“You no buy here today!”
The accompanying dismissive hand wave left no room for argument. Or misunderstanding. Not your typical greeting from a merchant in Bangkok. It was rude, abrupt, and certainly no way to make a sale. Coming from anyone else, I would have waved back. With a single digit. But the Dragon Lady of Khaosan Road and I have a relationship. A business one. It’s not what you’d call a friendly relationship, more of a dysfunctional one. But it works. We understand each other, and surprisingly, have respect for each other too. What is hard to believe, even to me, is that I’m actually fond of the old bat.
Dragon Lady owns and operates a silver shop on Khaosan Road. Smack in the middle of Bangkok’s backpacker ghetto. I’ve never been able to figure out why such a large number of silver wholesalers have decided to call this street home. It’s not a hang out for business people; it’s home to those travelling on the cheap. Or at least trying to.
Most of the silver shops on the soi display sternly worded signs announcing they only sell to wholesale clients. Many keep their door locked and only allow entrance to those they deem acceptable. Almost all greet you with a reminder, as stern as their signage, that they don’t sell retail. Sawadee ka is not something you hear often at the silver shops on Khaosan Road. But thanks to the large number of stores, the selection is good. And the prices are cheaper than anywhere else in town.
Still, there are other areas in Bangkok to buy silver at wholesale prices. And there are plenty of shops on Khaosan, where once they know who you are, are quite friendly. Over the years I’ve come to know several shop owners well. I’m greeted warmly when I stop by and have even gone out to dinner with a few. As a customer, I don’t stand for ill-treatment. No one’s stock is so unique that I am forced to spend my money at their establishment. And if it is something truly unique, I can always have it custom made. Knocking off merchandise is, after all, a Thai national sport. Give me attitude, and I’ll go make your competitor rich. Except for Dragon Lady. She’s got me hooked. The old bitch has cast a spell on me.
Dragon Lady oversees her operation from a small antiquated desk tucked into the back corner of her narrow, cramped store. Of Chinese/Thai decent with her Chinese blood obviously taking precedence, she regally perches behind her desk overflowing with paperwork that never seems to change, ignoring everyone until one of her minions approaches, customer in tow, invoice completed and ready for cash to be handed over. Even with baht in hand, Dragon Lady does not acknowledge customers until she is satisfied with the paperwork her employee passes over with a bow. A silent prayer is said by staff and customer alike, a plea to the gods that the invoice meets with her approval. If not you are both summarily dismissed until you can get it right. Her’s is a unique take on customer service. How she decided snooty equates to sales I haven’t a clue. It has to be a characteristic deeply ingrained within her. And it’s such a natural extension of her soul that, for her, it works.
The first time I shopped her store I was a bit put off by the attitude of her staff. Even when you are allowed inside a silver shop on Khaosan, employees keep a careful eye on you, and follow closely up and down the aisles with no regard for personal space. But I get that. The area is a magnet for lowlife touri and employee attitude is just the local version of a CCTV security system.
But at Dragon Lady’s shop they take it to an extreme, undoubtedly schooled, trained, and disciplined by her royal, fire-breathing highness. It always amazes me how they are able to stand so close that you can not move without bumping into them, yet if you ask a question they act like they had no idea you were even there. That must take years of practice. I’m fairly certain that if you were not a good person in a previous life, your next is spent in Dragon Lady’s employ.
I wasn’t too impressed with the store’s stock on my first visit. A lot of the merchandise was duplicated elsewhere on the soi. Much of what was offered were thin, lightweight pieces of a design that made me wonder who in the hell would ever buy that crap. But earlier in the trip I bought a finished piece from a local artist, a necklace, with a unique closure that I planned on ripping off and using for a new line of silver and stone amulets; visit the Kingdom often enough and some of the Thai-ness rubs off. I’d been able to duplicate most of the closure system already but had no luck with one piece, a small sterling silver slider bead. I’d showed it at every shop visited, trying to find a source, but had no luck. So before dismissing Dragon Lady’s store I whipped out my sample and asked my minder if they carried something similar. Unfortunately they did. And so began my history of contributing to Dragon Lady’s wealth.
I bought enough to almost put a smile on the old broad’s face. Money will do that to even the most dour of countenance. Even if hers was more of a grimace. And she didn’t bat an eye when I pulled out my scale to weigh the bead; she quoted a per piece price whereas everyone else in town charges by the gram. It was in line with what the other silver merchants on Khaosan charge for silver, so I handed over my baht, got a surprisingly genuine smile in return – albeit a small one – and even a sawadee ka as thanks. Attitude was forgiven, or at least ignored; I was a happy camper, my search for the final component for my new line completed.
Back home, both retail and wholesale customers were thrilled with the new line, sales were brisk, and the closure system so popular that I started doing an unexpected amount of business selling to other jewelry designers. I quickly ran out of stock and fortunately had but a short time before my next trip to Bangkok. Three months later when I hit The Big Mango again I made a beeline for Dragon Lady’s shop. She, and her well-trained devil spawn remembered me, knew exactly what I was there for, and pulled out a bulging bin full of the bead I needed, the only question being how many I wanted. It wasn’t the warm greeting you’d expect to be shown to a returning customer, but I’ll accept efficiency over friendliness. Especially when time is tight and I have a backlog of orders to fill.
Our business flowed smoothly until Dragon Lady tallied the invoice. The bead I’d paid 23 baht for three months earlier was now a 48 baht item. Not big bucks, even when purchasing a few thousand, but more than double? The price of silver was, and still is, fluctuating daily at that time and only seemed to fluctuate in an upward direction. I’d expected a slight increase. I hadn’t expected to be asked to bend over.
“No, last time I pay twenty-three baht,” I protested.
No argument from Dragon Lady. “Yes,” she agreed. And not willing to accept argument from me in return concluded, “Now forty-eight baht.”
Huh. I’d run up against one of the major differences between Thai and American business practices. Overall, the silver business was down because prices were up. In the U.S. you normally drop your price when business is slow in an attempt to increase sales. You’ll accept a smaller profit margin and hope to make up the loss through volume. In Thailand when business is down, the belief is that you need to make up for your loss off the next customer who walks through your door. I understand that. But that doesn’t mean I have to play that game.
“Sorry, I can not pay forty-eight baht,” I told her, beginning what I assumed would be a negotiation. Her counter offer was to sweep the lot off her desk and shove it at an employee to be replaced on the shelf. Sorta the reverse of the ‘walk away’ bartering technique that works so well at street markets in Thailand. I briefly considered the inflated price, quickly realized I’d never get away with doubling my price back home, smiled, thanked the old battle-axe, and left.
It wasn’t win-win. It was lose-lose. And I had to find a different source for the bead. I did, among the silver dealers in Pratunam Center, and only paid two baht more for a similar though not exact replica of what the Dragon Lady wanted to rape me for.
But that is fairly typical of what you can expect when doing business in Thailand, and I didn’t hold a grudge. If anything, I had to respect her stance; I had to give Dragon Lady credit for not caving and holding true to her business model. I’m sure she was no happier with the result than I, but would like to think, to some degree, I’d earned her respect for refusing to overpay. And on my next trip I gave her another chance.
Same lukewarm greeting upon entering Dragon Lady’s lair. Same cold but efficient production of the stock I needed. But before answering the question of how many, I asked the more important question of how much.
With a slight smile, our previous unfulfilled deal remembered – and possibly over the enjoyment of screwing with a farang in mind – Dragon Lady answered with a succinct, “Twenty-three baht.”
I gave her a smile of equally dubious friendliness back, “Ah, business must be good!” And got a laugh from the old witch, that came out more as a grunt, a satisfied belch of smoke from a large, scaled serpent who’d obviously already devoured an unsuspecting fool that day.
We’ve see-sawed back and forth over the years; on most visits Dragon Lady quotes an acceptable price, occasionally for old-times sake she tries to make her next million off me and has no more success than her first stab at that dream. We’ve never become friendly, never have even so much as talked about the weather, but have come to know each other only as adversaries can. Still, I was a bit surprised at the greeting on my last visit to Dragon Lady’s shop.
“You no buy here today!”
Huh. “You no have stock?” I asked, ignoring the dismissive hand gesture and trying to determine why I was being sent away after barely making it through the door.
“Have,” she replied adding nothing for clarity.
I replied with a raised eyebrow, a gesture that transcends language barriers the world over.
“You come back Wednesday,” she told me. “Today, you no pay. Wednesday you like price.”
I had no idea Dragon Lady had a crystal ball that predicted silver futures. Though come to think of it, inflation has got to be the work of the devil so she certainly has an in there. I could not begin to explain the reasoning that allowed for an unacceptable price today becoming an acceptable price three days later. But, that’s Dragon Lady. And that’s me, probably affectionately known as Cheap Farang Bastard in her mind.
Our relationship hit a new high: a three minute conversation. And she was right. On Wednesday I picked up 5,000 beads at a reasonable price, Dragon Lady made enough profit to make an acceptable offering to Satan. And all is good with the world. At least until my next trip to Bangkok and my next time dealing with the Dragon Lady of Khaosan Road.