Currency Exchange Challenge in Wan Chai

Go and find a money changer“, he said. “We only need to change a bit and the money changers will give a better rate than the bank“.

I’ve seen them all over Wan Chai, these narrow money changer shops. It’s often women sitting behind steel grill locked doors with the standard deep inset glass window with a slot for the transaction. 

The receptionist at my previous building looked horrified when I asked her which money changer she would recommend. “I don’t trust any of them” she said, then after a brief pause “I would recommend a bank”. Hmm.

The currency board displays are sometimes printed, sometimes electronic and occasionally hand written. I find it way too complex to stand there for five minutes trying to figure out how much I’ll get, so I’m very grateful for my iPhone currency exchange app that preps me in advance.

My online search for a reliable money changer in Wan Chai produced dodgy results at best. Google answered my question with old forum posts and many remittance managers and banks advertising their services. No tangible information there. There was one forum reply that said he used the money changer by the Wan Chai MTR but that’s not much to go on.

I needed to change 2000 HKD to Taiwan dollars. According to my app, I was looking to get anything between 8000 to 8400 Taiwan dollars. So off I went to see who would offer me the best rate. Small person was asleep in the pram, so I could only visit the pram accessible street side locations. 

The first one I visited was a small shop on Queens Road East, more or less opposite Hopewell Center between Amoy and Swatow Street. The lady listened to my request, rapped out a number on her calculator and turned it so I could see it through the glass. 7,840. Hmmph what a rate… Not even my lowest. I shook my head and told her it was too low and pushed off down to the Avenue where I cut across Johnston Road to the MTR side.  

The second one I visited was one that I’d walked past many times, in the Southorn stadium building. It’s next to a property agent and along the same row as a shop that sells fabulous sugar cane juice and the herbal tea. There was a lady there changing money and her son was playing by the entrance. She asked him what time they closed for the day. 

“Three o’clock” he said.  

I made my usual inquiry.

8064” was the verbal answer. I repeated the figure to confirm it. Yes, he nodded. Ok at least that met the minimum figure. 

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The third one was the money changer by the Wan Chai MTR station between the stalls selling lok lok, those sinful egg waffles and the discreet methadone dispensary. This lady behind the counter was chatting animatedly on her mobile phone, not even bothering to look at me or pause to ask what I wanted. I stood there somewhat patiently waiting for her conversation to end. It never did. 

About two minutes later, a local man who was hovering around outside the booth looking at the various signs on the money changer stepped in to the small space beside me. He spoke loudly and asked how much renminbi he could get for three thousand Hong Kong dollars. She didn’t stop talking on the phone. Without missing a haha or heehee to her friend on the phone, her fingers punched the calculator. She didn’t even look at him when she turned it towards the glass. 

Satisfied with the number he produced the money and pushed it through the slot and she had the corresponding currency stack which she placed in the note counting machine. How silly of me. Of course this is Hong Kong and it’s never rude to interrupt when it’s business and everyone is expected to multi-task. When he collected his money and left, a tall black man in a suit stood by the entrance and a well dressed lady behind him squinted to see the rates over my shoulder, I quickly made my inquiry. 7846. Nope. Outta there.

The fourth one was a shop I saw when I was crossing the road to head to the fifth one. This one was on the main thoroughfare of Fleming road near Hennessey. It had big bright signs and looked bigger than the last three so I thought I’d try my luck. 

7460. What?!! The rate was just getting worse this side of Wan Chai

Onwards to the fifth, a larger money changer with a premium position on the triangular pedestrian area between Johnston and Wan Chai road. The lady turned the calculator. 7485. Yikes.

So best of five. 8064 was the best I would get. I headed back to Southorn and without saying anything presented my 2000 HKD. The bespectacled man nodded and then told me he didn’t have small notes, so he’d give me 8000 Taiwan dollars and 16 HKD change. 

The rate I got was around 4% above the interbank rate. Not as good as the 3% credit card rate but better than the 5% standard kiosk rate. image

It’s a difference of 600 HKD between the lowest and highest quote. Worth a 45 minute investigation to know which money changer I would revisit…both in terms of the exchange rate and customer service. 

King Chi money exchange, Southorn stadium building facing Johnston Road. Just off the tram stop for Wan Chai MTR.

Ps. Just for the record I went to the bank the next day and for the same 2000 HKD I would’ve got 8070 TWD at the money changer. At Standard Chartered, if you’re an existing client with an account, they offered 7914 TWD. 

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