South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Tha Tien
Date: April 22, 1995 11:55

17:53 Tha (pier) Tien; Bangkok-Thailand :: 21 APR 95

There's a little restaurant here at the pier that serves a great Phat Thai (rice noodles in a uniquely Thai sauce) and a killer Tom Yam (hot and sour soup). Unfortunately, they apparently discontinue food service sometime around 5PM. At least you can still get a Singha.

Singha is Thailand's most prolific brewer. You can buy it pretty much anywhere as licenses to sell are either extremely easy to come by or completely unnecessary. The price for a 630 ml bottle goes anywhere from 40 to 90 baht, that is, between $2.25 and $5 CDN, depending on how likely the imbiber is to be a tourist. It's best to buy the stuff ice-cold when possible. With lagers, particularly marginal ones like Singha, a frigid beer is a good beer and anything else is like chewing fresh barley.

I've flirted with Sang Thip a couple times. It's significantly cheaper than beer. As far as whiskeys go, though, Kentucky sour mash seems like 'sipping whisky' in comparison. A little bit in a glassful of coke ain't bad though.

Tha Tien services the Chao Phraya east bank, while across the river Wat Arun rises 82 meters, the tallest structure visible from the pier. The vantage belies both sprawl and rise of the city. Even from Wat Arun's second terrace, some 30 meters above the river ferries, the metropolitan mass escapes detection. Yesterday, from the 5th floor food fair of Tokyu mall, I saw Bangkok for the first time. It is like rising from dense field grass to find yourself in a forest glade, trees obscuring trees in all directions. And the trees multiply quickly.

The proliferation of concrete and glass trees signals the coming of the west. At the roots are fast-food, banks and fashion chains while food stalls, watch sellers and T-shirt hawkers cling to the sidewalk like moss. In the upper stories deals are struck to plant more trees. The dry season is coming and the moss will die.

Katrin and I commented to one another that the economic livelihood revolved about passing the same coins between the sole-proprietors of businesses and their families. In the morning I sell you my chicken and in the evening I buy your chicken stir-fry. Even as the canals are filled in to build new expressways and the glass towers and commercial chains squeeze out the small operator, there is talk within the Thai government of eliminating food stalls and minor markets with the Grand Palace's vicinity.

The economic livelihood of western individuals involves renting one's skills or muscles to a logo. This is water for the corporate tree.

I'm not certain which system provides the superior guarantee of income or, more importantly, well-being. I am certain that one will largely supplant the other in Asia and that Asians anticipate the mythological splendour they are certain will follow.

20:57 Saswasdee House; Bangkok-Thailand :: 21 APR 95

I suppose this stuff represents only a retelling of observations made earlier in Malaysia. But then my inclination was to predict a uniquely Far-East stamp on the Western infiltration. A walk along Thanon Silom dispelled that notion. It is just another up-market hotel and retail strip with some scattered moss clinging for dear life. When the government decides to reduce or eliminate sidewalk shops there, it will become "Bangkok's Rodeo Drive". The world moves one street closer to the global conformity implied by a global market. Meanwhile, the bulldozers clear land for the next row of trees.

It may seem I'm arguing from both sides of the fence. The pollution, decay and dilapidation all represent potential hazards to the welfare of a people already living a substandard existence. Why argue against an economic system that has produced the highest standards of living in the world?

Because that system has also produced the greatest stratification of incomes in the world. One cannot examine the US economy without recognising the importance of cheap labour and resources made available to its corporations by compliant Central and South American 'fledgling democracies' (as American officials like to call some of the most ruthless dictatorships on earth). This relationship represents the necessary and sufficient condition for American prosperity.

If the favourable condition were removed then the American standard of living would plummet. American businessmen and politicians know this all too well and have laboured strenuously, often violently, to maintain the profitable status quo-even before Teddy's Big Stick staked out in no uncertain terms the American political sphere of influence. Economists write entries in two books when the balance sheet on the index of American standard of living doesn't recognize both the sweat and property put into the US economy by people of the Third World and the paltry remuneration paid for their input. That is, the GNP implicitly includes the favourable value of foreign labour and resources while the vaunted American Standard of living explicitly excludes the living standards of the people residing in the regions providing that value. The US considers the region part of their political/economic sphere but not its people.

More recently, economists have been talking 'global economy'. I haven't given this term much thought until recently. Suddenly it strikes me that 'global economy' and 'free trade' are basically synonyms. At least, you can't really have the former without the latter. Trade restrictions always create regional economies.

Let me paraphrase what one economist said about the effects of free trade: when barriers to trade between two countries are removed then the richest people in the poorest country rise in living standards to the level of the richest people in the richest country, meanwhile, the poorest people in the richest country fall in their living standard to the level of the poorest people in the poorest country. Tellingly, the economist stated this without the slightest note of chagrin or regret. Under free trade, at least the statistics on American standard of living will more accurately reflect the effects of the American economy on the people it touches.

But why does this happen? Well, in reality it's been happening for years. Corporate profitability is largely a function of establishing a presence in a growing market. You can define 'growing market' from the perspective of the product or the perspective of the consumer. That is, come up with a new product that everyone wants, or discover some as yet untapped supply of consumers and sell them that languishing inventory of hula hoops. If you can do both at the same time, so much the better.

However, corporations all over the world are in love with the idea of all those third-world and post-communist people who've never grown tired of yo-yos or bought a computer. (If you want to buy into a growth market, I suggest cellular phone technology. If you fell down in any mall in Asia your head would be in one communications shop and your feet in another.) The only thing standing in the way of Whammo and Microsoft are those pesky trade barriers governments have erected to keep those greedy corporations from sucking money and property out of their country. But hey, it's a global market now, right?

So in the process of economic globalisation, free trade is just the next most logical step. In part, free trade aids multinational corporations that have already built operations and created markets in 'developing economies'. Essentially, removing international barriers to trade removes the ugly impedance these barriers create in otherwise intra-corporate transactions. The need to distinguish a corporation as 'multi-national' is extinguished.

On a more 'micro' economic level, say down to the family or individual, what the 'global economy' really means is a 'global corporate economy'. Say good-bye to the food stalls, the family restaurants, the chaotic, unfathomable and altogether wonderful central wholesale markets. Hello KFC, Sizzler and General Foods.

I'm still not sure which system is the superior, but I know which system offers me the most choice, variety and satisfaction. Moreover, McDonald's is hopelessly expensive compared to a bowl of Tom Yam soup and a coke at Tha Tien.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell? Blue skies from pain?
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell?
Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change? Did you exchange
A walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
  graphical element

Roger Waters
Pink Floyd