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

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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 patterns.

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 trade.

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