Saturday, February 07, 2009

"A Whole Street's Belief, In Sunday's Roast Beef, Gets Dashed Against the Co-op"

I happen to live a couple of hundred yards from one of the city's many bustling and fragrant traditional markets. About 18 months ago, the entire open-air bazaar was temporarily cleared out of the way and then re-housed on the same site. The market's new home resembles one of those grey, concrete, burnt out shells that they let the fire brigades practice on in other countries. The essentially cheerful aura of the market has remained intact however, despite the interior of the new building resembling the World War II, Japanese ammunition bunkers that I visited in Bukittinggi last year.

More recently however, a mini market has opened not 50 yards up the road, its hygienic strip lighting and brightly togged out staff a direct challenge to the concrete catacombs next door. In recent years, many small market traders have complained about the rise of these mini market empires. Any idiot with about US$10,000 to spare can open one of these mini supermarket franchises and, as a consequence, the things seem to be spreading their corporate tentacles throughout the land quicker than a bird flu epidemic.

You have to feel a bit sorry for the small traders who are being left out in the cold by the wipe clean surfaces and hyper efficient supply lines of these new empires of shopping convenience. There's more to this issue than just the disempowerment of the small trader by franchise capital though. The mini market changes the whole psycho-social outlook of the community at some unconscious level.

As the bland homogenization of the global marketplace standardizes our desires and aspirations, we increasingly like to shuffle around impersonal, highly predictable environments (see Jakarta's love affair with the shopping mall). The franchization of the world has also deterritorialized it. Walking around the bright interior of my local mini mart, I could be anywhere on the planet. Shops like this are coming to dominate every street in every city in every country in the world, giving lie to the myth that free market capitalism engenders competition and diversity. Still, at least my local mini mart isn’t hawking an aspirational, upwardly mobile agenda like the now ubiquitous Starbucks and its overpriced lattes and cappuccinos. It’s the new fast food: slow things right down and get them to stay all day going square eyed over their laptops.

But enough of the cod sociology; how do the traditional market and the mini market stack up on more mundane factors? :

1. Beer Temperature. I've got to hand it to the mini market on this one, you can't beat a bit of refrigeration. Plus the Circle Ks are online 24 hours a day. The Warung outside the market, with its familiar battered plastic box full of ice, is a very hit and miss affair. Especially as the Pocari Sweats usually seem to take priority over the Bintangs when a decision is made on what gets to sit on top of the iceberg.

2. Attentiveness of Staff. The smiling, jovial, wisecracking market traders definitely come out on top here. The trainee school leavers down at my mini mart seem to be suffering from a fairly common condition that I’ve named Indonesian-Y-chromosome-service-industry-syndrome. Basically these chaps are about as gormless as it is humanly possible to get without actually being plugged into a life support machine.

3. Ambience. We've already discussed this in some detail but, masochist that I am, I don't think you can beat a good nostril singeing trip around the huge hollowed out breeze block of the market. The hyper white mini mart with its endless promotions and competitions that offer to replace your prefrontal lobes with a USB Flash disk gives me the willies. Must... resist... psychic defences……consume…

4. Prices. At least these are fixed down at the mini market although I'm not generally taken for a sucker by the market traders; not once I've given their formaldehyde soaked chickens the once over and their juicy ripe mangoes a damned good fondling at any rate.

5. Possibility of Having One's Pocket Picked. This is perhaps more likely to happen down at the traditional market. Blok M's rabbit warren of stalls is particularly dodgy in this respect. Remember to tuck those Rp.50,000 bills snugly into your gusset for maximum protection. I have, in fact, caught some rather inept pickpockets fumbling around my backpack a couple of times before and on both occasions spent a second or two in furious internal debate over whether to punch the offender squarely on the hooter or just walk away.

Eventually I compromised by shoving the light fingered Larrys aggressively in the chest and letting fly with a few choice Anglo Saxon expletives. These fellows may count themselves lucky that they didn’t receive the commonly meted out local punishment for such transgressions, namely being beaten and kicked into a coma by a crowd of irate passersby. I’m not sure I’d have the strength for that to be honest.

Back to the matter in hand though, a winner for our shopping square off challenge? I’ll let you lot decide as I’m sure many of you have, in your time, both raided the Alfa Mart fridge for few bottles of ale and bought a lovely bunch of coconuts down the market. All votes should be posted up on this blog’s increasingly fractious comments page. (And anyone who can tell me where today's title comes from will win a crisp tenner).