Vanity number plates take a hit

You know that the global financial crisis has hit this once-booming city hard when Hong Kong's wealthy skimp on their cars.

The clearest sign yet was Saturday, when a monthly auction of personalised number plates raised a mere 8.7 million Hong Kong dollars, or $1.1 million, for a government charity fund. That may sound like a lot of money, but remember, Hong Kong is a city so obsessed with cars that many owners have domestic helpers who wash them every day. During the same month last year, when times were better, the number plates auction fetched 33.7 million dollars.

At Saturday's auction, amid the somber, cavernous gloom of Room 601 in Hong Kong's convention center, the highest price paid for a single number plate was 1.7 million dollars for the lucky number "2318." Just a year ago, an electronics entrepreneur paid a record, 16.5 million dollars for "18," a distant memory of the boom days before the recession.

As job losses rise in the financial industry, as industrialists close their factories across the border on the mainland and the global downturn drags on, even shopping-mad Hong Kongers are reining in their spending.

At an auction in January, number plates like BACK OFF and THANK YOU went for less than 20,000 dollars each. MY CAR, which had been expected to be the star of that show, went under the hammer for a bargain-basement 40,000.

"I'm surprised how little some of these number plates are fetching," said Man Hon Ngan, director of Lucky Number, a dealer specializing in number plates. Last month, he snapped up a number plate reading simply MF, which went under the hammer for 130,000.

He also walked away with the number plate HL for 80,000 - and had been prepared to pay as much as 380,000. "Before, two-letter plates like this would have cost a minimum of 300,000," he said.

The popularity of what is the ultimate not-must-have car accessory is typical of the type of playful wealth display that Hong Kongers love: Those who can afford an expensive car love to individualize it, to set themselves apart from the seven million-strong Hong Kong crowd. And if the number plate can somehow bring in numbers considered lucky in China - 8 is best of all - so much the better.

And so these auctions speak volumes about Hong Kong's - and China's - unique and complex spending environment.

Five of the world's 10 most expensive number plates ever were bought in Hong Kong, according to Regtransfers.co.uk, the largest independent dealer in Britain of personalized number plates, which also monitors the global market. The others were sold in Abu Dhabi and Britain.

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