Expensive Trade: A Chinese Film Dramatizes the Nature of Cultural Loss

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

The film’s title refers
to an automated carwash-like shower booth into which the main character steps
for a grooming upgrade during his busy business day moving from one mega-modern
building to another. Then our hero returns to his hometown where his father
and retarded brother own and manage a bathhouse in which the portly, well-off
seniorish men of whichever town it is come to be massaged, to bathe, to gossip,
to read, to gamble–all with that lazy laconic sense that they are living
their lives at their own pace and with a sense of limited controllable luxury
and no big deal. The rest of the story deals with the threats to the bathhouse
and the life it reflects posed by economic development and the municipality’s
desire to remove the quietly scenic and tradition-redolent structure in favor
of yet another blockbuster Trumpesque tower expressing all the urgency and wealth
and verve of the modern world. Just around the single-story corner of the old
part of town looms the great free market that dooms the old architecture and
way of life in favor of the crisp Style Moderne–massive, very-high-rise,
just like in Frankfurt or in Houston or in Sao Paulo–but rather like nothing
in the architectural China of traditional visual reverie.

Much of the local concern
about the free trade movement has understandably to do with the impact of globalization
on the U.S. economy. It is of course a real concern for many participants in
many sectors of the country. The impact on them is firmly and most capably described
in John R. MacArthur’s just-out The Selling of "Free Trade":
NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy
, which is not
only about free trade itself but about the political and lobbying shenanigans
in The Nation’s Capital that led to the NAFTA treaty and that continue
to manage the national agenda, for example in the recent congressional colloquy
about free trade with China. MacArthur responsibly and with admirably partisan
and sensitive verve stakes out the position of the local enterprises that have
no choice but to succumb to the export of their jobs and the erosion of local

The winners may well benefit
more than the losers lose. That’s the broad justification for the whole
initiative. But there is no comfort in this macro-utilitarian calculation for,
to take an example, the employees of the Swingline Stapler Co., who were once
gringo New Yorkers but are now Mexicans. MacArthur very adeptly traces the history
of the company, its history in this city and why free trade conditions caused
it to leave. The jobs are gone. Meanwhile, how many Mexicans have established
stapler factories in New York?

At the same time, we have
to ask: Which part of traditional Mexico–or China–was destroyed to
create the new Swingline factory that will help keep the documents of the world
niftily bound together? That is the theme of Shower. The concerns of
the Seattle Thousands were mainly about the economic impact of trade. It is
possible to argue against their position that if distributing ever-more wealth
is the goal, more trade is likely to accomplish it. But even if it is less explicit
about the esthetic consequences of worldwide enterprises than their financial
impact, there is understandable concern among the Seattle Thousands and their
sympathizers about what seems to be an implacable pattern in which one-world
formulae are used everywhere for building the same kind of structures and placing
them in the same kind of cities. So even as tourism becomes the world’s
largest industry, more and more places become more and more the same. The requirement
to handle large numbers of visitors yields fortress hotels surrounded by concrete
and cities in which they are located, whose traditional local shapes, patterns
and architecture–what tourists presumably want to see–are bulldozed
down in the name of progress. And because even tourists drawn to the exotic
also are comfortable with the familiar, the same shops and fast-feeders as at
home surround them in the new location they paid time and money, and endured
cramped knees and subnormal airplane air to visit.

All this is totally and
usually painfully obvious and yet it takes a film such as Shower to dramatize
the implacable nature of the changes and the totality of the cultural losses
they produce. No one will ever make another traditional China or a traditional
bathhouse, except perhaps at what will surely become Disney-Taiwan. While generating
rice and bread is necessary and valuable, so is the environment in which they
are consumed. And landmarks are physical but they are also of the mind.

The screening of Shower
was on W. 56th St., near which I noticed there had opened a branch of Joe’s
Shanghai, the exceptionally popular and generally affable restaurant on Pell
St. in Chinatown. Joe’s usually has a line of people, many waiting to enjoy
the soup dumplings that it helped make a popular dish. After the film, it seemed
most appropriate to head for Joe’s down the street.

The standard order on Pell
St. is eight dumplings for about $5. On W. 56th St., the haul is six dumplings
for at least a dollar more. Evidently the management wants you to treat them
as appetizers rather than full portions. For this reason, and to satisfy the
landlord, you get less for more. This is what Shower is about. Expensive