I write from Singapore, overlooking the monstrous Orchard Road: an entire region dedicated to the pursuits of materliasm. In particular, shopping.
I’ve lived in London, Hong Kong and Los Angeles and have never laid eyes on such a place. It is completely comprehensive: every single shop I’ve ever heard of from Louis Vuitton to Marks and Spencer; H&M to one dollar knock-off shops. It is magestic, bombastic and completely sure of its intentions. In a city which is utterly confused of its identity, this is one thing it’s sure of.
A flood of garish Christmas lights, miles of Malls, escalators and cinematic advertising. It is overwhelming in scale. Singapore is a city still falling in love with capitalism. The second-world war and Japanese rule saw it reduced to depravity, and almost third-world levels of poverty. Over the last 50 years, it has grown into an economic superpower, and continues, somehow, to avoid the global recession.
The result is a city that is completely uncynical, because it’s only just discovering the joys of consumption, materialism, excess and decadence. As teenager and twentysomething in London, I faced a very different world. Of course, there were still bankers, still skyscrapers, still opulent living. But there was also boredom, ennui, disillusion and sniggering self-satisfied irony.
It was my parents’ generation who made money, who strove for success, and who were full of the thrill and novelty of excess. It was the yuppies of the 1980s who lived for it, breathed it: expensive red wine, cigars, Armani suits, sports cars and penthouses. By the time I came of age in the late ’90s and early noughties, my contemporaries had decided they were over it. It was naff. Gross. Cliched. Boring. Plastic.
So we reacted against it. We were cynical, and bored, and most importantly, we were ironic. We traded in wine bars for deliberately bashed-up, mished mashed rundown pubs and warm, weak beer. We traded cigars for roll-ups and Armani suits for vintage Levi’s denim and our grandfathers’ cardigans. Knackered bicycles were the favoured mode of transport and we shunned penthouses for grotty council flats in rundown areas. Not because we had to, but because we chose to.
One of my heroes, the lanky, laconic Jarvis Cocker summed it up perfectly in his ’90s anthem of ironic artiness:
Rent a flat above a shop,
cut your hair and get a job.
Smoke some fags and play some pool,
pretend you never went to school.
But still you’ll never get it right,
cos when you’re laid in bed at night,
watching roaches climb the wall,
if you call your Dad he could stop it all.
As I left England for Hong Kong a year and a half ago, my mates weren’t even going to restaurants any more. They were bored of them. They favoured the new trend of ‘supperclubs’, in which (usually) arty, lefty, graphic designers opened up their high-ceilinged Victorian living rooms and turned them into pop-up restaurants once a week. A group of friends and friends of friends would hear about it through a blog or Twitter and turn up for dinner. Locally sourced, organic fare, obviously. And it was illegal. Sort of, anyway. Pretty thrilling when the closest you’ve got to breaking the law was the occassional joint of bad hash.
Even night clubs were tacky. Instead, a mate of a mate would put on a night in an attic above a bashed up old pub in Hoxton. The music would be ironic, the decor non-existent. Attendees would sport ironic handlebar moustaches, ironic Elton John t-shirts, ironic glasses and smoke ironic roll-ups. As if that wasn’t enough, even technology had started to become boring. Obvious. Too useful.
I remember a company in Hackney which turned ’80s Sony Walkmans (the ones as big as a suitcase) into iPods. You could send off your iPod to them, and they’d install it cleverly into the Walkman casing. As you walked down the street, carrying your Walkman, it looked like you were so cool, so retro, so bored, so ironic that you continued to listen to music on cassette. But – snigger – only you knew the truth.
While the rest of the world was thrilled by the merciless striding of technology, while the Japanese started to invent mobile phones that were so small you could inject them into your ear, the hipsters of London and New York bought and traded mid-’90s Nokias from eBay. The bigger the better.
Back to Singapore and what strikes me is that they’re not bored. Yet. They’re still excited. They’re still falling in love with excess. They’re still building bigger hotels, buying more expensive Pinot Noir, and carrying Yves Saint Laurent luggage. Somehow in the midst of all the opulence it’s simpler, purer, more unassuming. And who could blame them? A few decades ago, there wasn’t even any rice to eat. No wonder they’re excited by it all.
But the boredom’s coming. If you walk around Mong Kok in Hong Kong, I think you see the beginnings. Hipsters in thick-rimmed glasses with no lenses. Surely that’s the first step? Fashion which isn’t just without function, it’s actually directly opposing functionality. Because they’re bored. Because they’re not worried about where their next meal is coming from. And they’re no longer falling in love with materialism.
I can just imagine my grandmother: “What a liberty! In my day, you were lucky if you had a pair of prescription glasses on the NHS.”
So what of it all? So what?
Nothing, really, other than I think it’s an inevitable pattern of events: poverty, prosperity, materialism, excess, boredom with excess, sniggering irony.
And what of that? Nothing other than there must be something else. Right? Because none of that is ever going to satisfy. For the Singapore businessman, he will never be rich enough. For the London hipster, he’ll never he ironic enough. No matter how many Hall and Oates records he owns, on vinyl, obviously. No matter how many haircuts he can wear on his head at the same time. It will never be enough.