The Socjournal » Rachel Suet Kay Chan

    January 7th, 2011istock_000001589232xsmall-300x207-5907800

    Purchasing Meaning and Identity

    Shopping mall culture in Malaysia is ever growing, so much that  one could hypothesise about the emergence of a subculture centered on the shopping mall. More and more mega mall projects are coming up as bigger portions of the population is urbanised. To date, there are several well-known, tourist-destined shopping megaliths which already are the sacred cows of Malaysian shoppers. Indeed, it is hard to resist the promise of a fantasy land where identities are created as we purchase. In Parsonsian terms this would be a pattern maintenance of life, where the population releases stress from work , study, or relationships into what is commonly called retail therapy. The globeshopping (Dubai, for a manhunt?) sisters of Sex and the City would be thrilled at such a promise. Here, one can leave behind social constructs such as worker, mother, father, son – and pick and choose merchandise based on desired lifestyle association.

    In Gramscian terms, the population might be said to have been culturally dominated by the concept of retail therapy. The tools of advertising have been employed creatively within the media, and facilitated by the spread of ICT across the world. The ‘culture-ideology of consumerism’, as noted by Leslie Sklair, has incepted itself (no Leonardo DiCaprio here) into all and sundry minds.

    One of these examples, of what has been mentioned here as ‘subcultures centered on the shopping mall’, would be a particular subculture in Malaysia named the ‘Ah Beng’ subculture. This subculture manifests itself through the use (and often overuse) of brand named products. More oftenly, the ersatz versions of these branded goods are used as substitutes. One can find these goods in a place called Petaling Street, a haven for knock-offs in Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia. Another shopping mall, which is almost always claimed as being the temple of the Ah Bengs, is a mall called Sungei Wang (in Malay, ‘River of Money’).

    The high tide of cash flow sweeps the stores of Sungei Wang, where is located many of these ersatz shops. They specialise in selling knock-off versions of Hong Kong, Korean, and Japanese fashions and are usually owned by Malaysian Chinese. The Ah Bengs orbit these locales due to the availability of subcultural capital, namely clothes, which are in fact what makes the man for them. The subculture’s genesis then, can be seen very visibly rooted in shopping mall behaviour.

    This raises a point about the ideology of the Ah Beng subculture. While subcultures have often been associated with being deviant, attempting to demarcate themselves from the mainstream, thus appropriating mainstream cultural artefacts and subverting them, the Ah Beng subculture is unique in that it is mass media driven. There is a reason and a channel behind the consumption culture of Ah Bengs and that is the mass media. The mass media, particularly the Chinese, East Asian oriented mass media is a medium which appeals to the ethnocentric values of certain Malaysian Chinese. At the same time, apart from just the language, Chinese values are implanted into its narratives. The tools of imparting these narratives then, are the celebrities from East Asia who are portrayed as living out these values.

    Among these celebrities, who play an important part in corporations’ selling of lifestyles, are ominous cultural phenomena such as Korean boy bands (eg. Super Junior), Korean girl groups (eg. Wonder Girls), Taiwanese singer-songwriters (eg. Jay Chou, and Malaysian based in Taiwan, Penny Tai), and Japanese drama stars. The style of clothing worn by the celebrities and the responses they give in media interviews form a ‘lifestyle’ which is imagined by the public as a result of having been fed these fantasies. A certain ‘coolness’ associated with the image being sold then becomes the reason for wanting to look like them. This image is usually of a laidback, yet hardworking working-class hero personality who fits in with traditional Confucian values, such as filial piety. The availability of these shopping malls then becomes a quick and easy solution, with its mass range of clothing stores with low prices, as well as the new concept of ‘shoppingtainment’. This ‘shoppingtainment’, mentioned by PriceWaterHouseCoopers in a research report on shopping mall growth in Malaysia, essentially means a combination of concept space in malls, with entertainment centres, related concept stores, and hangout spots for youth to be seen. This phenomenon is similar to that of the Harajuku youth, who choose hangout spots to mainly be seen as a walking gallery of their creative fashion assemblages. Ah Bengs then usually spend their time in malls, for the purpose of being noticed.

    How would Malaysians in general view the Ah Beng subculture? Some interesting responses were derived through a popular opinion survey among urban youth in Kuala Lumpur. They mentioned the Ah Beng look as:

    “OVERSTATE TO ATTRACT PEOPLE LOOK AT THEM” “torn jeans, ear-rings, torn shoes, torn shirt, etc etc etc” “Bright colourful clothes. Leather jackets. Knee length socks. Spiky and dyed hair.” “Body Glove, loud clothes, Korean, Taiwan-influenced fashion” “Over the top replica of the Taiwanese and Japanese urban youth culture” “Flashy clothes” “overcolourful clothes, high socks and tight jeans” “They usually go for the Korean/Japanese artists’ style” “Sungei Wang fashion” “More like gangster but not a gangster, no taste” “shirts with oversized collars and a few buttons are left unbuttoned, clothes with huge Chinese dragon prints, bell bottom pants, bright coloured hair: blonde, green, blue etc” “bright coloured tshirts with dragon, lion and tiger printings; wear typical ‘ahlong’ (Chinese loan shark) chain; dye hair, keep one long finger nail and ALWAYS CARRY SLING BAG!” “the latest streetwear from China/Japan/Korea, usually very mismatched with lots of colour clash.” “j-pop fashion” “usually blond, sometimes neon bright colours & most of the time spiky hair. Some dress up like punk-rock or like famous Chinese superstars.”

    “Dragon ball” hairstyle – with streaks of blond or other funky colours. Bright colored t-shirts with or without heavy prints on it or shirts with the first few buttons unbuttoned.”

    (Rachel Suet Kay Chan, 2010)

    The Ah Bengs were also described as prone to listening to music such as “Chinese songs”, “Taiwanese Hokkien song”,“techno”, “rave”, and “electronic”. More specifically they were also described as listening to “mostly Chinese music from artists like Jay Chou and Wang Lee Hom”. A more pejorative view of the auditory tastes of Ah Bengs states “Chinese ‘cheesy’ love songs and hard techno/gabber”. The Taiwanese artiste Jay Chou is mentioned more than three times as an adjective. “Cantopop” and “Chinese” including dialects such as “Hokkien” are widely mentioned. Another phrase, “The trashy type of Chinese pop” sums up the category of responses (Rachel Suet Kay Chan, 2010).

    There is clearly an influence of celebrity culture, marketed through the channel of mass media, and it is the driving force behind the Ah Bengs identity formation through consumption. Shopping mall culture, by this one example, is more than purchasing goods and services but also a lifestyle. In fact, everything that the individual buys then revolves around this lifestyle. The Ah Beng subculture is a conspicuous consumption driven one, and its holy temple is the shopping mall. It is thus not a subculture which attempts to deviate from the norm, but a dominant ideology-based one – that of neoliberal inspired, mass packaged identities.

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    How consumerism has enslaved us

    December 10th, 2010istock_000011999106xsmall-300x199-4407499

    Slave to fashion

    Just take a stroll to the nearest mall (or the nearest upcoming one) on a weekend and what do you see? Hordes of shoppers pushing their way through a gigantic stampede of other shoppers lulled by the power of the brand name and the “discount” price tag. Count yourself lucky if you can complete that shopping trip unmauled by the forces of “nature”. Shades of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Mecca flash before one’s eyes as one struggles to meander the unnavigable terrain of merciless consumers hunting for yet another generic Osim chair or “that new outfit by Forever 21 that I simply must have”.

    Brand name consciousness, certainly, is the mantra by which we eat and breathe these days. From designer bottled water to purified mountain air, Nokia, OSIM, Nike, GAP, Levi’s, and its likes make up the Ten Commandments of the materialistic sub-culture we inhabit. One is easily compelled to wonder why of all things does one need to brave the throng yet another Sunday in the “largest shopping mall in (insert continent)” to purchase yet another little black dress and phone accessory to match when others can scant tell the difference whether its really Pucci or Grada or what the Ah Beng in Petaling Street said was ‘in’ this monsoon.

    Nevertheless it is an untiring business as thousands of Ah Lians with boyfriends and butt-crack revealing jeans (and boyfriends in their butt-crack revealing jeans) join forces every other weekend to ensure the struggle does not fade from light. From ‘romantic’ strolls in bookstores while snogging each other and glaring at any poor soul who happens to read in their way, to snatching the last fur-coated cropped cardigan from any poor soul who happens to be paying for it in their way, the quest for more material goods continues. And again next week. Like what Arnie in good ol’California would say, “I’ll be back.”

    Indeed, yours truly, a former avid shopper and holder of the longest shopping marathon award has now been relegated to a shadow of her former self. One is not ashamed to say that one is now terrified of malls due to the fear of the impending mindlessness and lack of consideration of others from the first step into the shopping sphere. A twilight zone of apathy mixed with feigned blindness engulfs as one takes that hesitant step. It is as though one is cloaked by the hands of evil – the evil of money, surely – as everyone else pretends to see no mercy, hear no mercy, and of course, speak no mercy as they bump you nonchalantly out of the queue you’ve been standing in since an hour ago. (Just try GSC Mid Valley on a school holiday).

    You want to say you’re sorry for not letting them jump queue – you poor little kind soul – rare as you are like a gem in the rough. But they give you the eye and you shrink back – only to bump into the bouncer from Hell who is so dedicated to his night job, he lives it out during the day. So you scurry into the only refuge you think still exists – only to see that the toilet is now a war zone – or at least Daniel Craig must have had his first victim up as James Bond in there. And you’re at a total loss.

    Don’t blame yourself, folks. Welcome to the realm of mass consumerism and the rebirth of Fordism, camouflaged in brand names. You can have any colour you want, the ads say, as long as its branded. Look at Paris Hilton’s twinkling lips. Of course its just an Ah Lian with blond hair and Japanese contacts in blue taking a puff. But the colour stays, like what they say at Maybelline. Or Revlon. Or any other brand of lip gloss, really. The product doesn’t really matter, it’s the tagline, dah-ling.

    The extent of which corporations will go to in order to sell their products can be no less baffling. A number of these unashamedly breach the reins of political correctness, going all out to produce sexist ads. Sex, for them sells, and apparently, sexist-ness does too. Just watch TV for a night. You’ll see that nine (and I may be wrongly optimistic) out of ten ads featuring household products have women starring as doting housewives, inane smiles plastered all over their more-than-willing to play Stepford wife faces as they scrub yet another kitchen tile while the ‘man’ goes out to battle it out in the corporate warrior’s battlefield. When he (in all his glory) returns, he is treated to a spot-free house and dinner, with his wife all the while smiling that inane smile.

    Or you get ads featuring some blossoming young girl, books in hand and all, apparently on her way to some educational institution. On the way she meets love. Love, as it is, is a boy riding a bike who crashes into a wall, mesmerized by our heroine’s beauty. Next scene we see her happily scrubbing child-stained walls, still mesmerized husband coming home from work. And its all thanks to some brand of paint. Need love? Desperate to become a housewife? Want a goofy husband who’ll promise you that dream job of wall-scrubbing? Discover paint. Period.

    Some ads try to appear a little more “politically correct”. The woman, now, is some corporate warrior herself. She battles it all day at work. Then she comes home to see Mr. Househusband not doing too well in the domestic sphere. She loses temper. After all, which warrior doesn’t scream a battle cry or two occasionally? Husband makes her coffee. Its named after some sort of lighthouse. She wavers. She is drawn to the carrot. Now the man is back, wielding power in his hands. A woman, as it is, has to be tamed. Otherwise she is nothing but a screaming shrew. And the screaming shrew says, “Never mind, darling, you sit down and relax. I’ll do all the work.”

    Of course, the most unpretentious ones tell the truth. Or the constructed ‘reality’ as they so often name that new brand of voyeuristic TV shows like The Simple Life. Some girl tries out a new brand of beauty products. Its named after some fabric that resembles satin. By implication the metaphor describes girl as ‘soft’. Of course. Then there’s an old man of a photographer, 90 or so. He is asleep on a chair. Initially sensibly dressed girl is now a sprightly beauty (one that many CCTV cameras would automatically wake up to, if a particular Minister gives the go) and her enthusiasm wakes the sleeping old man up. Old man is stimulated, girl is ecstatic, and they dance the dance of Eros, our old photographer all the while snapping away. Humbert Humbert would feel so betrayed.

    It seems true, at times, the joke about TV shows “being those annoying breaks between endless runs of TV commercials”. What with Petronas ads and all. But sadly enough these too often fall into the trap of parochialism and bad taste. But see one, and you see ‘em all. After all, its all about the brands, not the contents, my dear.

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