Finding a steal, or a loan, in Bangkok’s pawn shops
By Richard S. Ehrlich
The two doors of Bangkok’s pawn shops are almost symbolic of the business conducted inside. They are arranged as if the pawn shop is providing a separate entrance and exit – come in with your personal treasures, shuffle through this sombre chamber, then leave, minus those cherished possessions of course.
Metal security bars welcome customers, although hardy purchasers ignore the surrounds in search of unique items whose original owners ran out of luck. Anyone seeking to buy must compete with professional dealers and goldshop owners who try to snatch the best pieces first.
“For foreigners who like to buy second-hand goods, it is better to buy from pawn shops and not on the street, because here you will get a guarantee that you are buying a genuine item,” says Chatchai Treprasertlim, 53, the Thai-speaking manager of Sen Heng Pawn Shop in Chinatown.
“But we get only a few foreigners buying things here. During the past several months, maybe one or two foreigners came in to buy. They were Japanese and Malaysians. Maybe foreigners are afraid that the things on sale here are fake.”
Sen Heng Pawn Shop has a quaint, sepia look indicative of its 50-year-old roots, and usually sells wristwatches, rings and other jewellery, plus Buddhist and royal amulets.
An old, rectangular, brown Seiko watch, for example, sells for about 4,000 baht ($130). “I paid about 3,500 baht ($114) for this watch. Usually when I sell things, I add maybe 10% or so above what I paid to the person who pawned it,” Chatchai says.
The shop’s showcase selection is sparse because – like most pawn shops in Bangkok – professional buyers frequently swoop in, mostly to resell in other shops.
“Also, not that many people fail to make the interest payments. And sometimes when I get gold, I bring it to the gold shop to sell it there, instead of putting it in the window,” explains Chatchai.
Unlike pawn shops in America and some other foreign countries, the selection does not include weird memorabilia, huge objects, endless kitsch or a variety of believe-it-or-not items.
“No, we just have these normal things. If it is weird, we do not take it. But we do get earrings and bracelets, and sometimes cameras,” Chatchai says in a hopeful tone. “Actually, selling is not our main business. We mostly just loan money for pawned things. People tend to come to pawn shops [to buy] because the prices are lower than the prices in the market, maybe by 20% or 30%, or sometimes even half the price. “If the pawned item’s owner does not pay the interest for five months, then the item belongs to us and we can put it on sale.”
A sign on the window explains that the interest levied on the first 2,000 baht ($65) that the shop loans a client costs 2% per month. The interest decreases to 1.25% on any money above the first 2,000 baht.
Thailand offers private and government-run pawn shops, though Bangkok’s estimated 200 private ones form the majority.
“The government supports its pawn shops, so the interest payments are lower for customers. But people sometimes prefer to come to private pawn shops, like ours, because private shops may offer a higher price for their pawned item,” Chatchai says.
One of the larger selections of jewellery available is at Nguan Ha Cheang Pawn Shop on Silom Road.
“Usually a couple of [foreign] people every week come in here and take a look,” says 30-year-old Aee, who speaks English and is a relative of the brightly lit pawn shop’s owner. “They come here to buy silver pieces, gold rings, diamond rings, bracelets, necklaces, and sometimes we have loose diamonds for sale.
“About five years ago, when I first started working here, we had people who brought in a big refrigerator, and people who brought in air conditioners, that kind of stuff,” Aee says. “But usually we don’t take those kinds of things anymore because it is too big and is very hard to maintain.”