Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Smelling your way through a city: Lush


Today, I went to Kinokuniya to find some old maps of Singapore; blithely, and without having checked the Internet if such materials actually publicly existed. Naturally, when I got there, i discovered there were no antique, vintage, or even slightly older maps. All the maps at Kinokuniya were maps of the present moment in time - 2011/2012 - and nothing else. If Singapore's largest and most vast bookstore doesn't have any old maps of Singapore, then where else would one access such things? I found this rather disappointing; why hasn't anyone thought to produce something like a series of Ordnance Survey maps through the ages, but for Singapore? I just wanted to find out the route of the old canals from an old map of Singapore... Doesn't every country treasure its old maps? Do we not have any old maps in Singapore that are celebrated or iconic?

After this abortive excursion, I was returning to Orchard MRT through the route I have always taken underground for all of my life. I was about to get to the MRT when I thought I smelled something sweet and oddly familiar while passing through Wisma Atria. I could not quite place my finger on it at first, I couldn't recall why it was so intensely familiar and why it was attracting me. The overpowering scent seemed to come from a shop I have always avoided on principle but am nonetheless visually attracted to. This offending store was called "Typo" which sold "nerd glasses" without lenses and "campus notebooks" with old generic western map symbols all over it. It was even more ridiculous to see so many "old maps" masquerading as wrapping papers there because one could probably safely say that the entire Orchard Road shopping strip would not have a single store that sold historically meaningful maps. And there were no real places that these maps were showing us; these "old maps" were simply the accessories and wallpapers for a "designer lifestyle".

Anyway, thankfully, the bewitching smell had not originated from this abomination of a store. Walking right through this shop, I emerged on the other side of the corridor and there it was: a... LUSH outlet. Yes, LUSH, of pungently fragrant soaps piled up like haystacks, gleefully puddling in tubs like chunky half-melting ice cream. Of intense jasmine sweetness, creamy honey swirls, and crinkly yellow paper bag goodness. I am a true sap for the sweeties and LUSH is a store that hasn't been in Singapore for virtually a decade, having quietly slinked away from its units at Suntec after what appeared to be some tougher economic times. I was too young and too poor to afford the soaps back then, so my main encounter with LUSH was at Liverpool Street Station in London, where the soaps were not so overpriced when one was earning pounds. But the soaps still overpowered the nose and seeped into everything around it. More recently while travelling from Cornwall to London last year, I had picked up a bar of Godiva at Paddington Station (or was it Victoria?). So at Wisma Atria, I found myself gaping at a mountain of Godiva bars on the counter. The girl tending to the store seemed well familiar with this type of response, cooing: "Yes, its been a long time, hasn't it?" Suddenly, I realised that this smell of soap has already coloured my memory of places. Like when a track happens to be playing in the background when something serious happens, and subconciously it begins to take on more significance than it expects to.

liverpool street

And now! Remixing these smells and memories! Taking the MRT, jostling with pimply singaporean teenagers, imagining the light filtering through the trees on the train right, the cold rush of wind through the Tube station, the emergency crisps! Help! And all this, because I found the exact same soap in another country with a consistency that is all too predictable.

I have to admit that I do enjoy the consistent comforts of modernity; for example, it can also be said that most of my wardrobe has consisted on generic plain tailored dresses from Muji or Uniqlo, both of which I have visited in multiple countries. The consistency of the plain "no-brand" generic is something that I find comforting despite the knowledge that it too exists and operates within that same (and slightly sinister) postmodern economy; where traces of memory and culture often appear to have been utterly erased and replaced by the same modern effects all around the world. Shopping malls look the same all around the world, void of interesting architectures and real communities - replaced instead with distorted representations of people and manipulated desires.

Similarly, I am aware that even the little "organic handmade soap" that I have been so fond of over the years could quite very well be not very much different from a mass produced, global commodity, with this bar of soap travelling vast distances to get to me no matter where I might be residing. You might imagine that a sensible response might be to seek out that which is different or unique within a sea of endless repetition. Yet perhaps by dint of having grown up here, I also feel at home at shopping malls overseas because they remind me of Singapore in particular. I wonder why it is that I feel so nostalgic for things. If I keep on buying soaps or things because I am trying to "recapture" a moment in the past, then life would be really boring or artificial I kept it up for too long. I would be stopping myself from exploring new things if I got comfortable with old, sentimental favourites. So I guess this time around I'll allow myself to roll around in a nostalgic soap - but next time we're going out to find new smells that we've never smelled before!


There are other reasons why the very word "lush" warms the cockles of my silly little heart but we'll leave that for another story time.

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