Purpose one: writing a travelogue to describe my various trips.

Purpose two: muse.

Monday, May 25, 2009

King of Consumerism

Famous Binh Trang market in Saigon

I don't want to hear another word about American Consumerism. When it comes to retail, Asia has America whipped twice over.

Everywhere you go, there are shops, markets, stores, malls, merchants, joints, marts, street-vendors, cafes, restaurants, businesses, pitchers and peddlers. If I hiked for three days into the desert, a hawker would show up offering a marked-up drink. It would probably be cold, too. They are nothing if not crafty.

Ads are ubiquitous. I have never seen a higher density of advertisements as on the Japanese metro cars. China doesn't seem to have any codes or norms about sound pollution, so speakers and multimedia ads blare at full volume wherever there is a concentration of people. I saw lots of clever marketing gimmicks. In Beijing, there was a long LCD display in a train tunnel, where an ad would animate and then follow the train for a minute, perfectly aligned so that it would display right outside the window.

China and Vietnam do not seem to have any zoning or licensing restrictions. Any joker can sell junk straight from the sidewalk, and any wheezer can run a laundry out of the back door. Thus you get the traditional hutong, where businesses of all kinds are crammed together. Hutongs have charm, but they are essentially strip-malls with history.

The retail market was not introduced by the West, or by tourism. Some of the local markets are older than Jamestown. I can be driving in the country, out where they almost never see a foreigner, and suddenly traffic comes to a stop because a market is in progress.

In Kyoto's history museum, they had created a model of how a market street in 17th century Japan might have looked.

The oldest tradition is perhaps around the temples, where peddlers sell incense, oil and other offerings and gimmicks to the worshippers. When you mix retail with religion, I don't think you can get more consumer oriented.

It shouldn't surprise us that people want to spend their money, but the point is that it is not a western thing. Hard as it is to believe, compared to Asia, America's consumerism seems a bit muted.

Osaka must have the largest retail area in the world. The shops and malls continue for miles in all directions. There are underground, maze-like tunnels with even more shops and cafes. As elsewhere, half the stores carry women's clothes and bookshops double as reading room for students and the stingy.

The Superbrand Mall in Shanghai is probably the largest mall I have been to. You can get the sense of its size only in one dimension: in the other two, it seems to sprawl on forever.

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