Sun, 23 Jan 2000

Spending money in pursuit of coolness

By William Furney

JAKARTA (JP): The British comedian Eddie Izzard once said that coolness was the pursuit of youth and for some time now the youth of many Asian countries has been looking to the West in attempts to become the hippest, coolest, trendiest young things around.

Take the youth of Japan for instance. The world and his mother known how "in" they are. Kids wear the most up-to-date and expensive of clothes, listen to the most happenin' sounds and adopt lifestyles that must leave the country's founding fathers' twirling in their cremation urns. In fact, there is little of Japan's culture reflected in the teenagers and twenty-somethings walking the streets, throwing drinking parties and crooning in the karaoke clubs of Tokyo and elsewhere on the island nation.

Looking the part does not come cheap. For the Japanese, it takes more than a fistful of yen. Take a trip to Bali and if you are astute, you will notice there are two kinds of prices harga biasa (normal price) and harga bule (western price), the latter being more expensive of course. The majority of Westerners living in Indonesia are earning rupiah salaries which are much lower than their salaries would be back home. But of course in Bali, we have to take into account the many thousands of tourists who arrive laden with dollars, pounds and yen, to mention but a few of the world's currencies.

But there is also another price, harga Jepang (Japanese price) which is even higher than the western price. This, even though the yen has being slipping to record lows for some time.

Even in many London stores there is a Japanese price.

Recently, on a trip to London, I was buying some jeans in a high street store when a group of three Japanese came in looking for the latest model of a well-known brand. The store assistant told them there were only three pairs left and that they were expensive. Disregarding the price, the happy tourists left with the "last" three pairs of the trendy jeans. Never mind that five minutes later I bought the same item at a considerably lower price. When asked, the assistant said the store had a "policy" of upping the price of clothes for Japanese customers as they were usually desperate to buy the latest trends and therefore were willing to pay more for the privilege.

Like the Japanese youth and those from the world over, their Indonesian counterparts won't hesitate spending so much money in pursue of coolness. It seems that many of them are trying so hard to be cool that they appear to be the opposite of what they are trying to achieve.

Take for instance a recent night out at a well-known city center nightspot that is supposedly recognized the world over as being the kernel of all things cool. The staff of this club are mostly in either their late teens or early 20s and try so hard to perpetuate an image of ice that they appear to be something from an early 1980s flick.

And they were rude into the bargain, deeming it beyond their coolness to be nice to customers or to be helpful in any way.

But coolness is inextricably linked to sexiness. And when you are in your formative years, there is only one thing that really matters -- being of interest to those around you. Therefore, the cooler you look, the more attractive you are going to be to others. But then it is all relative.

Many consider orang kaya baru or the "new monied" particularly loathsome. For these are people who suddenly find themselves in a situation where they can buy what they want. They usually go totally overboard, however, as they drape themselves in the tackiest of clothes and jewelry, outwardly displaying their newfound wealth. They are the true slaves to all manner of trends and fashion, but all too often the effect ends up backfiring on them.

Of course, there are people who are just born cool. They came out that way. Look at certain movie stars of old -- those of the James Dean school. A psychologist says that movie stars such as Dean and Brando started the image of being cool. From then youth the world over began to adopt attitudes of such stars. But it was in the West that people had the money to do such things as buying leather jackets and motorcycles, whereas in Asia, only in the last 10 to 20 years have adolescents had the readies to buy the goods that have enabled them to foster an image of coolness.

Many would agree that African-Americans are the essence of hip. But it is those who try to be something they are not in order to fit in with the rest that fail miserably.

A friend says that one is either or not cool, and cited Will Smith as a case in point. If you are making an effort to be cool then you are not. Cool people do not try to be cool she said, adding that she thought many Indonesians had a visceral coolness about them.

People are cool, says another friend, when they are happy and comfortable with themselves. The singer Lou Bega is cool as you can clearly see how happy he is to be surrounded by scantily clad women (referring the music video for his hit song Mambo No. 5) whereas Robert Palmer is not cool in his video (for Addicted to Love) as he does not look that happy. She also said that coolness was not what one wore or said, it was what was in the person themselves.

Turning toward the older generation for a moment and consider a middle-aged woman wearing short denim skirts and partying the night away. A last-ditch effort at reliving earlier days or a pathetic sign of the menopause? Akin to beauty, it's all in the eye of the beholder. If that granny is happy, then that my friends is cool.

And if you want to spot those who are desperate to be hip, look no further than your nearest shopping mall, particularly on the weekend, and you will see desperately sad cases of the nearly-made-it syndrome as they fawn around from floor to floor and make endless trips in elevators.

We all know, of course, mainly through movies, that America is to blame for this emulation by Asians. And not just the movies, pop stars too. However, most people think that when Scary Spice took to the stage wearing platforms and tight tops, so started the craze of wearing similar clothing. Not true, as the Japanese were streets ahead in terms of trend and had been wearing this gear for some time before the West caught on. Same with the ubiquitous combats of late. A case, therefore, of Japan learning from the West, turning it on its head and forging ahead with its own ideas. Somewhat similar to that country's post World War II efforts, you might think.

A colleague recently said that coolness was more of a male preserve than a female one. And when you think about it it is probably true. How many cool women do you know?

James Dean with a matchstick in the corner of his mouth is cool -- until someone lights it, says Izzard. There is a fine line, he said, between looking cool and looking like a blockhead.