Field notes #3: Family Mart (multiple locations)

Or, “I only have time to go to the convenience store.”

In our collective imaginations, the convenience store is an in-between place. It’s almost never a destination in itself, and visiting the convenience store is never an event. Even our homes, which we take for granted more than most other places, offer us feelings of relief or joy upon our return. But going to the convenience store doesn’t stir up any emotion, because it’s often a place we visit out of necessity, a place that’s accessible and decently-stocked and open 24/7.

The convenience store is the closest thing we treat to a home besides our own and our loved ones’ homes. In the convenience store, anything is allowed at any time of day, and no one bats an eyelash if you turn up with unbrushed teeth and hair. It’s a place where people bump into each other in between the tiny aisles and the cashier almost never even looks at you, let alone smiles; rudeness in the convenience store is accepted more readily than it would be anywhere else. You’re in a rush, you just woke up, you’re trying to find that one specific thing and can’t figure out where in all the haphazard organisation it’s been buried. The aisles have no names and the people aren’t really people. The convenience store is a place that doesn’t really exist; like a dream you forget the moment you wake up, the convenience store exists only when we need something, and then disappears again at the chime of the bell over our heads on our way out.

As such, with the convenience store being so much a place we take for granted, it offers a small slice of home, ease and relief at every corner. We need the convenience store like we need a home, because it provides for us, but also because we need these places where we’re allowed to just be, and this provision by the convenience store is perhaps one of its most overlooked services.

FamilyMart, however, changes the way we interact with convenience stores. Maybe the Japanese are used to FamilyMart, but Malaysians were not. The franchise first opened in Malaysia in 2016 and it took Malaysia by storm—everyone became enamoured with FamilyMart. It was treated as a true novelty when it entered Malaysian markets, because of how much it provides in the name of convenience. FamilyMart is a place where you can pay your bills, get cheap coffee hot or iced, buy a hot meal and enjoy it in-store, and the franchise is always innovating further for the future of convenience.

Above all, FamilyMart actually makes you think, unlike the mynews or 7-11 or gas stations that we’re used to, because it is so wholly foreign and untested to us. It offers the sense of escapism that any predominantly foreign brand store would offer. Next to the gardenia breads you can find a “green tea melon pan”, and next to the Lipton iced lemon tea you can find “clear” milk tea. Next to the normal cashier counter, there’s a special “oden counter” where you queue up if you want to buy fish cakes and udon noodles in hot soup. FamilyMart offers variety in an establishment that we frequent because of its lack of variety. FamilyMart becomes a destination in itself because it offers an alternative that we’re not used to. Why should I walk down the street to the FamilyMart when there’s a mynews next door? Because I want something specifically Japanese that only FamilyMart can provide.

The convenience store is predictable, because we know what we can get there and more importantly what we can’t get there. We can’t often get fresh food, and we can’t get an experience, and while it fulfils our most pressing need at the moment, it perhaps doesn’t do it in a way that’s healthy or most desirable for us. But FamilyMart offers all the same things that we expect from a convenience store while packaging it in the dream that, more than just fulfilling our needs, it can also fulfil our desires.

***

Recently, I watched Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 movie Chungking Express for the first time. Something that struck me was his use of the convenience store, even though this location didn’t play a big role in the film as a whole. I was interested by the way the convenience store served to facilitate Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung’s desires, building a bridge between the personal & mystical with the banal everyday. In the convenience store, Takeshi can find his canned pineapples that will expire on a specific date, and Tony can dry a wet letter from Faye Wong on the grill, as if the convenience store was there to accommodate exactly these very specific needs.

Though Chungking Express was filmed in Hong Kong, not Japan, and though it was released years before the emergence of FamilyMart on the global scene, the way Takeshi and Tony use the convenience store in this movie made me think of the way we use FamilyMart these days—or rather, what FamilyMart provides for us in services that we didn’t even know we needed.

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Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character looking for his canned pineapples in a screencap from Chungking Express

The use of the convenience store in Chungking Express to facilitate desire made me think about FamilyMart as a place that provides for everything, and about what kind of significance convenience stores may hold for our future. The transformation of the convenience store into more than an in-between, but into a destination in itself: starting with a café (many FamilyMarts already have a small sitting area where people can enjoy their hot meals), and then what—a restaurant, supermarket, mall? Many other supermarkets, such as Giant and AEON, have already expanded into becoming full-fledged neighbourhood malls, while the upscale Ben’s grocery store has even commanded a whole street of Ben’s-owned restaurants and stores out on Jalan Batai*.

In-between places can’t really exist in a capitalist economy, because many businesses endeavour to expand outward, provide more services and thus become more profitable. FamilyMart isn’t an in-between place, because we’re allowed and given reasons to spend more time there than is expected for a convenience store. Convenience stores lay the foundations for our lives, because we need convenience more than we need variety: we need an all-in-one place where we can rest, nourish ourselves, pay our bills, withdraw money and settle everything that is extraneous to our working lives. (Unfortunately, the reality of capitalism is that food, drink and rest become as incidental to our lives as topping up our phone.) And as FamilyMart grows to fulfil extraneous practical needs, I wonder how much it will grow to fulfil other needs as well.

Needs such as Takeshi’s need to find canned pineapples that expire on a certain date so that he can move on from his ex, needs such as Tony’s need of a grill where he can dry a rain-sodden letter from Faye Wong. I’m wondering about how much the convenience store can really provide for us. I’m wondering if there will come a time when all of our lives can be settled at a FamilyMart.

***

Because of how much the convenience store provides for us, I’ve personally always thought of it also as a site of desperation. Yes, you go to the convenience store when you’re in a rush or need a quick fix, but you also go there when you’re down on cash, or because something else is preventing you from doing something that’s good for you. I’ve visited the convenience store when I felt too useless to go to the grocery store, and I’ve visited the convenience store when I’ve been too anxious to go out to a normal place and eat a normal, cooked meal.

As I’ve said, the convenience store offers a safe haven where you can indulge in the same anonymity, ease and ugliness as you would in your own home. At the convenience store, you forget to leave all the emotional baggage at the door because you’re allowed to bring it in, a “service” you may not easily find anywhere else.

Underneath all of its plans for future services to expand into, perhaps what FamilyMart is truly striving to provide is the veneer of a home outside the home. On every corner, a convenience store that provides for the entire hierarchy of Maslow’s needs, including self-actualisation. And then, just as Japan’s innovations in improving standards of living are all ultimately in the service of increasing productivity, back to work and “the real world”.

***

(I’m thinking, also, about that one evening we’d fought, and decided to make our separate ways back, and I’d stumbled upon you again smoking a cigarette and checking your phone outside a FamilyMart. Is this one of the services it offers as well? Everyone, at some point, will need to go to a convenience store, and they will need the convenience store more often than anywhere else. Maybe if one waits long enough at a FamilyMart, the loved one will eventually return, if just to buy a pack of cigarettes. In Chungking Express, Tony Leung re-discovers his stewardess ex-girlfriend again in the convenience store, pulling a drink out of the chilled section.)

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Tony Leung’s character waiting for his letter to dry in a screencap from Chungking Express.

*It is telling that an “upscale” grocery like Ben’s expanded into Jalan Batai. A mark of luxury is variety, because there is nothing more luxurious than having the time, energy and money to go out of your way to get what you want. However, even the relatively luxurious families seem to prefer convenience over variety, and so Jalan Batai…

♫: “Ghost Town”, Kanye West, 070 Shake, Kid Cudi, PARTYNEXTDOOR

Thinking about the betrayal of beauty through the penultimate song off ye

There are some songs that evoke so much within you that you believe that their author was writing from the very same experiences as you’ve had. I’ve felt the full force of Ghost Town most acutely when I was walking around on my own in Tokyo and feeling lonely and abandoned by something I hadn’t even known I’d possessed. (Any city becomes a ghost town if you’re the one who ghosts through it.) I felt it at sunsets, marking the sad passing of time and another day drawn to a close with everything much the same. I’ve felt it while in KLCC park on the eve of independence day this year, sitting alone and eating some bread and watching the crowd thronging around the colourful lights of the fountain. Feeling like there’s something monumental about to happen—or currently happening, all around me—but that I was not part of it, and could not possibly ever be. But some day, some day. The wide, rounded vocals by 070 Shake and Kid Cudi make something bloom in my chest. The latter’s “I’ve been trying to make you love me / but everything I try just takes you further from me,” remind me of that viral video of Barcelona’s “Please Don’t Go” set to a view of a crowd passing a gigantic tank in Japan’s Okinawa Chiraumi Aquarium. The anonymous strangers are bathed in blue light, in awe of the mysterious and fantastic beasts in front of them. Love and its attainment also being another mysterious and fantastic beast that we gape at as we pass through life. We’ll understand some day, some day, maybe some day.

For me, “Ghost Town” is the best song off Kanye’s 2018 album ye, and the only song that induces me to revisit the album at all. Yet it feels corny to say that a Kanye West song made me emotional, and this self-consciousness is probably a result of the total dissonance between the song and the leading man behind it. As 070 Shake herself said in an interview, her refrain (so crucial to the song, for me) was only added in at the very last minute on the day of ye’s release; the song “almost didn’t make it”. It’s for reasons like this that I don’t like behind-the-scenes information about music or musicians, because I don’t like to think that a song that has come to mean so much to me could have just been thrown together on the day of its release. This knowledge suggests a kind of artificiality or shallowness in its production that is totally discordant with the emotional connection I’ve formed to the song.

More than its production, it feels corny to say that a Kanye West song made me emotional, because it’s a song by Kanye West, the man who famously doesn’t give a fuck about how his music or personality makes other people feel. However, for me (and because I’m talking about the controversial figure of Kanye West, I feel like I need to emphasize the truly personal nature of this whole thing, so expect a lot more “for me”s), “Ghost Town” isn’t typically the kind of thing that Kanye has been producing in recent times. “Ghost Town” is different from his discography of recent years, because of how full it is of hope and, consequently, of hope’s cause, i.e. suffering. It is so full of hope for life, for beauty, for understanding, that it’s difficult for me to reconcile it with the Kanye of The Life of Pablo, full as it was of debauchery, racism and sexism. Even in TLOP’s more plaintive moments like “Wolves”, he undercuts the sentiment with a line so ridiculous that it makes you question the seriousness of the entire song. “You tried to play nice, everybody just took advantage / You left your fridge open, somebody just took a sandwich,” he says, plainly and apparently unironically. (Or ironically, but in either case it still undermines the sentiment of the song.)

Songs like “Wolves” and “Ghost Town” force the question of beauty. They lead you into a beautiful, mournful song, and Kanye himself undercuts his own sentiment by forcing something ugly and absurd into it. “Ghost Town” doesn’t have any “absurd” or “ironic” lines like the one in “Wolves”, but the beauty of the song is still undercut by the sole factor of Kanye West being Kanye West. ye was released amidst controversy with Drake and also with fans on Twitter over his support for Trump; the encompassing controversy affects how we respond to his releases. And yet, it’s the very fact of Kanye West being the sexist, racist, Trump-supporting person he is that gives “Ghost Town” its full force as a hopeful and vulnerable song; perhaps there’s no one else other than Kanye West who could deliver the line, “you may think they wrote you off, they gon’ have to rope me off”, and have it be considered so simplistically beautiful by the listener. Like “Bound 2”, the closing track to his 2013 album Yeezus, both songs successfully pull off this image of Kanye West as some naively foolish, thoughtless, Homer-Simpson-esque everyman who runs his mouth sometimes but loves his wife all the same, who has hopes and dreams and a conception of beauty all the same. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

“Ghost Town” shows Kanye as he isn’t, i.e. vulnerable, suffering a lack, striving towards something beautiful & lovely & transcendent. The final few lines by 070 Shake sound like a stadium song with the accompanying steady drumming: “And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free.” I love her refrain, but I also feel acutely the dissonance between these lines and the monumental figure of Kanye West. How hard it is to get your head around him being a man who could possibly be hurt, or possibly feel as if he were not free to do or say anything he wants.

I take Kanye West seriously as a musician and I appreciate his discography. Previously, I’d been able to do this because I ignored his politics, because I can’t bear to take them seriously. In a world where we get so inundated with new media, we sacrifice deep contemplation about personal ethics for the sake of enjoying a new piece of art. By now, a lot of people generally agree that there’s no point getting involved with an artist’s personal and political life when the music industry is powered by money. No matter how much we try to “hold someone accountable”, this sentiment in and of itself pales in comparison to how much the artist’s music brings the industry in profits. My approach to most forms of new American media has been one of mild indifference—enjoy the art, ignore the artist, don’t speak about idolatry or prophecy, and… whatever. Give up the art/artist if you can’t bring yourself to ignore the crime, but as Jenny Holzer said, “abuse of power comes as no surprise.” There’s no such thing as a fully perfect, ethical celebrity because the entire status of celebrity is corrupt.

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With “Ghost Town”, what I really wanted to know wasn’t how could Kanye West get away with saying the things he does? but rather, how could someone so horrible produce something so beautiful? I’m not thinking about how he could espouse the politics he does, or why he’s always insulting Kim in his songs, or why he starts unnecessary drama when he’s a full-grown man; rather, I’m more confused as to how someone so given over to the coarseness and superficiality of the entertainment industry could still produce something so touching and emotionally potent. (At least, for me. You can stop reading if you think I’m talking garbage.) How does that make any sense at all? When I think of beauty, I inevitably think of goodness, because the logic for me is that if someone is able to appreciate beautiful things, then it means that they should also know what is good. Beauty, for me, is inextricably bound up with the good, in that the things I personally consider “beautiful” often carry a kind of moral weight. For me, beauty is arrived at through sensitivity and empathy. Some of the most successful poetry and art are the ones that empathize with a shared feeling, and express this feeling with the trust that others will understand.

Knowledge is both an aid and a curse. Trusting one’s instinctual, emotional response to a work of art seems like a form of naivety, but it also seems wrong to deny the initial emotional response for the sake of privileging the technical production. 070 Shake returns to this naivety in “Ghost Town” when she sings, “We’re still the kids we used to be / I put my hand on a stove / to see if I still bleed,” childishly confusing the consequences of one act with another. Art is experienced through the senses—i.e. visually, auditorily, or kinesthetically—so it seems wrong to say that true art can only be arrived at/appreciated only once one has full knowledge of information external to the art.

There’s a certain repulsiveness in knowing the thought process behind a work of art, or even knowing the artist as a person, because with that knowledge can only come either a confirmation or a denial of your own emotional response to the artwork (emotion also formed by one’s own personal ethics, etc.). Ideally you’d want art to remain as it is when you first saw/heard/read it—as something purely yours, confirming your own ability to find beauty, and your own vision. A piece of art is often more a testament to our own capacity to empathise than it is the artist’s, which I guess is my main trouble with beauty. It is like admitting that you have loved someone more than they have loved you. The uneven empathy, the distance between two people, and the dissonance between what you give and what you receive—this heartbreak and betrayal is, for me, the same one at the heart of “Ghost Town”. I’ve been trying to make you love me, but everything I try just takes you further from me.

There doesn’t seem to be any rational response to this betrayal of art by its artist. Knowledge aids the appreciation, but it also allows cracks to appear in your initial response. Our emotional attachment to a work of art makes it difficult to give up an artist, and ultimately we will never fully know any of the artists we love, because of the distance between our lives and theirs. Music and art come naturally to us, in that we often have no say in what we listen to and how it affects us, because of the aforementioned saturation of media in our modern times; besides, the desire for beauty and art is wholly human and as natural for us to seek out as a fish for water. To Kanye West, “Ghost Town” is likely just a song he’s cobbled together and put out just like any other, and very likely that, on that last day before ye’s release, he wasn’t feeling the same intensity of feeling and I do towards that song. So it’s no good to live on beauty and emotions alone, but it’s no good either to deny them, or the fact of beauty’s necessity to us… How does that work?