Tales From The City
1 - 15 Aug 2015
For someone who has lived close to the historical and even seedier parts of the city for almost 20 years now, there are indeed many tales to tell about life in the metropolis. This concrete jungle with its ever changing urban scape is the backdrop and witness to the countless unfolding and undoing of its transient inhabitants. Some were born in the city though many came from all over the country and also from abroad with hopes,dreams and desires to be fulfilled. They came looking for the good life….
The trouble with living is that you have to make a living, and living for many in the city is literally a daily struggle just to earn a few extra dollars.The locals complained that they’re under paid though in a country of millions only a few percent of the population are engaged in something significant or deemed worthy enough to be taxed. On the other hand, the foreign workers come mostly as cheap labour to be employed in the service, plantation, manufacturing, construction and sex industries with the handful of expatriates who were head hunted as experts and specialists in highly technical fields that the country is unable to produce in sufficient numbers even after decades of government funded education.
The city streets are crowded from early mornings till late evenings with sleep walking day dreamers sashaying down imaginary runways parading their branded (usually European) goods or cheap Asian imitations. Their eyes fixated on the screens of the latest gadget while bobbing their heads to a background of catchy corporate jingles augmented by danceable beats that subliminally, in a series of steady rhythms, knocks into our heads the idea that capitalism is freedom to pursue the profit motive at the expense of all else in order to achieve the ‘Good Life’. (Get Rich or Die Trying)
The shops, showrooms, boutiques, departmental stores and the web are where we spend our hard earned to materialize our visions of the good life. Though only small amounts of money are required for daily essentials to feed our needs, staggering sums are spent just to satisfy our wants. The buying and selling does not subside even as evening descends. A different kind of crowd throngs the filthy street corners and dirty back lanes for a different kind of transaction, one where lost virtues can result in profitable gains for its sellers who peddled all kinds of forbidden services to satiate a buyer’s natural and unnatural urges. (Everything is for Sale if the Price is Right)
The city is abuzz with life and activities and only sleeps for an hour or less (4am) before coming back to life again (4.30am). One prominent feature of this center of commerce are the endless billboards, neon signs, banners and other visual electronic screamers screaming for attention. The young (and not so young) and the excitable are initially bedazzled and impressed with the city’s surrounding spectacle of light and sound. However, when their senses grow numb from the constant cacophonous bombardments, many would wake up ,usually years later, deaf with disillusionment or blind with cynicism, to the fact that all that din and flashes of lights were nothing more than calculated images, sounds and words to tease, titillate and persuade us to part with our hard earned.
The glitzy cycle of sales pitching continues with its host of old light switch flippers, narrators and actors now replaced with new ones who enthusiastically rehash the same old trite scripts with new catchphrases or sound bites accompanied by newly commissioned jingles and updated lighting systems to bedazzle and impress a whole new generation of would-be dispirited cynics with their sequels, prequels or reboots.
The city is also a strange place where one can rub shoulders or share spaces with millions of strangers daily and still feel at home. On the subways, stations,buses, the trains and even in restaurants, we feign indifference or automatically offer the standard courteous nod or smile, while at waiting rooms or especially in cabs, we engage in casual conversations about everything in general and nothing in particular with the drivers.
And how many of us feel a sense of pride to see, while commuting around the city in buses, trains and cars, the growing number of banks, corporations, insurance companies, hotels, malls and high end apartments or condos looming high on each side, every corner and intersections. Never mind that their sudden presence have erased local histories, caused many small local businesses to close, raised property prices exponentially and forced the original inhabitants to relocate to other areas further from the city center. Only a handful of the country’s population actually works in such places while the rest of us have no dealings with them unless out of necessity. We will never be able to afford to shop there or own one of those apartments or condo units in light of the growing wealth gap.
The number of poor are the strongest indictment that a country has not done enough to elevate the well being of its citizens, thus the governments and the mercantile classes are of the opinion that there is a ‘need’ to introduce ‘more’ progress and development as a logical step to combat poverty and elevate standards of living. Should we feel justified when the powers that be bulldoze and level the homes of urban squatters, ‘illegal’ villages and makeshift abodes of the hardcore poor with the excuse that they’re ‘in the way of progress’ just so some crony developers can build more roads, pedestrian bridges, highways, shopping malls, high end apartments and condominiums and what not on the prime land these people have been sitting on for generations?
Should we feel a tinge of nationalistic pride when the powers that be cites the ‘shame and humiliation’ felt to be reminded of our subjugation under colonial yoke as reasons to replace colonial era buildings with new ones, usually some convulated chimaera pigeon holes masquerading as some swanky post- post modern architecture that barely disguises the monstrous intents and appetites of the neo-liberals behind it who are now the neo-colonialists working hand in glove with the current establishments just as the previous ones did hundreds of years ago to profit from the masses and the environment?
The debt ridden, the bankrupts, the destitute, the unimaginative and the burnt out quitters grudgingly resign themselves to a life that is deemed less than ideal to the ones promoted in colourful catalogues, glossy magazines or in the electronic screens which they grew up reading, watching and fantasized about. Many would conveniently place the blame for their misfortunes on the ‘incompetent’ establishments (which they themselves voted to power) for not managing the country, its security and the economy well or the greedy transnational corporations run by those ‘blond haired’,‘slant eyes’ and the ‘hooked noses’ for screwing up things, forgetting that it is the same governments that have allowed these corporations to set up shop in the first place so that jobs could be created to arrest the simmering discontent among the many unemployed young urban dwellers and (to be honest unemployable) graduates from the degree mills, proletariats and even peasants from taking to the streets. Many would also irrationally blame their own low stations in life and missed opportunities on the foreign workers for taking away from them what they presumptuously perceived to be low paying 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) which they and their children shun anyway as beneath them in their pursuit of the good life.
And what is this ‘good’ life that was promised to us by each competing political parties jostling for power to govern? What is this ‘good life’ that our family and friends religiously prayed, worked and hoped for all their lives? What is this ‘good’ life that is incessantly promoted or alluded to by the governments of the day, the religious institutions and the corporations?
Whatever it is, the good life is the opposite of what causes distress, fear and loathing, which usually are what brings us discomfort, burden,shame, pain, loss and sorrow. We rage and labour so as to be able to escape from those circumstance into a better one. However, everything has a price to pay. Indeed, each of us has a price, and our price will usually depend on how low the competition are selling theirs. Those who can or are willing to go low, thrives, while those who can’t or won’t, merely survives.
As I’m writing this I can hear the Muslim’s hourly call to prayers through the loud speaker of a near by surau and the sirens of a dozen or so ambulances intermittently throughout the day trying to manoeuvre their way in one of the most congested parts of the city to the capital’s main hospital. Both have a sense of urgency, the former being a loud reminder to drop everything else one is currently doing and fulfil one’s obligation to the Almighty for the sake of one’s soul while the latter frantically imploring others to speedily make way for the sake of saving a few lives.
These city streets, the stories that they tell, be it heaven or hell, depends very much on the decisions we make, the chances we take or the rules we break in our pursuit of the good life.
By T S Hon – Art Writer
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