From the parking lot it looks like a strip mall, as drab and blockish as any shopping complex on the outskirts of any South African town.
But walk through its LED-spangled doors, past handwritten signs reading “Woman help wanted”, and you realise you’re not in Cape Town any more. You’re in Chinatown.
The name has exotic, even romantic, echoes, but here it’s being used with unblinking literalness. This is a piece of China. Built by China, staffed by China and, most obviously, stocked by China. It’s an unironic, unapologetic outpost of China’s capitalist empire. And it is bizarre.
Here, dominatrix boots share space with demure headscarves. There, Wolverine scowls from an oddly smeared plastic coffin: closer examination reveals that the paint on his face was still wet when they boxed him. Next to him, the beloved characters from the Disney blockbuster Freeze, a name combining the joy of a magical ice princess with the drama of Dirty Harry cornering a perp.
I don’t want to knock people who recycle or who make a concerted effort to save the planet. We owe it to future generations to cut down on our consumption. Right now, three billion little children in Asia and Africa are gazing at us with big, watery eyes, begging us not to use up all the planet’s resources, pleading with us not to deprive them of their birthright to join the middle class and have their own houses full of plastic and cars full of petrol.
Are you willing to take away a little child’s hopes of a lounge suite made entirely of petroleum products? Are you so cruel that you would tell a little boy or girl that they can’t burn a forest to plant palm oil for their lipstick and margarine?
No, it is our duty to cut back now so that when the global middle class really gets going, and makes the last century years look like story time around a hunter-gatherer’s campfire, the new breed of super-consumers can get maximum bang for their borrowed, plastic buck.
The writing is on the wall, just next to those party packs of silver plastic phrases like “Merry celebrations!”
(If you won’t do it for them, at least do it for you. Do it so that one day when you die and they cremate you and add your soot to the carbon miasma, or put you in a pine box that was irrigated with water leased from Nestlé, you can meet your maker with a clear conscience, knowing that you really did something.)
The problem with all of this, though, is that once you’ve seen Chinatown, you realise that any effort at sustainability is futile. The writing is on the wall, just next to those party packs of silver plastic phrases like “Merry celebrations!” and “Party day!”
We’re done. We’re cooked, deep-fried in the half-price Teflon wok of globalisation, sizzling in a puddle of melted polyester, gently stirred with a pink, fake Hello Kitty spatula.
It’s fun to mock the quality of the Chinese onslaught; to marvel at the startlingly soft, inflammable blankets made of medical waste and panda dandruff, emblazoned with the likeness of Budd Lightsabre, the badly drawn love child of plagiarism and pop culture. But the quality isn’t really the problem. It’s the quantity.
When you wander through the alleys of Chinatown, with its dim canyons of shoes and neon-lit plains of jerseys and baseball caps, you understand that this isn’t just a piece of economic theory. This is a physical phenomenon, too. The dawning of China’s new age was an earthquake, and now a tsunami of tat is surging around the world, washing away local industries, drowning entire economies in cheap crap.
Technically, it’s trade and industry, but when you’re actually touching its chemical-scented, 15% cat wool surface, it also feels like insanity; a frenzied creature chasing its tail towards an inevitable collapse. Looking at this world of material awfulness, you can’t help letting your mind drift back up the supply chain; from this warehouse to the Cape Town docks, and then east, across oceans, up rivers and railways, to small, blackened towns, choked with fumes, where factories pump out deformed Wolverine heads…
It’s quite a thing to glimpse. It’s strangely comforting, too. It makes your concerns feel small, even insignificant, as if you’re fussing with a nose cold and then look up into the night sky to see the moon starting to split in half. Your snot is entirely forgotten as you gape at the first moments of a change whose effects you can’t begin to imagine.
Perhaps the lead-tainted toothpaste will go back into the tube one day. Perhaps the tsunami will subside, leaving a thousand years worth of wind-up hopping penises and SpongeBob Rectangular Trousers colouring-in books strewn over acres of the planet. But I suspect that, for now, at least, the future is plastic and costs R10. Just don’t expect a receipt.