Shopping mall culture in Malaysia is ever growing, so much that one could hypothesise about the emergence of a subculture centered on the shopping mall. More and more mega mall projects are coming up as bigger portions of the population is urbanised. In this new urban jungle, identity and meaning can be purchased, for a price. Nothing new here. We've been doing this on North American soil ever since the collapse of the counter-culture, the rise to dominance of corporate individualism, and the explosion of depression, neurosis, and psychological dysfunction. The question must be asked, can you really purchase and wear your identity?
Shopping mall culture in Malaysia is ever growing, so much that one could hypothesise about the emergence of a subculture centered on the shopping mall. More and more mega mall projects are coming up as bigger portions of the population is urbanised. To date, there are several well-known, tourist-destined shopping megaliths which already are the sacred cows of Malaysian shoppers. Indeed, it is hard to resist the promise of a fantasy land where identities are created as we purchase. In Parsonsian terms this would be a pattern maintenance of life, where the population releases stress from work , study, or relationships into what is commonly called retail therapy. The globeshopping (Dubai, for a manhunt?) sisters of Sex and the City would be thrilled at such a promise. Here, one can leave behind social constructs such as worker, mother, father, son – and pick and choose merchandise based on desired lifestyle association.
In Gramscian terms, the population might be said to have been culturally dominated by the concept of retail therapy. The tools of advertising have been employed creatively within the media, and facilitated by the spread of ICT across the world. The ‘culture-ideology of consumerism’, as noted by Leslie Sklair, has incepted itself (no Leonardo DiCaprio here) into all and sundry minds.
One of these examples, of what has been mentioned here as ‘subcultures centered on the shopping mall’, would be a particular subculture in Malaysia named the ‘Ah Beng’ subculture. This subculture manifests itself through the use (and often overuse) of brand named products. More oftenly, the ersatz versions of these branded goods are used as substitutes. One can find these goods in a place called Petaling Street, a haven for knock-offs in Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia. Another shopping mall, which is almost always claimed as being the temple of the Ah Bengs, is a mall called Sungei Wang (in Malay, ‘River of Money’).
The high tide of cash flow sweeps the stores of Sungei Wang, where is located many of these ersatz shops. They specialise in selling knock-off versions of Hong Kong, Korean, and Japanese fashions and are usually owned by Malaysian Chinese. The Ah Bengs orbit these locales due to the availability of subcultural capital, namely clothes, which are in fact what makes the man for them. The subculture’s genesis then, can be seen very visibly rooted in shopping mall behaviour.
This raises a point about the ideology of the Ah Beng subculture. While subcultures have often been associated with being deviant, attempting to demarcate themselves from the mainstream, thus appropriating mainstream cultural artefacts and subverting them, the Ah Beng subculture is unique in that it is mass media driven. There is a reason and a channel behind the consumption culture of Ah Bengs and that is the mass media. The mass media, particularly the Chinese, East Asian oriented mass media is a medium which appeals to the ethnocentric values of certain Malaysian Chinese. At the same time, apart from just the language, Chinese values are implanted into its narratives. The tools of imparting these narratives then, are the celebrities from East Asia who are portrayed as living out these values.
Among these celebrities, who play an important part in corporations’ selling of lifestyles, are ominous cultural phenomena such as Korean boy bands (eg. Super Junior), Korean girl groups (eg. Wonder Girls), Taiwanese singer-songwriters (eg. Jay Chou, and Malaysian based in Taiwan, Penny Tai), and Japanese drama stars. The style of clothing worn by the celebrities and the responses they give in media interviews form a ‘lifestyle’ which is imagined by the public as a result of having been fed these fantasies. A certain ‘coolness’ associated with the image being sold then becomes the reason for wanting to look like them. This image is usually of a laidback, yet hardworking working-class hero personality who fits in with traditional Confucian values, such as filial piety. The availability of these shopping malls then becomes a quick and easy solution, with its mass range of clothing stores with low prices, as well as the new concept of ‘shoppingtainment’. This ‘shoppingtainment’, mentioned by PriceWaterHouseCoopers in a research report on shopping mall growth in Malaysia, essentially means a combination of concept space in malls, with entertainment centres, related concept stores, and hangout spots for youth to be seen. This phenomenon is similar to that of the Harajuku youth, who choose hangout spots to mainly be seen as a walking gallery of their creative fashion assemblages. Ah Bengs then usually spend their time in malls, for the purpose of being noticed.
How would Malaysians in general view the Ah Beng subculture? Some interesting responses were derived through a popular opinion survey among urban youth in Kuala Lumpur. They mentioned the Ah Beng look as:
“OVERSTATE TO ATTRACT PEOPLE LOOK AT THEM”
“torn jeans, ear-rings, torn shoes, torn shirt, etc etc etc”
“Bright colourful clothes. Leather jackets. Knee length socks. Spiky and dyed hair.”
“Body Glove, loud clothes, Korean, Taiwan-influenced fashion”
“Over the top replica of the Taiwanese and Japanese urban youth culture”
“overcolourful clothes, high socks and tight jeans”
“They usually go for the Korean/Japanese artists’ style”
“Sungei Wang fashion”
“More like gangster but not a gangster, no taste”
“shirts with oversized collars and a few buttons are left unbuttoned, clothes with huge Chinese dragon prints, bell bottom pants, bright coloured hair: blonde, green, blue etc”
“bright coloured tshirts with dragon, lion and tiger printings; wear typical ‘ahlong’ (Chinese loan shark) chain; dye hair, keep one long finger nail and ALWAYS CARRY SLING BAG!”
“the latest streetwear from China/Japan/Korea, usually very mismatched with lots of colour clash.”
“usually blond, sometimes neon bright colours & most of the time spiky hair. Some dress up like punk-rock or like famous Chinese superstars.”
“Dragon ball” hairstyle – with streaks of blond or other funky colours. Bright colored t-shirts with or without heavy prints on it or shirts with the first few buttons unbuttoned.”
(Rachel Suet Kay Chan, 2010)
The Ah Bengs were also described as prone to listening to music such as “Chinese songs”, “Taiwanese Hokkien song”,“techno”, “rave”, and “electronic”. More specifically they were also described as listening to “mostly Chinese music from artists like Jay Chou and Wang Lee Hom”. A more pejorative view of the auditory tastes of Ah Bengs states “Chinese ‘cheesy’ love songs and hard techno/gabber”. The Taiwanese artiste Jay Chou is mentioned more than three times as an adjective. “Cantopop” and “Chinese” including dialects such as “Hokkien” are widely mentioned. Another phrase, “The trashy type of Chinese pop” sums up the category of responses (Rachel Suet Kay Chan, 2010).
There is clearly an influence of celebrity culture, marketed through the channel of mass media, and it is the driving force behind the Ah Bengs identity formation through consumption. Shopping mall culture, by this one example, is more than purchasing goods and services but also a lifestyle. In fact, everything that the individual buys then revolves around this lifestyle. The Ah Beng subculture is a conspicuous consumption driven one, and its holy temple is the shopping mall. It is thus not a subculture which attempts to deviate from the norm, but a dominant ideology-based one – that of neoliberal inspired, mass packaged identities.