One of the finer pleasures of life in Taiwan is that brands cease to signify.
Apparently, when a shirt has its tag slashed and goes on sale for a third of its American retail in a store generically named “Outlet”, it is also stripped of the ability to indicate social class, taste, or economic standing.
A stout housewife in middle-age brings out all the shapeless frumpiness you’d never guess was in an Abercrombie sweatshirt from its usual setting, draped with calculated provocation across some lithe and nubile teen.
There’s a carnival air to this upending of expectations, which I find perpetually refreshing. Asia really is a parallel universe. The basic criterion for a parallel universe is that everything must initially seem the same, but reveal itself to be subtly different, as though the mirror dividing and begetting the two realms were slightly warped.
The housewife, who is probably engaged in some activity like rinsing her steamer trays with a hose over the gutter of an empty lane, is wearing the sweatshirt because it was cheap, because it was a factory second, because it belongs to her daughter now working in Shanghai, or because it’s not really an Abercrombie sweatshirt at all.
Knockoffs run the gamut from the bald and careless to the fairly meticulous. On one end are those whose blatancy is the obvious product of shamelessness. The athletic brand IKE, above a slightly shorter and less graceful swoosh (ah, for an aesthetics of the swoosh!), can be faulted for laziness and lack of creativity, but not for really giving a damn. At the other end, appropriation approaches self-consciousness: the bakery Just Do Eat has almost entitled itself with punny ingenuity to use of the same swoosh, in its case an stretched croissant. NET, a popular and fashionable domestic clothing chain, fills much the same mildly upscale market niche as The Gap, whose font it apes.
Of course, as is sometimes the case with close-up work, it turns out on taking a step back that, artisan forger though you are, you have been maniacally attentive to the wrong things.
I once saw “dimberlanT” embroidered on a man’s fleece sweater above the zippered chest pocket. The font was impeccable, just as it was another time, for the improbably lengthy and nonsensical name “Cavalier KillerDiller”, which replaced the comparatively banal Calvin Klein in superimposition over the standard CK initials—also, needless to say, perfectly reproduced.
This last was in the subway, on a hat a stout middle-aged woman was wearing, a candystriped plastic sack of fresh fruit swinging from the arm she kept folded to her chest, her fist clenched over her cardigan. I noticed all these things, despite not being able for several minutes to tear my gaze from her hat. A fascination that she, fortunately, did not remark, as she was shorter and it went quite literally—perhaps also figuratively—over her head.
What gives rise to these phenomena: accuracies of appearance and comedies of content? Is it because to the Chinese our alphabet seems a set of symbols as arbitrary, albeit much simpler, as their language does to us? So that in comprehension’s absence, graphic perfection lends a certain focus to the counterfeiter’s craft? Failing logos, they turn to eikon (though logos are in fact the very thing in question). Of course, we owe to Pound this notion that the Chinese mind, shaped by its image language, has an inherently pictorial approach to the world, and we should not take this too far. Simon Leys is quick to administer to Pound’s “mistaken notion” the corrective that “most Chinese characters are not ‘tiny pictures’—stricto sensu pictographs represent barely one percent of the Chinese lexicon.”
What is clear is that middle-aged ladies have an ear to the grapevine for the best in knockoffs. I have been to craft fairs where Taipei hipsters fringués à la japonaise hawk their original street gear—rhinestone Elvis ballcaps, Bruce Lee and Buddha shirts, fluffy cell phone muffs with cartoon faces attaining a concentrated Japanese cuteness. It may be that hipness by design never trumps hipness by serendipity. Nevertheless, I try to support the local artists, whose work, even when derivative, comes with the rather exclusive assurance, usually only to be found at the far other end of the price spectrum, of being limited in quantity.
How do I feel about shopping at places named “Outlet”? I feel so much more morally superior knowing the skimpier markups aren’t lining corporate pockets. Sometimes, deep in the racks of these shops so garb-packed as to seem veritable orchards of apparel, a fresh scent wafts to me on a faint breeze—the odor of the sweatshop—and I reach up to pluck the fruit of exploitation.
I realized last year, while packing to move here, that my shirts which did not say Made in China on their labels said Made in Thailand. It seemed silly to treat them to a trip home, so I left most of them behind. Which was convenient, because wherever I go, I can never bring enough books.
Then again, my laptop was also made here, in Asia. Consistency of principle is so tricky. Perhaps I should give up and buy directly from The Gap.
It is to be gathered from my ramblings that despite an ever more occasional yearning for highbrow credibility, I am not above adding to the Internet’s vast store of Engrish. Let us not forget, in our fascination or laughter, that a similar hilarity can ensue, and does with increasing frequency, when Westerners sport shirts or worse, tattoos, with miswritten Asian characters on them, as Tian Tang so ably tracks on his blog Hanzismatter. Still, a cheaper source of laughs for the average foreigner is not to be found. Said the man with the rifle, there’s fish in them thar barrel. I always listen to the man with the gun.
Cavalier KillerDiller, incidentally, will be my next screen name. I call dibs.
UPDATE: My brother chimes in with this link to fascinating fusion calligraphy. Still kinda hard to read, but perhaps even a possible future of the western fetish for Asian characters, as evidenced in tattoos and tees. Watch this guy get picked up by the art design team of Serenity 2.