Business in New Worlds:
Tired of your 9-5? Come and work on the good side of globalization; live where and how you want.
Globalization can be a force for the good. It can topple dictators, lift people out of poverty, help sick kids, and could even safe our rain forest, if we want it to.
Whenever I visit the so-called “Russian-Market” in Phnom Penh, it seems that deep inside the chaos globalization can be more transparent than in the glass towers of Coca-Cola. Here, the potpourri of merchants openly peddles globalization’s everything and anything, except “Russians” that is neither dead nor alive. In hippie-times, legend says, opium and pot were ordinary sections in any herb shop.
(BTW, speaking of drugs in unregulated markets: Yaba-Yaba a.k.a. meth-amphetamine or crystal was introduced in Asia long ago as ingredient in a legal energy-drink. It took the various messy governments a decade to recognize and ban it. By then, tens of millions of unsuspecting Thais, Cambodians, and Vietnamese were going ‘Yaba’ or ‘crazy’ without their beloved wake-up-drink. Suddenly illegal, production went underground with most profits going to the Myanmar military. Against such strategies, Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin looks like girl-scouts selling cookies.)
Today’s ‘Russian Market’ is more regulated but far from wholesome: it can be a study of the most poisonous fruits of globalization, the cheapest of the cheap, copies of Channel-bags, copycat iPhones, fake Nike shoes, and nail-polish which utterly dissolved my wife’s nails within two days (seriously). Producing this useless garbage plus most of the originals, Asia pollutes its lands and ancient rivers for generations to come.
Luckily, there is a brighter side to it: Naturally colored silk, woven reed products, more or less creative paintings, porcelain Buddhas, bamboo mats, unique products each different from the next, made to last a life-time by traditional craftsmen/women, small businesses, farmers, and artists. All for a fraction of what IKEA takes for the ten-thousandth-and-forth copy produced in mediocre quality.
Strolling here, with an eye for business opportunities, feels like inspecting a buffet on an empty stomach, although I’m busy enough with gemstones.
A group of mid-aged Westerners, three couples, upper middle class, part of an organized mini-bus-tour with build-in local experiences, the ideal focus group for every tourist minister, catch my interest. Living on local time, meaning there is always an extra hour to spend, I follow them, nothing creepy about it, I hope, just curiosity.
They’re surrounded by a noisy throng of kids and teenagers pulling at their sleeves and hands, either begging or trying to drag them in their uncle’s restaurant for an unforgettable diarrhea. Despite pale skin and blue eyes, I attract little attention. The large key ring clanging around my neck and the washed-out clothes tag me as local Westerner, not a tourist. I can get polite nods, a smile or stay unnoticed.
My fellow country-wo/men, on the other hand, Danes they are, move through the dense crowd like a cruise-liner of vivid colors, perfection, beauty and health. Cherry-red toenails and not-cheap watches radiate the famed ‘one-percent’. That it’s Cambodia’s 1% doesn’t matter. In a few weeks, back in Odense or Aarhus, they will make ends meet again, like everybody else. Now, they enjoy the admiration of a people culturally programmed to always be friendly and polite.
A booth with wood carvings attracts the women’s attention and they come to a halt. An old Cambodian lady squats on a tiny stool. I feign interest in the straw brooms offered by the next stall. The owner there gives me a friendly nod but then ignores me. She knows I’m not here for the brooms but, she thinks, for the Danish ladies, which is a tat embarrassing, yet for the locals us foreigners act often inappropriate, so never-mind.
In front of next booth, the Danes study wooden rhinos, cats and dogs. The old lady rises slowly from on a tiny stool, re-ordering the elaborated folds of the traditional if washed-out orange Sampot. Her lower vertebra hurt as they align to an upright position, then she stands slightly bent but with the pride of age that old people, especially women, in Asia are accustomed to. The way she scatters the rowdy kids with a single flick of her hand indicates that she’s the shop-owner and probably the matriarch of a large locally known family. A typical arrangement here. Men work, women run the business.
By now, the old lady is all nods and smiles, gesturing for the Danes to come ‘in’, though there is no real inside to come into. The women step up. The husbands linger with varying displays of boredom.
Next to the western ladies, the old women is a tiny creature, her eyes barely reaching the woman’s cleavage; a bundle of parched skin and twig-sized bones wrapped into orange cloth surrounded by three decorated fresh Christmas-trees. Aliens might identify them as two subdivisions of the planet’s dominate species.
The tallest woman, holding a wooden dog, suddenly looks discomforted and makes a brave effort to descend without condescending but ends in a forced looking position, uncomfortable, painful even. The old lady giggles a toothless jingle, reaches up and softly touches the woman’s shoulder, pulling her up and mimes her own back-pain. As the Dane straightens up, the lady gently takes the dog from her hands, a waxed dark wood exactly like the one on top of this page and, after a quick polish with a cloth that appeared from no-where, returns it proudly.
Each animal is different. This dog has long ears. I imagine a tiny cooperation far outside the big city, a well-organized bamboo-factory with a clean dirt-floor (yes, that’s possible), where the whole family, from toddler to grand-pa, daughters and husbands turn century-old tree trunks into decorative animals.
The men exchange smiles as a beautiful but forbiddingly young girl passes blushing and hiding her face from the men, which earns her even more chuckles. Luckily, their spouses are distracted. The tall lady has fallen for the long-eared dog and turns to the shop owner with the one question that needs no translation. The old lady studies the dog again, turning it around, as if she needed to check the bar code, before she announces in the utterly weird English only elder Asians can speak:
“Teeee dhoolaass.” Or thereabouts.
Language-wise it could have been ten, or thirty, or thirteen, except the lady holds up three slightly trembling fingers and repeats her price. The tall lady, surprised, makes sure she didn’t misunderstand:
She’s witty enough to suppress further signs of contentment, but to me, and probably to the shop-owner it’s obvious she would’ve paid thirteen as well, or thirty, never-mind. Asking a Danish woodcarver, if she could find one, to create a unique dog from hard-wood and she’d be looking at something around the equivalent of two or three hundred dollars; for the deposit that is. The tall lady pulls out a YSL-purse. The shop-owner nods happily. Smiles all around.
Then it goes wrong.
As much as men have a magic radar for pretty women, husbands have a similar instinct for their wives opening the purse. The thus magically pinged husband pushes in, exchanges a few harsh words in Danish, takes the dog and studies it with the critical eye of a life-long hardwood connoisseur. Then he frowns as only Vikings can, shakes his head and declares:
“No. No. We have seen the same dog for one fifty… over there!” He points to no-where inside the market’s chaos.
The old ladies’ smile holds tight but she stops nodding.
(BTW: Probably, there are woodcarving competitors in the market, however, they know one another for generations, with many married cousins, and define the mutually acceptable price-range and slightly different products at every marriage celebration. This honorable agreement is also the reason that she didn’t ask for thirty dollars. After-all, she is not stupid but a shrewd businesswoman. Even though many tourists may pay-up, only two in ten would be profitable, her ‘competitor-associate’ would hear of it and come for an explanation. Raising prices for tourists to a multiple of what locals already consider expensive is frowned upon as dishonorable and greedy in the close-knit business community. Ignoring public opinion is not an option, and most importantly, it would attract loads of competitors from other places. Perhaps they could slowly double the price, but it would need to be negotiated first. The same dynamic works downwards. She cannot sell the dog for one-fifty without inviting disharmony. Such market sensitivities must be considered should you plan to start a business in a new country.)
The old lady turns to the husband and says:
“Is nicas dggg, veyy nicas! Ia fammiil mak!”
She looks to the wife for support. The latter turns with deep-filled lungs but stops dead when her husband raises a hand, face frozen. They are a well-played-in couple. She knows that face, that gesture. He may be a teacher, a department manager, or a policeman, used to give irrefutable orders professionally.
The old lady takes the dog from the grim Viking, and while tenderly stroking the dog, she floods the group with a long, energetic but still friendly speech in her incomprehensible English. She’s probably praising the dogs’ fine wood, reiterates the work step its production involved, names the rent for her booth and ends with a plead for some profit, almost not smiling anymore. The husband stands, a rock in the storm of words, shaking his head.
The old lady looks around for anybody important watching before she resorts to the most humiliating gestures of all: raising her hand to the mouth in a sign of ‘hunger’. She is Cambodian middle-class and has, except during war times, not suffered hunger, but she knows that foreigners have a soft spot for the hungry poor.
And right she is. The wife, after getting redder and redder, suddenly turns dead pale, stamps her food and drowns her husband in Danish curses. The husband reacts with stubborn one-word remarks. The wives’ voice rises over the noise of the market and attracts attention left and right. Divorce seems to be on the menu. The old lady cringes at the loss of face, such a display of unfiltered emotions she may never have witnessed, in public, no less, in her shop. She has paled, too, checking the neighbors, which are watching with great interest, all smiling. I imagine she would give the dog away for free, if only these foreigners would stop people screaming. All she wants is to restore formal kindness.
Fortunately, the second husband steps in, elbowing his brother-in-arms, getting a few words in and the third husband lays a calming hand on the angry shoulder.
Only then, the first husband sees the cliff he was about to tumble down perhaps in a temporary blindness induced by the pretty local girl. He makes conciliatory noises and pulls out his own purse. Yet, some pride must be maintained. Hence, he haggles halfhearted with the old lady while his wife stares bloody bullet holes into his head.
In the end, the dog with the long ears changes owners for two-dollar-fifty. How does that work out for the old lady and her dwindling ancient forests? It does not.
Later in the Raffles, then the only decent hotel in town with rooms starting at $75 dollars, I see the husbands getting drunk on German beer at four bucks the pop.
Only utter ignorance serves as an excuse.
That dog was part of Cambodia’s dwindling ancient forests. Uncontrolled logging leaves behind irreparable destruction and sets off an ecological downward spiral of soil erosion, floods, reduced biodiversity and in the end turns forest to wasteland. Everybody should know this. Even those days.
The little wooden dog only has a symbolic meaning, but it shows how globalization should not be.
There are better ways, proven in the West and Japan: Sustainable forest management, wildlife protection and reforestation allow our forests to grow again. Financially, it has turned out that in the long run, well-managed forests are more profitable than burned and bulldozed one. That is true even without the aspect of stake-holders, instead of a pure share-holder view.
But don’t expect that Cambodian women to think about protecting forests and don’t wait for any enlightened government to do it. They do what they are paid for today, latest tomorrow.
We must learn to pay for valuable resources we use. There is enough profit to carry selected logs per helicopter out of the forest instead of bulldozing roads through irreplaceable habitats, margin for better labor conditions, health insurance and retirement funds.
In an educated guess, the little mahogany dog should be no less than 30 dollars, which may be close to what ZARA-HOME would charge.
Want to start a business? Come and help the old lady to reach the global market, set-up a website, research the market, develop better products, and sell for $50 online. Give twenty to the old Lady, make sure she gets health insurance. Take ten to pay for sustainable wood harvesting. Pocket twenty for yourself. Sell only a few pieces per day and live a great life in a country full of kindness.
Of course, it’s not that easy, it takes guts and sacrifices. You’ll have failures, problems to adapt to local food, get ripped-off, run into bureaucracy, find products already occupied, but hey, working 9–4 with something you may have little interest in, and see the board getting rich and arrogant, that is IMO no life at all.
Failed? Try again. I can name you a dozen markets and products from memory. Lovely stuff I buy on every visit until an additional suitcase is needed.
In the other direction there is huge potential as well. Western know-how is badly needed in so many places. Think of Burma! A whole country lacking everything we have taken for granted since childhood, pocket calculators, tap water, dug-tape, headphones, not to mention IT, mobile phones, and SaaS.
It will be done. If not you, somebody else will jump at the chance. Like the guys who started exporting furniture from Bali in the 60ies. See their villas in Ubud today.
Globalization will continue, no matter who crows what, time wins all battles.
Here is is, still with us:
P.S. I chose the Russian Market because that’s where the article was kindled. Cambodia has a very recent dark period in its history, and you can still see some scares on bodies and eyes if you look closely. I can list you a dozen similar, even bigger, markets such as Chatuchak in Bangkok, where the most talented artists (and pickpockets) of Thailand present their work. The most adventurous may find utterly unknown markets in smaller towns at the very end of unpaved roads where your GPS will show only jungle.