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…

Field notes #2: Dolly Dim Sum (multiple locations)

2018-07-26 22:39:08.635

OK, so I’ll let you in on a secret: if we’re friends, especially new friends, I’ve probably brought you to Dolly Dim Sum at some point.

This dim sum restaurant chain provides, for me, the perfect answer to the most basic, foundational question of urban life, i.e. “What do you want to eat?”* When you grow up on a steady diet of malls upon malls upon malls, it gets tiring trying to figure out what to eat after a while because you get so inundated with all the choices. Do you: want to go somewhere that’s known to be a crowd-pleaser, where you can just get over the perfunctory need to satiate a hunger, such as a mamak or a food court or even a McDonald’s? Or maybe you want to keep things interesting, in which case maybe you try out one of the other generic non- or otherwise slightly-pricier-chain restaurants around. And if you’re trying to impress because you’re a gastronome, then maybe you try somewhere else that’s not a mall.

I usually bring people to Dolly Dim Sum if it’s an Occasion, like we haven’t seen each other in a while, or if it’s one of our first times hanging out. It’s nice and expensive enough to make lunch or dinner feel special rather than just the satiation of a basic need, but also casual enough not to put the situation on edge, unlike various other upscale dim sum, or generally Chinese, restaurants*. It also provides an excuse to just stay in the same spot for an extended amount of time without having to figure out what to do after eating, because the food just keeps piling on and on, because that’s how you eat dim sum. And best of all, it’s accessible for KL kids, with branches in Nu Sentral, Pavilion and Avenue K. No, actually, best of all, it’s fucking good. 

There’s just something about dim sum that I think is impossible to fuck up. Sure, you can have cheap, tasteless dim sum, but the only truly bad dim sum is, I think, cold dim sum. There’s just something so homely to me, and so easy to love, about anything that’s been steamed. And dim sum is lovely as comfort food, because of its warmth and oiliness and chewiness. The way you bite in and you get a mouth full of that warm, familiar flavour that you’ve been raised on ever since you were a child.* How every dim sum is wrapped up, but when you bite in it all just melts into. I love it all. The steam fogging up glasses. The bamboo nest. The perfect, inimitable texture of a bao.

I come back often, and I’m always excited to bring people there who’ve never been. There’s probably nothing particularly amazing about the way they make dim sum, and most other Chinese Malaysians are probably used to the kopitiam style of dim sum, but. And maybe there’s something to be said about a dim sum place that follows mall hours when dim sum is normally only eaten for breakfast, but. Up on the wall, there is a list of the various dim sum they serve, but all in English.* Maybe there’s something about the higher prices they charge, but. Maybe there’s something about the inauthenticity of the dim sum experience, but. But, this isn’t China, is all I have to say. I remain excited to bring my friends to Dolly Dim Sum to share an experience with them, even if it’s not the “authentic” (?) dim sum experience. And I remain convinced that it’s one of the better answers out there to the “what is to be done [in this mall]?” question, if you’ve been put in the situation where it has to be asked anyway.

When I think about Dolly Dim Sum, I think not so much about the food, but more about the fact that every time I’ve been there I’ve been happy. (A fact that is probably enabled by the deliciousness of the food, even though I don’t think of it. Good food brings people together, because it enhances the quality of life in the moment of eating, even if the food itself is unremarked upon. I don’t have studies or facts to back this up; I’m just happy.) Dim sum, I feel, offers a utopic vision of eating, because of how it induces the eaters to share. Rather than each person ordering their own meal, and maybe sharing a starter, and maybe trying bites from each other’s plates, dim sum is several small dishes that are supposed to be shared among all the people eating. The nature of Dolly Dim Sum also encourages more chairs at the table, because more mouths eating = more of different types of dishes you can order. On the few occasions that I’ve been to Dolly with only one other person, we found it impossible to finish everything in front of us, but also impossible to order a lesser assortment of dishes.

Everyone has their secret arsenal of Dolly Dim Sum’s, a.k.a places to take a date, or places to make conversation easier, or places to buy dinner for a friend you haven’t seen in a while, but what I find so funny is that we think these places are guaranteed crowd-pleasers when maybe it’s really just us wanting to return. I enjoy bringing people to Dolly Dim Sum, but I can’t necessarily say that it’s had the same impact on them as it’s had on me. It started because an ex-colleague recommended it to me and a close friend; then I suggested it as a dinner spot to another friend because it was still a novelty to me and I knew we had a shared love of dim sum; and then it was a place that I suggested for dinner because I couldn’t figure out where else to go. Twice, it’s been the destination for a farewell dinner–first for me, and then again for an ex-colleague. But it’s because I always know there’s going to be that guaranteed pleasure of sharing warm food.

“What do you want to do?” in this city saturated with malls. I’ll do what I always do: return to the places where I was happy, and eat the food I’ve always loved since I was a child, and eat also like a child, because I’ve never found a graceful way to eat dim sum. And then I’ll bring you too.

 

[This post isn’t affiliated with or sponsored by Dolly Dim Sum in any way. Also don’t come to me if I made you try DDS and you ended up not liking it: I’m mostly writing about myself here.]


Footnotes

*Replace “eat?” with “do?” as appropriate.

*Nb. use of the words “various other” and “generally”. I’m mainly thinking of the dim sum/Chinese restaurants where there’s a white tablecloth and the waiters wear suits, but of course I know about the red-cloth Chinese restaurants that are just as good as–if not better than–their white-cloth counterparts. Another post another time.

*When we were younger, my brother loved eating egg tarts. He couldn’t stop eating them. My brother and I don’t talk too much anymore, it’s just how life goes, but maybe when I order egg tarts it’s not so much because I love it (and I don’t, it’s always been my brother’s staple), but because he did. I guess it’s a way to pay a secret homage to our shared childhood, a way of saying, even if just to myself, I remember this about you. I could never forget.

*As an aside, do you want to know something I find so exciting about Malaysia? It’s that when a dim sum place translates Chinese food names into English for their menu, I wouldn’t consider it a bastardization. It’s that I don’t even think a single Chinese person works at the Nu Sentral branch, and I have no problem with that. It’s that the translation into English shares the loveliness of dim sum, makes it understood and accessible to other races in Malaysia. And it’s not complicated, and it’s not cultural appropriation, and it’s not whatever wagamama tries to do with Japanese food, and it’s really easy and cool and I love us.

2018-07-23 01:28:03.647

Field notes #1: Telawi Street, Bangsar

It’s July, the start of the hot summer months, except it’s always summer here. Well, it’s the start of something anyway, and I can’t tell yet if it’s benevolent or not. I’ve never had any real touchstones for what a good thing is, everything seems to get mixed up.

Right now while writing this I’m back in Bangsar, the area in KL where I used to work for almost a year. It’s strange to be back and to remember past surroundings. Because this whole area used to be my life, now I can’t go back there without feeling a kind of infinite weariness, like I’m always wanting to leave it as soon as possible. Next to me two men in business wear, a Malay man and a white foreigner, presumably on their lunch break, are both smoking a fat cigar each. It’s only one in the afternoon. Across the street there’s the man who sells the colourful woven baskets, as there always is.

Something that I’d somehow forgotten about the Bangsar area is how many mixed-race children and families there are. Seeing a number today, I realized that that’s always been a defining feature of Bangsar for me. The scent of the two guys’ cigars is very strong; I’ve never smoked one myself before. They’re talking about various Arab countries they’ve been to. Being in Bangsar is like being in some self-contained alternate dimension where somehow the ratio of white people to locals is differentiated by a gap so small you wouldn’t have thought it possible if you’ve ever been anywhere else in Malaysia. Where do all these white families come from, and do they actually live here? And what do they do all the time in this same area?

I’m trying to figure out what it would be like to have a nice, white family by the way Bangsar is built and what it provides. Rows of bars. Rows of upscale Western food eateries, some of them also bars. Four Western restaurants in a row across from me have a similar aesthetic: The X, BAIT, elmesòn, and The Social. All of them seem to have dark interiors with exposed bulbs hanging from the ceiling for lighting. Their signs are sleek, minimalist, in a serif font. They proclaim an abstract name that points, ultimately, I guess, to nothing. It’s not like Nirvana’s Banana Leaf or Raj’s Banana Leaf a few stores down. Nor is it like Devi’s down the road, whose full name even on the signage is “Restoran Devi’s”. There’s a trend now among new start-ups to name themselves in the abstract, rather than describe itself directly. Which is why a new cafe may be called something like “VCR” (a block over), but probably not “[Owner’s name]’s Kopitiam”. I guess I don’t feel any which way about it–people can name their businesses anything they want–but there’s always going to be something about the it-is-what-it-says-on-the-label-now-what-do-you-want-to-order-ness of Malaysian signage that I am thankful to still be living to experience before the abstract words that point to nothing eventually engulf it all.

Let’s go back to Nirvana’s. Its aesthetic (or lack thereof, which can also, among a rising monolithic Western influence, become an aesthetic; some of the clothes sold by Malaysian streetwear brand Pestle & Mortar at the end of Telawi can attest to that) is distinctly different from the rows of bars/restaurants directly opposite me. It has a faded pink sign in a curly italic font, tungsten lights and decals of Hindu gods/goddesses on the white tile walls. A small peeling sign says “no alcohol allowed”, another one says “no outside food and drinks allowed”, and someone has scratched in a superfluous “is” between “drinks” and “allowed”. Around the corner there’s Raj’s Banana Leaf, which has been closed ever since someone posted a video online of its workers washing the dishes in dirty water. Raj’s is a chain. I’m trying to imagine if Malaysia had taken over the world, and instead of a McDonald’s, every major city had chains for tandoori chicken and people ate off big leaves with their hands.

Another aspect of Bangsar that you can’t not talk about when you’re talking about Bangsar is its nightlife. Like I said, rows and rows of bars. You can have your pick between the massive Gridiron sports bar, or one of the more upscale ones I mentioned above, or any other one of a dozen more. Shelly Yu’s, on the same road as The X, bait, etc., serves Malaysian-, particularly Nyonya-inspired cocktails, mixing their liquor with various staples of a Malaysian upbringing like pandan, gula melaka and even pei pa koa… one item on their menu comes with a “whole egg”. If you’re looking to dance, you’re probably looking for SIX, a tiny nightclub in the middle of Telawi that markets itself solely on Drake imagery. It’s recognisable by its neon logo of the Drake praying hands. You already know the ones. Six’s popularity seems like a hyperbolic testament to the fact that in Kuala Lumpur youth culture, the end game is a sublimation with Westernness. Clubs, like raves, are a strange liminal area where you’re invited to lose yourself, where all the strict, conservative rules that define Malaysia during the daytime get suspended for a few hours at night. And I wouldn’t want to intrude on someone else’s fun, but I have to point out the correlation suggested by Six that to “lose one’s self” in Malaysia—or the ultimate goal of freedom from a long week of work/school—is synonymous with being in a Drake-inspired club playing trap songs where the majority of the lyrics are about cool watches or expensive cars or cheating on your girlfriend. Of course I have fun, but I don’t know what this means or where it’s going.

I  guess it’s kinda sad to me that to talk about Kuala Lumpur is necessarily to talk about a heavy Western, particularly American (OK, Drake is Canadian, etc.), presence. I’d like to describe the city using words and place names that wouldn’t be understood by someone who’d like to exploit our market. However, maybe we’re not without hope. Bangsar has all the trappings of an upscale neighbourhood without necessarily being “nice”. How to ignore the litter on the streets, the massive cockroaches running across storefronts, the overspilling rubbish bins and the occasional roadkill. If you wanted “nice”, i.e. clean, you’d go to a mall, and yet Bangsar’s appeal, despite the two malls, still remains, I believe, out on Telawi Street. Graffiti over metal shutters when the stores are closed. The pasar that runs every Sunday evening is still an event. The mall is where the grocery store and two Thai Odysseys are, but the streets are where people go to see and be seen, which is funny because they’re so ugly.

Maybe there’s just not really any way to be “nice” in Malaysia. The perpetual summer weather and, I guess, the total inability to give a shit that I think every Malaysian, including myself, was born with, just shoots that dream in the foot. I don’t think I’ve ever looked “nice” in this country, because I’m always mildly sweating and the humidity makes my hair frizz. One time, while on a first date, he took me to a fancy steakhouse at the end of Telawi Street and then we just sat on the dirty steps of a bank opposite smoking. I can’t tell whether me saying all this is putting you off or not, but understand that when I talk about dirty water and roadkill and cigarette butts I’m unironically talking about it all with the most love I’ve ever felt for anything.

There’s something about the way Malaysia always seems to undermine its own attempts to be something it isn’t. Something about how we can never give ourselves fully to an identity other than what we grew up with, how rather than growing up alienated from our Malaysianness and affecting to be Western, it’s more a kind of swallowing of these other cultures into our own, and building a contradictory identity out of that. I’m interested in how people grow up in a multicultural society, how they absorb foreign identities and turn it, somehow, into a bigger collective identity. Another similar city that comes to mind is the city of London, where the music, fashion, food and language that make the London identity so distinct is a result of the various immigrant families who live there. Yet it’s not necessarily an “immigrant”, i.e. “outsider” identity per se: the outside reaches in and indelibly shapes the core, so that it creates what London is, no matter how much any white Londoner may deny it.

Perhaps I’d like to think that, in our own way, Kuala Lumpur is the same. That Bangsar is the same. That, rather than the decay of a national identity, it is a testament, rather, of the perseverance of a national identity. How we take the culture that is exported to us and in turn bastardise it, because we just can’t fucking help ourselves. Someone has the idea of setting up an upscale bar & eatery, where they serve mushroom soup for almost RM20, but they won’t be able to set it up anywhere else except on a dirty street where rats scamper after dark if they want to get any business at all. I guess I’d like to think that we are practising our own appropriation of Western culture, but that we’ll always forget to clean under our fingernails. The reverse, of Western culture eroding our own, is a bit sad to think of. I guess.

The two men next to me smoke their cigars. But it’s a Coffee Bean. This is a coffee chain. We’re in a Coffee Bean and, presumably, they’re on their lunch break. They may smoke them, on their lunch break, and talk about the various Arab countries they’ve visited, but I’ll never ever think that the sheer ridiculousness of the scene—a cigar, on your lunch break, in a coffee chain, outdoors in 30°C—is anything except Malaysian.