Saturday, February 01, 2014

Shop Till You Drop

Consumerism continues to annex modern life

The amount of time that I find myself spending in the city’s retail palaces has tailed off enormously in recent years, as I'm of the opinion that, in the words of the old joke, once you've seen one shopping plaza, you've seen a mall. New shopping plazas continue to mushroom all over Jakarta however and most recently I was passing the enormous new Kota Kasablanka mall and popped in, lured by the promise of a branch of Ace Hardware. Yet another mall to burn time in. The interior was absolutely huge, more like an air terminal than a shopping mall. Most unsettlingly though, I stumbled across a branch of Top Man/Top Shop, and as a Brit I find it slightly disconcerting to see shops such as these and Debenhams, rather proletarian UK stores to be frank, being scrubbed up and repackaged for the Indonesian petty bourgeoisie.

Hanging out at shopping malls is a favourite activity in Jakarta, although this seems like something of a self-fulfilling prophecy to me. If there's nothing but malls in the city then, unsurprisingly, people will go to malls. In this respect, Indonesia once again exemplifies all of the worst elements of late capitalism, its capital city being woefully bereft of parks, libraries, theatres or public sports facilities and instead being crammed with temples of vapid materialism, circuses and bread for the iPhone generation that denote something of a land-use imbalance in town. Bright, shining sterile fantasy worlds unencumbered by the diesel fumes, guys with guitars, potholes and dried-on-chilli-sauce stains that prevail outside. An odourless nirvana of boutiques, food courts, computer motherboards and security guards in ill-fitting uniforms ready to pounce if they see a single bead of perspiration breaking out on your forehead.

Yes, Jakartans love their shopping malls and those escalators and food courts have seemingly won the battle for the twenty-first century Indonesian soul. Behind all of the Grand Guignol, 120dB fun fashion shows in the plaza lobbies though, the city’s malls are clearly papering over the cracks of a serious infrastructure deficit.

A thousand years hence perhaps, future archaeologist and anthropologists will unearth Jakarta's great plazas along with petrified Starbucks beakers and mobile-phone casings and pontificate on what strange religion their ancestors practised in these places. And indeed, more than just temples of consumption, malls such as Cilandak Town Square promote a new kind of lifestyle hedonism completely divorced from the utilitarian weekly supermarket shop. Just hanging out in these places is where it’s at.

The result of this new plaza-centric social paradigm also seems to be affecting the general population’s holiday time. Modern life negatively impacting people's explorations of the countryside around them can be seen in a number of developed countries as well. This is particularly distressing, given that the potentially species threatening problems that humanity faces over the next half century or so are rooted primarily in the natural systems that support us. Any increasing alienation from these systems, specifically people spending their existences trudging around shopping plazas or sitting isolated in their bedrooms behind computer terminals, is not really going to catalyse any quest for solutions.

In this context, plaza life seems to impact Jakartans awareness of the beautiful West Java countryside that lies outside their stinking city, and it achieves this in two main ways. Firstly, the number of people heading out of town to relatively local beaches such as Carita and Pelabuhan Ratu is pretty small these days. Now admittedly the road to Pelabuhan Ratu can get a little jammed, however Carita is relatively straightforward to reach, with a good two thirds of the journey lying along a speedy toll road. During a recent trip to Carita I came across a number of pretty rundown hotels, including one fantastic abandoned effort which was presumably quite extravagant in its day.

It seems that the number of Jakartans heading out of town in order to explore their local landscapes has tailed off over the last decade, as people spend an increasing amount of time in those retail pleasure palaces, tapping away on their laptops. Admittedly, the advent of cheap flights to Bali is also no doubt playing a part in this phenomenon; however the average Bali holiday increasingly seems to feature plenty of, yes you guessed it, shopping, in familiar urbanised environments recreated in a non-urban setting.

And this brings us on to the second phenomenon impacting local city slickers’ awareness of the countryside, namely resorts and hotels increasingly resembling the classic plaza environment. I recently had the pleasure of staying in one of the huge holiday-villa complexes up in Puncak. It was called Kota Bunga (Flower City) and upon arriving I took a stroll in order to familiarise myself with the Flower City experience first hand, in all of its prefabricated, garish hideousness.

The complex covered a huge area and was arranged into neat suburban cul-de-sacs that seemingly contained the exact replicas of the Jakarta pied-à-terres lived in by the families who come to stay here. The main difference were the vibrant hues of the houses' exteriors and the postmodern mishmash of cutesy architectural designs that proliferated like a Walt Disney acid trip. The families themselves seemed to contain two Nintendo-brained children cramming ice cream and noodles into their wide-bore gullets, and all were born by the regulation people carrier, or perhaps a big Mercedes for the richer clans.

Insulting stereotypes aside however, it was clear that any local expression of West Javanese culture had been tastefully airbrushed out of this theme park in search of the theme. Admittedly there was an area in the complex called Kampung Budaya (Cultural Village), although its cultural reach didn't seem to extend beyond an overpriced branch of KFC and a swimming pool full urinating kids. There was also a postmodern apocalypse of ersatz Greek friezes, old English lamp standards and mock European architecture, all clashing in the same tasteless hyperreal style of your local shopping mall, all elements stripped of their original meanings and transplanted into the toy-town fantasy. Pride of place went to a scale mockup of Mount Rushmore that loomed perplexingly 30m high over the complex lake. The chiselled faces of the four US presidents surveyed the scene before them sternly as if about to pass judgement.

Well, not my scene really, and those Jakarta malls should be housing way more hiking-boot shops in my opinion. I need a holiday.