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SHRINK-WRAPPED UNIFORMITY OVERTAKES ASIA

Tea stalls and coffee houses have been replaced by franchised delis designed to give you the impression you are in New York. The groceries come in shrink-wrapped uniformity, checked out by bored faceless people manning rows of identical cash counters. What kind of Asia will our children grow up in? The Asia of MTV, hamburgers and psychotherapy? Or an Asia of our own?

By Nirmal Ghosh


June 1999

A few years ago on a summer morning, I laboured up the rough stone steps of Mehrangarh, the massive Rajput fortress built on top of soaring rock formations - the ancient capital of the princely state of Jodhpur in the dry, dusty Indian state of Rajasthan. The fort is now a museum.

I spent most of the day wandering about the palace rooms, stooping below intricate granite and sandstone arches, inspecting the old cannons, like warning fingers that pointed from ancient battlements out over the brown scrubby plains and blue-tiled rooftops of the town far below.

Wars had been fought here. The handprints of women who had committed ritual self-immolation by fire before their men opened the gates for a last, opium-numbed suicidal charge into the overwhelming ranks of an invading army spoke of a more desperate moment from those times.

Towards late afternoon I passed a room in which I saw a woman sitting quietly, cross-legged in a corner, head bent over a large piece of ornate, heavy fabric, sewing with needle and thread. She appeared to be European, and was obviously not a tourist. Curious, I paused.

She turned out to be a Swiss expert on the restoration of ancient fabrics. The Mehrangarh museum trust had flown her to Jodhpur to work on some of its collection.

We talked about her work for a while, quietly in that cool, shaded room of stone surrounded by priceless old rugs and military campaign tents. Once, two young men - local tourists - walked by and paused to peer at us. They looked puzzled to see us there, and then walked on. One of them was carrying a radio which was blaring out Hindi pop music.

It struck me that to them, this fortress was probably just a pile of old stone on rock, a place to stroll in on idle afternoons. The details escaped them. The fabrics the restorer was working on were arresting in their beauty and complexity, yet the young men were wandering about in a haze of modern pop music, deaf and blind to the magnificent heritage of their own culture. To them they might have been just a pile of old rugs. Mehrangarh fort has graffiti carved and scrawled on to some of its inner walls - a commentary on the triviality of the times.

Across Asia, there is a great process of homogenisation that ensures people from, say, Manila can travel to Singapore or Hong Kong or Bangkok and find themselves in almost the same environment. The same brands on the same billboards dominate the cities. They shop at the same department stores, they drink the same designer coffees. Our landmarks are no longer our great monuments, they are brand names thought up by bright Americans. They surround us, they comfort us.

But in this process, individual identities are slowly stripped away and the past forgotten.

How many big cities in Asia, for example, still wake to the sound of street vendors in the morning? Singapore's kalang guni man, India's kabuliwallah, the Philippines' balut seller? In Manila, the oxcarts piled high with rattan furniture and baskets are banned from the business district and must ply only in outlying areas. The business district is no different, physically, from a similar area in any other large Asian city. You could be anywhere. It does not want to be Filipino, it wants to be a clone of Manhattan.

The sounds of Asian streets. The smells of pungent Asian cooking. The roadside coffee houses where young boys with small hand-towels over their shoulders wipe marble-topped tables while their uncles pour teh tarik and kopi o into chipped enamel cups and mugs. The corner vegetable shop which delivers the week's supply to your home free of charge, whose proprietor knows you by name and keeps the fattest brinjals specially for you. These are things which are rapidly disappearing.

They are being replaced by sanitised sidewalks, brand-name restaurants and designer coffee, served up in establishments that are identical from Seattle to Singapore, by identical young men and women in silly uniforms and bright artificial smiles, taking your order and getting it wrong while dreaming of their first BMW.

They are replaced by huge department stores in monumental malls through which people swarm like ants, meeting other faceless people and forgetting them in an instant in air-conditioned weatherproof concrete blocks.

Except where indigenous Asian culture is exceptionally deep and complex and therefore difficult to uproot - for example, Indian classical music - there is a great and rapid dying here.

The ugly American is a creature of caricature, wandering around in sunglasses, baseball cap and Hawaiian shirt and eating only at MacDonalds. But ironically, the power-based colonialism of the early 20th century has been replaced by the far more subtle and successful colonialism of the suburban American way of life in the late 20th century. Today, many Asians (dressed in jeans and baseball caps) eat at MacDonalds while vacationing in America.

Some of my memories, snatched from this fast-changing environment around me, are of drinking thick, sweet coffee at one of the only remaining kopitiam houses in Singapore while waiting for my next appointment. Or of a simple dhal and roti (and tandoori chicken) at a roadside dhaba in India. Or waking up to the sound of the rag-and-bone man's plaintive cry in the street outside. Eating hot prawns in a stall in south India while the Bay of Bengal crashed against the beach a few yards away. Drinking piping hot tea in a chai shop in Burma's Mogok with Indian ruby smugglers, in the days before tourist charters from Bangkok.

These things are still possible in more insulated countries and in remoter areas. But you have to look for them.

The street cries are all but gone, in big cities you will be unable to find them. The tea stalls and coffee houses have been replaced by franchised delis designed to give you the impression you are in New York. The groceries come in shrink-wrapped uniformity, glowing with artifice, checked out by bored faceless people manning rows of identical cash counters.

What is happening here? What kind of Asia will our children grow up in? The Asia of MTV, hamburgers and psychotherapy? Or an Asia of our own? - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Nirmal Ghosh is a journalist who has worked in India and Singapore and is currently assigned to the Manila Bureau of the Straits Times. He runs a web site dedicated to wildlife and wildnerness conservation issues in India at http://wild.allindia.com.

1908/99

 


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