Originally published in Adbusters #73
It’s a Sunday morning, in a medium-sized Chinese city, and I’m at an opening party for a kitchenware shop. That in itself is a strange thing. The bizarre goings-on around me only make it stranger still. To my left, a man is dancing. His face alters in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments of magical transformation. One second he has a red scowl with delicate gold stripes, the next a green smile, streaked with blue. The pulsing techno music rattles my rib cage as I stand squeezed in among other audience members. I turn away to get a breath of air and see my friend wearing nothing but an apron, a bow tie and cuffs. I wave at him until he comes to fill my paper cup with cheap red wine.
“Hey, man, how’s it going?” I slur.
“Ok, mate. My arse hurts though. Clenching too much.”
“Must be tough,” I say, before adding with a perverts wink, “so do you oil yourself up, or does someone do it for you?”
A half-smile flickers across his face prior to his answer.
“A girl does it,” he says simply.
Suddenly I envy this man. Previously I was contented to snicker at him, but when I see him take two girls phone numbers within the space of ten minutes, my jealousy grows until finally I’m tempted to ask for a job. I back away from my friend, now lazily engaged in flirting with another girl, and look around.
I’m completely surrounded by kitchen units. Sleek work surfaces with chrome fittings shimmer on every side. Overhead cupboards with ingenious floating doors. Fridges, freezers, blenders, sinks, garbage disposal units. They’re all highly desirable, and highly expensive – a glittering display of material wealth for someone’s brand new home.
I spy my associate by the food table and hurry over. The wine that the semi-naked man is forcing on me is going a long way to twisting my mind. By the scared look on my associate’s face, I would say he’s in the same boat.
A commotion over in the “conversation lounge” drags us away from meat-on-a-stick and leads us into an auction. Raised voices shout out numbers, as the competition grows intense. The figures jump up in screaming tens. I struggle to get a view of the lot, which is projected onto the wall behind a worryingly cheerful auctioneer. Having managed to squeeze past an attractive lady in a summer dress, I see it’s a plastic tray. It’s bright orange, and it does have clever fold-out legs so one can use it bed, but it’s still essentially a plastic tray. 60 yuan, 70 yuan. Are they fucking kidding?
“It’s a plastic tray!” I want to yell, “What’s wrong with you people?” I restrain myself and let a pinstriped businessman proudly bid 80 yuan for it. He wins, and his wife’s eyes glow a little. Or at least he hopes they do.
I look around the whole gleaming smorgasbord of culinary high-tech chic, and I have to pinch myself to realise I’m standing in a a store in China. Fashionable ladies with newly rich husbands waft about the place as they would in Harrods. It’s at that moment it sinks in. It’s estimated that by 2015 China will be the main driver of global wealth, overtaking America. If the theories play out, there will be 150 million new consumers in the world. I’ve already seen the cars, the clothes, the watches and jewelry. Never before, however, have I seen a man pay 80 yuan for a plastic tray. While in the West, $10 may not seem a surprising amount to pay for said article, you have to remember, there are people in China whose income is little more than $300 a year.
It’s hard for me to blame them though. For so long the Chinese people have been denied this lifestyle – why shouldn’t they wallow in it now? Especially seeing as so many of my countrymen back home still believe that getting and spending are the be all and end all of existence. To want what they tell you to want, to desire what your neighbor desires; these are socially acceptable notions. To bust your guts to buy these things will make you happy. You may be stressed out of your mind, your wife may be on Valium, but look at the kitchen surface, isn’t it shiny? Have you seen these great sliding doors?
I tell myself it’s inevitable. I tell myself I’m a colonialist fool, a racist, a snob. But I still can’t get over the feeling that I’m watching an entire nation put its oblivious head inside and animal’s mouth.
Already China is experiencing the dark underside to consumerism. Their suicide rate is among the highest in the world, currently approaching 300,000 a year. Young people living in urban areas frequently find themselves unable to cope with the increasing pressure to succeed in work, love, and education, and this leads many to take their own lives. However, women in rural areas make up the vast bulk of the statistics. With husbands away in the cities seeking better wages as migrant workers, the responsibility of farming and child rearing is left to the wife. Easy access to pesticides and distance from medical attention means that thousands of young women dies a slow and painful death each year.
The party’s going full swing. I stumble downstairs, trying to escape the little girl that’s latched on to me, and the hideous scenarios that rush through my mind. What started out as a trip to laugh at a friend walking around semi-nude has become an awful vision of the future. Everything I look at seems tainted. Its sheen has a sinister blaze. My head spins, as I stumble past a stainless steel flip-top trashcan, and dive into a doorway. I find myself in a room of doors. Doors made from a hundred types of wood and plastic, fashioned into artful entrances for those with too much money. They hang there inviting me to open them, but I know they lead directly to the solid brick wall. Still, I turn a handle anyway.