the Adarsha Hawkers'
the devastating fire on November 27, 1995, many thought
that the market would take time to rebuild. Yet with
a little help from the authority, it has reemerged from
its ashes like the ancient phoenix. Because it is a
market where the rich and poor intermingle to sift through
its immense sartorial treasures to find the desired
items, its staying power is something to be reckoned
with. Even for expatriate buyers, some on a short sojourn
in Dhaka, others for longer stays, Bongo spells magic.
It is from here that they as well as their Bangladeshi
counterparts, represented by a cross section of the
society, get the opportunity to lay their hands on clothes
that are both utilitarian and fashionable. Bongo, in
short, is a meeting place of low and high fashion.
popularity has many facets as it has the capacity to
cater to a range of people like no other market. It
was the first establishment of its kind. Before the
Hawkers' Market opposite Dhaka College, before the market
on the first floor of Dubai Market, there was Bongo
Bazar. It came into being in 1990, when the entire group
of makeshift Hawkers' Markets in Gulistan was demolished
to build the concrete structures presently occupying
the area. In an attempt to relocate the vendors and
shop owners, the then authority brought the Bangladesh
Railway's site in Fulbaria under the aegis of the Municipal
Corporation. After that, part of this site, which was
then the Fulbaria railway station later turned bus stand,
was allocated for a makeshift market that later become
popularly known as Bongo Bazar.
it houses the huge surplus supply from local garment
industries. It is these export-quality items that makes
the visit worth the effort for the middle and the upper
middle income groups of Dhaka. There are foreign items
too, brought in from Japan, China and Korea. Such apparel
arrives in Sadarghat, Dhaka via Chittagong. Another
huge input pours in from the local markets. There are
hundreds of sewing machines constantly churning out
different items in the second tier of the Bongo Bazar
itself. Kazi Enam, a wholesaler who has his showroom
on the first floor of the Bazar, is the proprietor of
Enam and Brothers; he testifies, "There are foreign
clothes available in Sadarghat. We buy them to make
our own jackets and shirts. Our own khalifas
(tailors) make export quality products." According
to him, "There are no local products from places
like Keraniganj or other places. Keraniganj is the place
that supplies to meet the local demand throughout the
country." Although a few shop owners claim that
Keraniganj too is producing goods for Bongo Bazar, most
deny that their clothes have anything to do with the
run of the mill items produced there.
debate surrounding the source of the clothes is futile.
It is evident in the items of all four markets that
are known as one and only Bongo, that this market sells
all -- from sweaters and tights brought in from foreign
lands to locally produced shirts, jackets and trousers
to the huge surplus products from the local garment
factories in the form of sweaters, T-shirts, shirts,
trousers, skirts, shorts and a whole range of underwear.
variety, and most importantly the price, attracts a
cross section of the society. There are things for everyone.
However claustrophobic the narrow passages may look
with shop owners' extreme on the face displays, a journey
through them holds promise for everyone. Kabul Miah
who came from the village to pick up a shalwar
for his daughter as well as the couple going abroad
on a visit, both return home satisfied. "This is
the place where winter clothes are not only available
but also cheap," exclaimed the London going couple,
Khodeja and Kabirul Islam.
Enam, the shop owner cum the whole seller, says, "To
meet the demand that sees a sharp hike during the winter
we resort to local manufacturing of items like jackets
made of parachute and 'micro' material." He also
insists that here in Bongo Bazar the quality is as good
as the export items collected from the garment sector.
If sales are any indicator of just how popular Bongo
Bazar is take into account the monthly sales revenue
which goes up to one lakh Taka according to Ruhul Amin,
Joint Secretary, Bongo Bazar Hawkers' Society.
a village simpleton to a trendy young man, everyone
seems to have no trouble in finding what they are looking
for. The grids of narrow passages, however maze-like
they seem, do not deter buyers from roaming and going
through the whole course. The area is about 60 katha.
twenty-plus fashion-conscious youth Selim Hossain Rhydoy,
who is himself a trader in garment items, proudly claims,
"I make the most important buys from here. What
I am wearing and what I would like to wear are here.
They are cheap and fashionable. For a skin-tight sweater
like the one I have just bought, I paid only Tk. 120,
but outside the same item would be Tk. 400."
man who sold the item to him, Mohammmad Kabir Hossain,
the owner of Lipi Fashion, is fairly new in Bongo. He
has moved his business from Purabi Super Market, Mirpur
to this place nine months ago. He usually sells shirts.
"In winter the business in shirts sees a slack,
hence I turn to selling ladies and gents sweaters,"
says Kabir who also claims that this year the sale is
slow compared to last year's. His neighbour, Anwar Hossain
pads up his claim. He says, "All these fancy cardigans
and sweaters are worth a lot, our price is reasonable,
yet there are women who would bargain as if these items
have no worth." Both these retailers get their
stuff from Sadarghat, where the bails arrive from the
port city. "All these items are foreign and unique,"
stresses Kabir. "We buy our garments in lots, so
we are not always sure what we are getting," adds
there are several middlemen who contribute to the price
increase, at Bongo most of the garments remain reasonably
within reach. Not only does it have items for classy
buyers and classless patrons, it remains, to this day,
a bazar that is light on the wallet. "The poor
are getting some clothes to wear because of Bongo,"
a middle class looking man called Shah Alam claims.
"The economy is bad, so if there was no Bongo Bazar
we would have gone without clothes by now," he
demand is so high that one big fire that brought it
down to ashes in 1995, and another smaller fire that
followed three months later, could not knock the retailers
and wholesalers out of business. Though there are retailers
who are leaving the market after incurring a loss, there
are new aspirants who are taking over. One such retailer
is Millat Hossain who is running a shop that sells children's
wear right next to the footpath of Bongo's west façade.
"There are three middlemen between the sellers
and the first buyer, it makes the price go up. It makes
the business more difficult for a man with petty cash,"
claims Millat who is finding it hard to keep the balance
sheet tilted towards profit.
"in" this season
As the mercury gradually dives downward the sale of
winter wear is going up. "The last three days have
seen a rise in sale," reveals Millat. There are
many others like him who have breathed a sigh of relief
as the cold started to sink its teeth. Bongo's winter
business is back in the rail. As it is during Eid and
Puja when the traders and sellers hope to see a sharp
rise in their income, Bongo once again this winter becomes
the busy hub of buying and selling.
definitely sells in Bangladesh and is currently in fashion
the world over. From "monkey wash" to floral-embroidered,
jeans for both men and women are piled up at the stores
at Bongo Bazar. Selling anywhere between Tk. 120 and
Tk. 700, jeans (trousers) are a good cover from the
cold and affordable too. Faded, loose-fitting ones are
the fad this season, agree the shopkeepers.
jeans are less expensive," says shopkeeper Amir.
"The material costs less as they have lower temper,
that is, they last less longer. We get them embroidered
and can sell them between Tk. 120 and Tk. 200."
Men's jeans, on the other hand, are made of better material
and thus sell for anywhere between Tk. 250 and Tk. 650,
says his partner at Rubel Store, Rintu.
gabardine trousers are of better quality and sell at
around Tk. 200. Corduroy is also popular during the
winter, says another shopkeeper, as it is warm, and
trousers sell between Tk. 150 and Tk. 400. A recent
fashion in women's wear is the rather hip half--corduroy,
half jeans pants, with cord
down the front half and jeans down the back, costing
about Tk. 200 -- whereas they are sold for $35 abroad,
adds one salesman. Denim jackets are also available,
priced between Tk. 120 and Tk. 350, with even small,
cute sets of jackets and trousers for children between
4 and 7 costing around Tk. 320.
Sweaters and jumpers
are available at Bongo Bazar within a price range of
Tk. 100 and Tk. 250. High neck, zipper fashions are
in this season, a recent trend being the double chain
sweater with zippers on both shoulders. More fashionable
items for women, shapely "tops" carrying up
prices to about Tk. 350. Fashionable turtleneck sweaters
can also be bought between Tk. 120 and Tk. 300, depending
on the quality.
Besides these, there
is a whole range of other winter wear and accessories,
from woollen hats selling between Tk. 10 and Tk. 100
to gloves priced between Tk. 30 to Tk. 250. There is
also a variety of other jackets available, from "velvet"
and rexin jackets for Tk. 250 to the odd second-hand
leather jacket here and there with a price tag of Tk.
1250. And of course there are the usual "brand
name" T-shirts and sweatshirts from Nike, Adidas
and the like, ranging between Tk. 70 and Tk. 120.
across from the main Bongo market are its offshoots
such as Bongo Islamia Market and others. The ground
floor stores carry more winter wear like funky, high
neck sweaters with small pockets on the sleeves priced
at Tk. 420 along with the regular sweaters costing between
Tk. 150 and Tk. 250. In a first floor showroom above
is "Bollywood Bazaar", decorated with posters
of Bollywood stars and selling not only Bangladeshi
goods but also some from India and Thailand. Prices
are a tiny bit steeper than those of their neighbours
across and the salesmen justify this with the cost of
their showroom, fresh, "defect-less" goods,
credit card facilities and the general behaviour of
their staff. Sweaters between Tk. 120 and Tk. 500 are
available here also, fashionable denim jackets with
furry collars priced between Tk. 200 and Tk. 400, and
short blazers costing around Tk. 500 can all be found
here under one roof.
prices. With some time
in hand and a bit of patience, winter is the best time
to frequent the stores there. Some, however, say that
the low prices of things are made up by the physical and
mental prices one has to pay when shopping there. So how
do buyers feel and deal with Bongo Bazar?
Bongo Bazar is the place to go if there's a lot of clothes
shopping to be done. Current fashions are available
went to Bongo Bazar a few days ago with a friend to
buy a jacket for him," says Apu, a teacher at a
private university. "The good thing about the place
is of course the prices," he says, "but I
find the quality to be good also." They are, after
all, rejected items from garments factories, which means
that they are made for export anyway so there is nothing
wrong with the quality, he says. "There are only
Though many stores now have little
"fixed price" labels taped onto their ware,
you can't make it in Bongo Bazar if you're not at least
a bit of a haggler. "Bongo Bazar is not a place
for novice shoppers," says Apu. He himself is just
a notch above being a novice, he adds.
Tanima Akram, however, obviously
a victim of Bongo Bazar, is not one to mince words.
"They rip you off and grab you," she says
Tasmia Sultana, a university
student, goes to Bongo Bazar every once in a while when
she needs "Western" wear at good prices. "It's
bad in the summer and when it's very crowded because
it's so hot," she says, "but I don't mind
the heat as much as the behaviour of some of the people
there. Space is limited, but you can try your best to
stay out of each other's way. Some men will practically
fall over a girl or woman, taking up any chance to feel
them up in some way. It's disgusting. Even the shopkeepers
can be a bit sleazy sometimes," she says. "But
you can get a good buy there, and it's better if you
can go in the morning at around 10 or 11 because it's
less crowded then."
narrow, very limited space between and around stores
is a problem," agrees Apu. There's hardly any room
to move, he says, especially during peak seasons such
as Eid and now winter. "And more often than not,"
he adds, "you'll get lost. You might like something
at one store and move around a bit to compare prices
elsewhere, but you move a little left and then a little
right and the first store, is nowhere to be found!"
The absence of trial rooms at
Bongo Bazar is another problem. Not only can you not
try on things to see if they fit, but some people actually
do! Shirts and sweaters are still somewhat acceptable,
says Apu, but people will even try on jeans, he says,
and the shopkeepers are ready with lungis for the male
customers to try on trousers under them, sometimes in
the "corridors" between stores, and sometimes
climbing right up in the booths. "It's not a pleasant
sight!" he says unhappily.
"The shopkeepers do promise
to exchange any items you don't like or that don't fit
you if you bring them back," says Apu. They won't
refund the money, but they will exchange. "I've
never tried this," he says, (and neither do most
people) "but if it's true, it's pretty good."
it seems like all the shopkeepers at Bongo Bazar have
to do is display their goods and make money. The rest
is up to the buyer. As with everything there, a thorough
check for any defects obvious to the human eye BEFORE
leaving the maze of stores proves useful. Small holes
in T-shirts and sweaters, stains on shirts, pants and
dresses can be found every once in a while -- more often
than the store you bought them from, if you want an
exchange. A good "sense of size" also comes
in handy, especially for those who would rather not
do their trials there, for labels and tags should not
be trusted, no matter what brand names they may boast,
whether Fila, Nike or Adidas. Alertness and the ability
to protect one's personal space, though not always possible,
will save much discomfort and embarrassment, especially
for women. Last but not least, all prices quoted in
this story are those of the shopkeepers interviewed.
Knowing Bongo Bazar, they are always subject to change,
depending on how well you bargain!
Keeping all this in mind, one
can definitely get a good buy at Bongo Bazar -- fashionable,
quality apparel, especially winter wear this cold season,
at reasonable prices. So meet the challenges head-on
and win -- well, as much as you can!