Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Farmers' Market"

On a sweltering Saturday morning not long ago, I took the metro up to Siam Square to check out the Bangkok Farmers' Market, a weekly event that floats around between fashionable neighborhoods of the city, occasionally in Siam Square, in Ekkamai, in Thong Lo.

It was nice, it really was. Good food, in the form of wicker baskets full of baguettes and chèvre, handcrafted decorations, people milling around enjoying themselves, doing their best to appreciate an outdoor market in the viciously hot Thai summer.

And yet something seemed off.

No more than a mile to the Southeast is the Khlong Toei fresh market, probably the largest in a city full of fresh markets. Little-touristed, it's probably what you imagine when you think of an outdoor market in Asia. Barrels of more varieties of rice than you knew existed, seabass and groupers gutted into drains, pig carcasses dragged by their hooves over the asphalt, appliances of dubious origin in mismatched cardboard boxes, bunches of shallots wrapped in twine hanging from eaves, technicolor-bright piles of mangoes, eggplant, and sweet potatoes. When Émile Zola called Les Halles the belly of Paris, he was referring to a place with all the energies and odors and frantic movement of humans and machines that Khlong Toei has to this day.

The Bangkok Farmers' Market, on the other hand, struck me as having less to do with the ideal of the farmers' market as I've always known it then a self-conscious imitation of the aesthetics and gastronomy of Brooklyn and San Francisco, transplanted, via the city's cosmopolitan classes, to its poshest sections.

Whereas the farmers' markets in America attempted to recreate the local cuisine and close relation between producer and consumer that characterizes the great markets of Europe and Asia-- the aforementioned Les Halles, Tsukiji in Tokyo, Covent Garden in London-- Bangkok never fully lost that. The pork that's in your noodles there was probably merrily squeaking in a smallholding in Ratchaburi a couple days ago.

Slapped with a comfortably English name, the open-air market only becomes acceptable to young Bangkok wealth when refracted through a North American sensibility.

Although more than anything, I'm reminded of the French House of Bourbon, most notably Marie Antoinette, and their habit of building so-called hameaux around the countryside. In these idealized peasant villages predicated largely on the floaty idealization of nature proffered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the harsh, feudalistic political economy of François Quesnay, the great men and women of the twilight years of the ancien régime dressed in rustic clothes and built palaces in imitation of cottages.

We build our holograms, and come to accept them as normal. This is how hegemony functions. And while I'm trying my best to enjoy my bread and cheese, I can't shake the sense that I'm doing so within a mirage.