Surfacing out of the sticky concoction that was today’s rumination was the issue of Asian Grocery Stores. It would appear that a whole other continent of logic is at work in these peculiar outlets. Few can admit to not being taken aback by the eclectic collections of ‘wares’ in these veritable Aladdin’s caves. I live near the unaptly named Victoria Street, which is awash with an incredible multitude of these perverse forays into retail psychosis. Stretching out as far as my astigmatic eyes can see is a cavalcade of Noodle Soup houses interspersed between impossibly tiny shops that espouse to sell amongst many other oddities the embodiments of “Convenience” and “Bargain”. (Feel free to visualise morbidly obsessed rhythmic dancer temporarily separated from sanity choreographing dance of Convenience to scratchy cassette soundtrack whilst wearing costume of Fifty Cent Pot Scourers)
Perhaps this all stems from some hitherto unrealised language barrier. Perhaps “convenience” means something else in South East Asia. Perhaps I am suffering cultural illiteracy when I fail to fathom the very essence of what these earnest shop owners are trying to achieve. Who knows? Go with me on this one.
The parade begins arbitrarily on the corner of Church and Victoria St, heading in an Easterly direction. You ease in to Victoria Street; a few mobile phone purveyors, the requisite ludicrously flashy Asian jewellery explosions, the odd poster of some doe eyed J-Pop queen in a soft focus / soft porn setting selling nauseating yet strangely soulful “baby i rrrrove you” ballads. Then slowly; little by little, the terrain morphs. Though it may appear to be a straight line on the map, those who have traversed it and remained coherent at its termination on Hoddle St can tell you, it’s a brick paved roller coaster ride of assaulting odours, neon promises, culinary phantasmagoria and interminable screeching.
There is an ‘eat or be eaten’ attitude here; and clearly the four legged amongst us are losing out. (As are the two legged and winged, the finned, the clawed and whatever the Hell That Is in the big red bucket) Entire shoals of fish flip flop their way into buckets and spend the last hours of life eyeing the passing street life with myopic malevolence from uniformly khaki coloured tanks. On occasion one will lie back and surrender to death, only to be left bobbing up and down ingloriously or lodged for posterity somewhere behind the filter. Outside on the pavement in a parody of the rock pools from which they were rounded up are crate loads of bound and gagged crabs scuttling listlessly whilst awaiting the pleasure of being boiled alive. So cleverly designed are crabs, yet so easily foiled by rubber bands. Moving on from the scaly stink of Poseidon’s garage sale one is greeted by macabre window displays of glistening headless ducks dripping fat seductively. Butchery here takes on Olympic proportions and few windows are complete without the addition of the ominously worn chopping block and well honed head removing machete. Continuing with the Head Removal theme one will be delighted to note that every now and again in a peculiar homage to Lord of the Flies one can stare eye ball to eye socket with the thinking end of a pig. (Alice herself then appears, only to discover that the White Rabbit has been eaten and the Red Queen is still screaming “Off with their heads”)
But I digress.
Past the sea treasures and cornucopia of barbecued corpses one encounters these vortexes of lunacy, the retail equivalent of a hundred year long game of Word Association. Walls will rupture open and spew forth unintelligible yet artfully arrayed piles of domestic necessities; a whimsical juxtaposition of the fearfully tacky with the Buy in Bulk and Save mentality. Enter the fluorescent lit jaws of the Animal and navigate your way Jonah-like through the belly of a creature that swallowed Everything. As reality recedes from the doorway fringed with Brooms for Witches accept that you are now in foreign territory, swept out into uncharted waters with only a small plastic basket to sail in and the moon like eyes of many watchful Hello Kitties to navigate by. One slip and it’s all over, you’ll be head first into a bin of ping pong balls and drowning in economically priced ice blue eyeshadow. Clumsily stumble with your enormous Westerner feet in the tiny aisles and expect to die agonisingly impaled on the barbs of a folding clothes rack. Other treasures contained within whisper of the promise of homes brimming with an abundance of pearlescent plastic delights, feverishly decorated by the tiny hands of shameless idolaters of Tissue Box Coverings. Wandering the aisles of such Flights of Fancy one is serenaded sporadically by mechanical bird chirping, the odd cartoon style alarm clock with bells of Brass Band worthiness and the dulcet tones of frightfully merry wind chimes. Once your eyes have adjusted to the kaleidoscopic whirl of toxic green feather dusters and suspicious looking jelly snacks it becomes clear that our Asian neighbours are prone to stackable storage rituals and suffer from an epidemic of maladies that can only be cured with the application of many cotton buds and sets of manicured synthetic stick on finger nails. A sense of disproportion is overwhelming; miniature plastic eating implements cower under the glare of 3 litre bottles of soy sauce, whilst gargantuan quantities of toilet paper loom over questionably small folding chairs. Are we really talking about the same backsides here? (Alice appears again, just in time for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party)
It is inadvisable to attempt to enter one of these Institutions for the Devastation of your Sanity with any shopping agenda in mind. Toss out the list and wipe those scrawlings off the back of your hand. What lies behind the bead curtain is Anyone’s guess, and sometimes even the Shopkeeper’s as well; it is not uncommon when quizzed on the whereabouts of a seemingly innocuous item to be greeted with outraged eyebrows, mutterings of “Over there” and a wave in the direction of the Type Writer Ribbon, Souvenir Toe Nail Clippers and Velvet Wall Art. That said; one constant in all these Emporiums of Illogicality is an abundance of and diverse representation of many varieties of String. Should you ever find yourself in the grip of a String Crisis, crawl in on your knees in gratitude for here laid before your unworthy self somewhere near the naphthalene flakes, toy harmonicas and acrylic roses is All Your String Wishes come true at once. The armchair anthropologist in me muses momentarily on the importance of string in the cultures of South East Asia and I segue off into my usual if “I was an Archaeologist in the Future and I excavated this site what would I make of this?” routine. Would I be flummoxed? Perturbed? Perplexed? Would I tap a colleague on the shoulder and say “Can I get your esteemed opinion on this?” Or would I jealously guard my findings and write a sizzling expose on this newly discovered Ancient Asiatic Bondage Obsession?
I live to digress.
So here we have it, a raucous array of slaughter and ravage juxtaposed with cotton balled cuteness and imitation Good Cheer. Skip over the entrails on the footpath and fold your tiny little dreams into your perkily organised drawers. Everything’s on Special.