Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Century of Fakers

In Chatuchak, Bangkok’s largest outdoor market, smells compete. A bleachy chemical tang replaces a foul suggestion of powdered prawn. This is where you’ll find luxury of spurious origin—Mulberry bags, Lacoste polos, and Tom Ford perfume. There are also pets (lordly tortoises and exhausted rats) and snacks (garlicky sour sausage and thick guava juice). And there are chickens, which, I guess, straddle the pet-snack conceptual divide.

Chatuchak is a great mass of torsos swivelling in response to an abundance of stimuli. All the bodies create a constant cascade of spatial problems, which are solved immediately and inelegantly by seemingly involuntary amoeba-like movements of the general throng. It never feels like you’ve chosen to be where you are.

On this day at Chatuchak, Jennifer, a felicitous middle-aged Welsh woman on vacation, was going through a scary ordeal. She was buying gifts for her nephews in London, who had humiliated her last Christmas, when she gave them fake Paul Smith socks that they immediately threw in the garbage. They instantly knew the socks weren’t genuine. She didn’t really understand any of this. She grew up pretty poor—when she was a kid, anything that wasn’t black with coal was a nice outfit. She had no idea what made a sock anything other than a foot containment device. She was sweating gallons, trying to think like a pubescent aristocrat.

Taylor was from Utah. He had one of those meaty faces that you immediately trust—I suppose because mass is inherently trustworthy. He was wearing a fanny pack below his sleeveless black tee so I assumed he wouldn’t care about the authenticity of the Louis Vuitton bag he was buying his sister. I was wrong. He wanted to give her “the fucking stupid thing she really wants”—luxury, he said, was all about stupidity. But what really confused Taylor was that the rich kids back in Utah cared less about being rich than he did. They ate 7-Eleven hot dogs leaning on their beautiful cars. Having real money meant money meaning less. “They were just okay with that stuff,” he said, with a zoological tone in his voice. “It’s almost like they had an inherent sense of self-worth, or something.”

Counterfeit clothing is illegal in Thailand theory, but in Thailand practice, all legality feels dangerously fluid. A drug possession charge will get you years of jail time, complete with leg irons, while tourists scream enthusiasm about bars in Pai where hallucinogens are available over the counter. Porn is largely censored, but the blowjob bars are many. If you’re an unscrupulous criminal resembling this writer not one bit, you can ride a motorbike without a license, ripping through humorously dangerous traffic along a snaky mountain road. So, regardless of the law, everyone wears counterfeit everything—like a trio of panhandling children I saw wearing beautiful matching New Balance shoes.

In downtown Bangkok, MBK mall is where the real action is. It’s a place where it’s actually difficult to buy something legitimate. If you’re tired of Starbucks coffee, you can go to Star Back Coffee, right next door. You can buy Dior shades that are totally believable except for the words “so real” stenciled on the insides of their arms. Y’know, in case you were wondering.

Some of the fakes at MBK are eerily accurate. There are imitation Burberry briefcases costing about as much as decent moisturizer that nevertheless exude British expensiveness. Others are as convincing as the paper version of a plane.

The really hallucinatory thing about MBK is that prices bear no relation to quality whatsoever. I saw, for example, maybe a dozen different fake pairs of a certain Prada shoe, which were all—despite being wildly various in quality—the exact same price. A silk fake Armani tie is no more expensive than a rayon fake Armani tie. This seemed absolutely insane at first—but it actually makes perfect sense.

Say we’ve got two counterfeiters: Larry and Curly. Larry sells excellent fake Chanel bags. He has them made by skilled people in Vietnam. He charges $50 for them, making a decent profit off each bag. They sell well. Meanwhile, at the next stall over, Curly sells positively abortive fake Chanel bags. They are essentially branded plastic boxes. Curly makes them in his garage with his nephew. However, he matches Larry’s price of $50, because price is a mark of legitimacy. If Curly’s bags were on sale for $5, nobody would buy them, for the same reason that you wouldn’t buy a jam roll for a penny: it would feel suspicious, like it was made by someone intent on poisoning children. Curly sells fewer bags than Larry, but Curly still manages to sell a few to people who aren’t paying much attention. Each shitty bag Curly sells nets him an outrageous profit. He’s a highly successful fraudulent fraud.

Quality also varies in Pantip Plaza, the place where the computer stuff goes: shiny new machines all over a squat dirty sprawl. It’s three malls over fromMBK—central Bangkok is basically a forest of vertical shopping opportunities. The smell of cat pee flows around its malfunctioning escalators. The day I was there, they were filming a commercial in which an American GI shoots at a bosomy Santa in booty shorts while a robot sulks sadly in the background. I was with Courtney, a clever woman with a sly smile who ran away with me to Thailand for no discernible reason. She wanted a fake iPhone after we met someone who bought a perfectly-operational-you’d-never-guess-it-wasn’t-real model for $20. We wondered what kind of subtle insinuation she’d have to mumble to obtain such a thing. “Do you have iPhones?” she said to a guy at the stall. “Real or copy?” he replied.

The product Courtney received seemed genuine at first. It looked as pretty as an iPhone should. But it soon refused to do much of anything. When she tried to open crucial applications, the phone responded with the koan-like error message “Resources are not shelves.” Bikini’d women appeared in unbidden windows. She had to hit the screen hard to make it acknowledge her. The phone invited her to play a game of Look After Your Stone, where you take care of a pebble, by, for example, buying a piece of meat for it to cuddle.

It was about this time, while Courtney was loudly considering maiming the unit, when I started wondering why I gave a shit about all of this.

by Sasha Chapin, Hazlitt |  Read more:
Image: via Flickr user Tim Lucas