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January 9 , 2004

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Working through the Maze at

Mustafa Zaman and Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Winter 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 Bongo.

The 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'.

Bongo Uncovered
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' Market.

After 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.

Its 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.

Today 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Kazi 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.

From 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.

A 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."

The 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 Anwar.

Although 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 quickly adds.

The 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.

What's "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.

Denim 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.

"Women's 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.

Women's 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.

Right 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.

Buyers' binge?
Bongo Bazar is the place to go if there's a lot of clothes shopping to be done. Current fashions are available at reasonable

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?

"I 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 small defects."

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 straightforwardly.

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."

"The 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."

Sometimes, 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!


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