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Tobacco Road is the Rage
by Johnny Bravo

I smoke Marlboro reds exclusively. Sure, if I'm drunk at a bar and I run out of smokes, and somebody offers me a THIS or a Dunhill, I'll accept it graciously and smoke it, but I'll never buy a pack of Dunhills. And if I go to a store and they don't have Marlboro reds, I'll go to another store that has them. Furthermore, if somebody buys me a pack of Marlboro medium by mistake, I'll take it back, rather than open it and have to smoke 20 of them.

The same goes true for Coke. I like Coca Cola. No, I love Coke Cola. If I'm in a restaurant and order "Cola juseyo" and they bring Pepsi, I'll ask them to change it for Coke. If their refrigerator doesn't house my brand, 'Coke', I'll order sa-i-dah (it's not cider, it's actually soda…or pop, if you hale from the Mid-west). Seven Stars (Chilsong) is the biggest brand, the most recognized name in soda in Korean. It's decent, but I prefer 7UP.

I like the brands that I like because I enjoy their unique flavor. I prefer them to other brands because my taste buds are very particular and refined. I really like Coke, which, incidentally, is the only thing I can think negative about the Dongha bars - I like Old 55 and Crossroads. And if I'm feeling randy and have ants in my pants (I'm talking about dancing), Soultrane or Vinyl are pretty fun. However, one complaint that I have is they ALL serve Pepsi, exclusively, Pepsi's cheaper, and what does that do for me? They don't serve Coke and I want coke. A 'rum and coke' is not a 'rum and Pepsi'. I'm sorry it just isn't. And if I'm drunk or not drinking and simply want a Coke, I have to settle for Pepsi.

But that's just one thing I've learned to accept. The greater good isn't worth the pettiness.

The issue here is brands. Brands are big business and international icons, especially in regards to clothing. But you don't eat or drink or smoke clothing, anymore than you could eat light bulbs on Friday cuz yer Catholic. No, you couldn't. And clothing and food…I guess they are both human needs, fundamental, basic, survival needs. Not just petty wants. A starved man would eat cold noodles from the bottom of a garbage can, yet couples bicker about where they are going to have dinner? People spend hours in supermarket lines deciding which toilet paper brand is softest.

What a waste.

As far as clothing goes, like food, taste is a major factor in that people dress according to the weather, and within those parameters, choose their clothing according to their sense of taste. Their own personal, peculiar, over the years - refined taste in what would would A. fit best. B be the most comfortable, C. what is the best value for the money (i.e. what's the least amount of money I could spend), and D. what would be most appealing to the opposite sex.
Not necessarily in that order.

I don't have any favorite brands or designers, in regards to clothing. In fact, I like clothes that are comfortable. (I'm a little fat, so tight fits don't suit me) Also, I don't have labels or words or names sewn onto anything I wear. Unless, of course the words are caustic or creative or proclaim something I agree with like my "No Fat Chicks" tee shirt. Actually, I don't have one of them, not now or nor in the 80's. And, let it be known, I do enjoy a certain amount of plump on female partners. But that's not the point. My favorite tee shirt is probably my black Don Quixote tee shirt, image by Picasso. If I owned a Black Sabbath tee shirt, I'd wear it to the grave.

I like to wear colored tee shirts with nothing on them except blue or green or some cool design. This is very interesting, because if I want to buy a plain white or orange tee shirt - long sleeve or short, they are very cheap. Yet, if I buy a tee shirt with Nike or Polo or Polham across the front, suddenly the price has tripled. It raises the question, shouldn't this shirt be cheaper? Shouldn't Ralph Lauren pay me to wear his tee shirts since I have turned myself into a walking advertisement for his products? If I wear a name brand tee shirt, everywhere I go, people will see Nike or Puma or some other international conglomerate. I'm doing their advertising for them and I'm paying dearly to do it. The argument, of course, is that I'm paying for quality, and the brand is the mark of quality.


Back in 1998, I visited my friend on the island of Saipan. He was working in the Public Defender's office at the city courthouse and we went for a drive past these ramshackle buildings in his beat up, second hand Cadillac - the same brand of car I drive in America, excepts mine's an 87 Avocado El Dorado. He went out of his way to point some places out to me saying, "Those are US owned sweatshops." I asked, "What do you mean?" He went on to explain that many Chinese and Southeast Asians in an attempt to immigrate to the States pay these agencies enormous sums of money to get them passports, tickets and visas to move to the States, but since they don't have a lot of money, they get them anyway with the contractual obligation to pay back the agency. Then, these unfortunates wind up at sweatshops in Saipan and have to work to pay back the agency making tee shirts and other clothing that will later retail in the States. These unfortunates are housed many to a room and are forced to eat there and live there and they can't leave until they pay back the agency, which takes months, sometimes years since they are also sending money back to their home country. The kicker is, a lot of those sweatshops were owned by major labels, who could attach tags on clothing items that read, "Made in the USA" because Saipan, part of the Mariana Islands, like Guam, is technically a US territory. And the unfortunates had no legal case because, technically, they were now living on American soil. Plus they can barely afford a sandwich, let alone legal council.

So, in effect, the tee shirt front shouldn't read "Name Brand Here," it should read "I support debt bondage slavery." No. That's not right. That's not really true. The slavery part is, but who knows where clothes are REALLY made. Those clothes produced in Saipan were shipped to the US so this has absolutely nothing to do with Korea. It's just interesting, the world we live in. And what consumers don't know when they buy, "brand names."

Cut to Korea. South Korea is a huge complex of textile industry. Many one/two story buildings that we pass daily contain little factories that produce socks and shirts and jackets and all kinds of clothing that are sold at marketplaces all over Korea. Next time you drive down any street be it residential or commercial, you can be certain that clothes are being manufactured in every 4th or 5th building you pass. My ex wife is a Filipina and we would often visit our neighbor, in Cheonho dong (gangster capital of Seoul). We'd meet her friend, who lived and worked in a factory in our quiet urban neighborhood, in Seoul. She lived right around the block from us, it would take 2 minutes to walk over there. And we lived in a residential neighborhood. From the outside, you would never have been able to tell that it was a factory; it was like a little house. In it, she made socks with the MLB logo on them and NBA jerseys with names like O'Neal and Carter along the back. Actually, it was not a labor intensive job. She would get the blank jerseys already made and then line them up 10 at a time across a metal table. She's pop in a floppy disk into the computer, push a few buttons and the machine would start. 10 sewing mechanisms would simultaneously emboss 10 names or the NBA logo with the Jerry West silhouette onto the shirt.

Were those authorized NBA jerseys? I think not, but that's why you can buy them here for 20,000 won when in America they cost 100 dollars. My ex wife's friend was paid reasonably well and she was free to come and go as she pleased, despite her long hours. So in Korea, slavery isn't really the issue. And the issue isn't copyright infringement either. Although, it is…to some people. Just not me. The people who care about copyright (a homonym) infringement, are the same people who profit from brands and people who value the integrity of brands. The point is, most of the labels you see on clothes and bags in Korea were added here

The issue, rather, is the overwhelming desire for people to have labels and logos on everything they wear. Everyday I walk into a classroom and every college student has a shirt or a bag or a jacket with some label on it. The fascination is amazing. Try to buy socks without some name sewn on, it's nearly impossible. My mother bought me an Adidas tee shirt last time I was in America. It was very nice, a deep maroon color, but since I don't like labels, I never wear it except at home. It's a sleep shirt. One morning, my girlfriend came over and I was wearing the shirt and she said, "Wow, I really love your tee shirt, how come you never wear it when we go out?" I didn't answer; I didn't feel like explaining my ideology, that I dislike being a walking billboard. But she liked it, cuz it had a name brand and corporate logo right across the front. In Korea, name brand logos equal fashion!

In Korea, clothing with brand name labels and logos are the rage. Harujuku, for example, is a popular name on bags. Which is strange, because Koreans are supposedly so gung-ho on Korea and anti-Japan. Two students out of twelve in my first class last week had the words Japan embossed somewhere on their jackets and still they were fuming anti-Japanese rhetoric about the World Baseball outcome.

If Koreans are so 'gung-ho' and pro-Korea, how come you never see tee shirts or bags with hangul on them? How come you never see a shirt with an image of Korea or its rich history like the Sokhoram temple or Kyungbok Palace? You never see Kwangali or Haeundae Beach tee shirts, yet Koreans will come back from vacation and wear a tee shirt showing off Phuket or Guam. They'll even wear tee shirts with an American or British flag on them. California 1492! ENGLAND, these are words we see attached to people everywhere. How come in Korean you never see the name Andre Kim (a famous Korean designer) on people's clothing or anybody wearing anything designed by him? All you see is Stussy and Mook and Roots Canada, none of which are Korean. Nike, Adidas, DKNY! Young Koreans are basically walking billboards for non-Korean international companies.

I love Coca cola, I'm drinking one right now and after I finish this last sentence I'm going to light up a Marlboro red, but I'm not going to stencil Marlboro onto my motorbike and if you ever see me wearing a Coca cola tee shirt, you'll know I've been in Korea too long.



June 25, 2006