Listen to this article
Have you ever wondered what it would smell like if you took every perfume and cologne in the world and mixed them together in a big vat? You already know the answer. It’s called a duty-free shop. I’ve always hated the term duty free.
It’s not like I’m political but there’s something irresponsible about it, as if you’re getting something for free, except it’s not totally free; instead, someone else has to pay for your loot. I’ve never bought anything duty free and this doesn’t make me a better or political person – it may actually be a scientific indicator of cluelessness. But shopping duty free is one of those doors I don’t want to open because I can never close it again, sort of like Ouija boards or shoplifting or cocaine.
I used to have a summer job at one of those stores where you’d give me your name and then I’d bring out a large book and I’d magically find your family crest – which you could then order and have shipped to your house at a nonsensically high price. Much heraldry is nonsense, but comforting nonsense. After a month my boss told me that when people travel, their sense of self begins to erode and they need to purchase something, anything, to shore up their sense of identity. It’s why airports sell stickers and pins and car decals from around the world. (Kiss me, I’m Oirish!) Once I learnt that, the job entered creepy territory and I moved on.
I was in China last year and ran out of clean clothes to the point where I had to buy a new shirt at the airport if I was going to make it through a 10-hour flight home.
I chose a Lacoste shirt from a boutique that cost pretty much the same price as it does anywhere. In flight I realised I’d purchased the only authentic piece of designer clothing in the entire country.
There’s nothing to buy in China; everything’s fake. If you want something “Chinese-y”, best just go to your city’s local Chinatown and get stuff there. It’s faster, cheaper, easier and probably what you wanted anyway. In the end I collected cigarettes. Chinese tobacco packaging is really beautiful – imperial yellows and reds and blues – and it doesn’t have big scary ugly health warnings on it. (Smoking is nature’s way of killing popular people.) I collected 64 different packs and framed them and hung them up by my studio door. When my art dealer brought a Chinese art collector by for a visit, he remained stone-faced until he saw the packages, and then a switch flipped and he became animated and fun, and he began discussing the class implications of each brand: those ones are only for bureaucrats, and those ones are the ones people with Audi A6’s smoke, and those are for peasants and . . . He was so excited about them that I sold him the whole framed piece and, in some magic way, that transaction became shorthand for the entire world of art and art dealing.
I live in Vancouver, where we used to have just one Chinatown, but now we have quite a few depending on what sort of Chinese you are: Taiwanese, northern Chinese, Shanghai Chinese, Hong Kongese or Singaporean. Many of these new Chinese people are kind of embarrassed by the old Chinatown which still, unwittingly and charmingly, fosters a sort of Suzie Wong/marines-on-shore-leave variety of Chinese consumer identity that froze around 1962 – which is something I actually really love – but I suspect the 21st-century Vancouver Chinese person would choose to be identified by a 2014 Mercedes S500 sedan instead of a strand of paper lanterns. And in any event, the Suzie Wong Chinatown is now being razed to make way for condo towers, and that’s what makes Vancouver Vancouver – every 10 years it becomes a totally different city.
Airports: I fly more than most people, and I really have to congratulate HSBC for targeting what is probably the single most potent metaphor for globalisation – the airport jetway ramp – and for branding a piece of infrastructure in a kickass manner that hasn’t been seen since Hitler championed the autobahn. For years HSBC had a campaign which most of us who flew from A to B remember well: Smart/stupid; stupid/smart; love/hate; hate/love. And so on. But now they’ve got a new campaign where they show corn made of knitted textiles, and where Hereford cows have black patches shaped like continents and . . . it’s just creepy.
It reinforces your biggest worries about globalisation: that it’s boring, alienating and controlled by technocratic elites who feel sorry for you for having to fly commercial, not private, and that any resistance to their decreed future is futile.
Here’s something I read online: “Shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed, a Russian bureaucrat travelled to the west to seek advice on how the market system functioned. He asked the English economist Paul Seabright to explain who was in charge of the supply of bread to London. He was astonished by the answer: ‘Nobody.’” Obviously. In bread capitalism, everything from wheat fertilisers to brioche-making night-school classes is done by private initiative. But if, in the end, the ownership of the bread industry or any other industry globalises to the point where there are only a few players, aren’t we right back to a default Soviet system where the supply of bread or what have you is centralised and crypto-communist? And in this new system, both power and profit go to the One Per Cent – the new Politburo. Its shield? Globalisation is so boring people fall asleep before they can articulate the issue. Boringness is the superpower of communism. Globalisation might kill you but, first, it puts you to sleep.
Douglas Coupland’s most recent novel is ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, published by Heinemann. Twitter: @dougcoupland
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published