Ktetaichinh’s Blog

May 27, 2010

Motorbikes against HCm, or the consumption icons of a social transformation of Vn

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 5:22 pm
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Today Vietnam counts more motorbikes per capital than neighboring countries: nearly 169 per thousand inhabitants, agaisnt 44 in China and 79 in Indonesia. nearly 16 million officially recorded motorbikes circulate throughout the country. in 1990 there were only 1.2 million motorbikes in VN. this figure was thus multiplied by 10 over 14 year period although similar motorbikes can be twice as expensive in VN due to taxes applied to imports. Undeniable, motorbikes became one of the most visible goods and a symbol of mass consumption in Doi Moi society

the practices of consumption “the choice of the necessary , present the ‘habitus of the working class as the learned outcome their material situation. The manner of consuming is statutory and takes part in the cosial reproduction processes. the distance with the consumed object (eg., in VN, ammong the urban populations, one describes the motorbike as something of almost no importance, whereas rural population see it as an investment) differentiates pp from a certain socio- economic category and marks their social status. the differences in the practices of consumpetion that one notes herebecome ‘differences in symbolic systems (Bourdieu 1996)

social relations are dirven by hedonistic and individualistic patterns, which are primarily related to modern conusumers in a market. modern capitalistic markets and societies are characterized by individualistic relations in the sense that the process of exchanges between consumers are impoersonal. (Simmel 2004). the literature also shows that the emergence of ‘modern’ consumption not only means the ‘growing autonomy of a consumerist mentality’ but also the erosion of traditional social relations, as in portmodern consumerism pp tend to be more individualistic

Motorbikes and Consumerism

a lot of ‘value’ can be identified in relation to consumersim. among others, the acceptance that the ‘ephemerality ‘ of products is better than their durability may be other key values of consumerism, with as a consequence a permanent unsatisfied and renewed needs triggered by mass consumption practices (bauman 2005) . after the WWII , Arvidsson 2001 demonstrated in an article that motorbikkes  had become the icons of ‘youth international culture’ linked to a vision of ‘lifestyle choice’ and hedonistic values

in many wats, the story of the Vespa supplies and ideal case study : presented as a central component of the material culture of a new, modern, post- Fascist Italy in the immediate post-war years, Vaspa soon become something of a fetish for the emerging transnational counterculture. however, contrary to the Italian casae described by Arvidson, in VN motorbike producers were not capturing the codes of counter-culture values but were displaying instead signs and symbols of mass consumption modes.

for young pp it soon became the symbol of an ideological gap between them and the older generation, the former ‘citizen model’ (promoting an image of a standardized citizen following certain ‘socialist values and attitudes’ common also in other former socalise countries”) . the consumer in centrally planned economies like VN before 1986 was rather ascetic. the communist consumer was being called upon to make sacrifices’ in order to focus on the needs of production with the promise, despite recurrent shortages, of a brighter standard of living through meeting the material needs of pupolations as in many former communies countries (Marurek and Hilton 2007)

the egalitarianism and the uniformit preached by the authorities through its ‘citixen models’ are overtaken by the emergence of individual values, consumer sociey , consumerism and visible social classification processes, in particular among the young VN. the younger generation is embracing theese new values of consumption, which is also an act of symbolic violence against previous generations. the lack of attention to consumtion matters was one of the root causes of the collapse of the Eastern bloc (Mazurek and Hilton 2007) and it is certain that after 1989 to survive the VN gov had no other choice than to open its economy and society to foreign influences

consumtion practices are not totally deprived of political significance: certain practices have political content. thus buying certain brands or boucotting others has been considered a form of political participation in Western countries . the meaning and efffectiveness of this form of political participation as underline by Stolle 2005 is not clear. ‘ a growing number of citizens are turngng to the market to express their political and moral concerns, but do not tell us whether political consumerism can also be considered as a meaningful or effective form of polictial participation’

certain practices related to motorbikes such as the illegal races taking place during the night in urban areas in Vietnam are an expression of both the contruction of a social male identiry and an act of defiance linked to a political dimession of a consumerism. by using a mass-consumption symbol of a pleasure-seeking society inverting the long-promoted ascetic socialist moral values, the nightracers also display a tacit political message going beyond simple outlawed practices

the youth (60% of the population is under 30 years of age, neither experienced times of deprivation (from 1975 to 19986) nor the war periods of the country and they are seraching for other lifestyle experiences in a context that has witnessed tremendous changes since 1975.

except the founding figure of modern Vietnam, HCM, the society does not put forward individuals and does not encourage pp to affirm their peronalities.  with regards to the emergence of new gvalues, Thomas and NGuyen Bich Thuan (2004) evoke the changes among young women, while underlinging the role of the state in the modelling of social values “Asserting its control through purging pleasure, the state’s power to define popular culture has a contradictory effect: the state is developing a new relationship with consumers, testing the ground of posibility by simultaneously authorizing and ddisallowng. wrking in tandem with mass culture, a new mass-oriented state has become the mark of the post- socialist ear.” as dexcribed by theese 2 authors, the state, as a new form of social control . thus tries to incorporate such emergent values in a new mass culture centred on consumerism. Motobikes also fit in the emergence of a commercial economy where leisure activities gain a new importance through certain consumer goods (mobiles, TVs,…)

Adam Fforde 2003 mentions another amusing eg that fits this pattern: in VN, the market for cosmetic products is one of the most important of the region. its size exceeds that of other asian countries, which however have higher per capita incomes. other indicators, such as the increasing rate of divorce, rural -urban migration trneds and changes in family structure also show that new gvalues are emerging

the notion of intimacy on motorbikes in the light of public/private spaces

the principal hypothesis claiming that motorbikes are considered by pp as places where they can get some intimacy and privacy. it was already mentioned that the state remains somewhat intrusive in various social spaces, including family relations. the state thus organizaes and intervenes in all aspects of sicial life: in the birth-rate (by family planning) , in the private spere (the system of merit for the households in 80s, the registration of the households and their members..) and in domestic ritual spaces (each household must have a bust or portrait of HCM..). private as well as public spaces are places where the state expresses its authority (Anh Nghuyen Pham 2005)

what about the public spaces? for a common visitor to VN, it is difficult to believe that the busy sidewakds, occcupied by all kidns of activities were empty befire the Doi Moi. the informal sector seized this territyry once the Doi Moi was lauched, which authorized private trade and profit. since the 80s, the public authorites in large citis have tried to limit the too-anarchistic development of activies on the streets. for instance, according to Koh 2004, the decree 36 CP from May 1995 in Hanoi was instigated in the purest sytle of propaganda campaigns, with posters and audio messages broadcast by the innumerable loudspeakers of the city, the objective was to domesticate activities in public space and to overcome urban traffic. this decree also ended the activities of 35 illegal markets, but these attempts had poor results. Why? Drummond 2000 shows that if private spaces are the places of socal reproduction, public spaces belong to the community, but are strongly controled by the state. in public spaces, broadcast messsages (by posting pr public loudspeakers) and organized events are under the strict scrutiny of the authorits. the appropriation of public space remains tolerable for economic activities (handicraft, cafes, informal work, etc.) and even sporting activities or entertainment . but the problem is that today, a victory of the national VN football team brings many more pp into the streets than an official procession, and this type of spontaneous demonstration overlaps with the control exerted by the stte. actually, there are plenty of occasions for pp to occupy public spaces. an illustration is the visit of former US Pres Bill Clinton in 2006, who gathered an unexpectedly large, young and lively crowd on the streets of HN during a private walk close to Hoan Kiem lake, as a real rock star would do. the apperance of this type of transpgreesive gathering is related to the re-appropriation of public spaces in the cities in Vn do not enjoy the same importance as elseswhere becayse of their recent existence (which date back to colonial times) , the level of control existing before the Doi Moi has disappeared,.

furthemore, these 2 large VN urban centres there is little or no private space avaliable. population density reaches high levels: 3500 habitants/km2 for the capital and 2800 for HCM. the national average is 250. each person has only 5m2 of habitable surface in HN, 6.2m2 in HCM (guidebooksto French Co-operation in Vietnam 20002). in Geneva pp have 47m2 and 30m2 in Paris

So private space is deprived and stronghly controlled, and public space is almost a place of quasi0contestation. Motorbikes would be places where pp could have some privacy without feeling the constraints of the domestic space

a tool of multiple purposes and an object of social classification . more than a sumple tool or transportation, cetain Vn even consider them as their legs! some pp confirm that all thri yourneys , even short ones, are carried out on motorbikes. in urban arteries the flow of traffic can reach yup to 10000 bikes per hour

Hsu TienPen 2003 afirms that HCm inhabitants and HNans respectivelymake 3 and 2.6 trips per day on their bikes, against 2.2 in Manila, 1.7 in arkata and 2.3 in Bangkok. according to Naohito Kitano 2000, the most used means of transportation would be the motorbike with nearly 95% and 92% of journeys for Hn and HCM. in Bangkok and Jakarta motorbikes account for only appr 25% . there are no huge diff in the publi transport infrastructures between these various cities (except for Bangkok). on the contrary , HN and HCm have a decent netwrok of reliable and affordable buses, unlike some large INdonesian cities. so, the use of motorbike in Vn is related to a variety of activities, whether economic, social or recreational

the motor bike is seen as an investment for the poor to earn income. the wealthier depict their bikes as a usual or sometimes even as a “fashionable” device

those under 35 spend on avg more than 200k dong per month for maintenance and customization, against a few thousands for the elders. compared to the living cost, is can be high

Motorbikes appear to be important in the search for some intimacy. all users mention that being on a motorbike offers the ‘luxury’ of isolation. thus, several pp choose the motorbike to find some privacy, ‘to think’, ‘to reflect’ and even ‘to depress’ or ‘to cry’. some pp even affirms that the bike is a more open space to discuss than a cafe. the choice of the person who sits behind the friver is thus based on the nature of the relationship, a strong tie according to Mark Granovetter 1973. the destination of the tour has hardly any importance, even if respondents acknowldge preferring to drive in very crowded places such as the large avenues of the HoanKiem

however the nature of the conversations can also be more casual. it is worhwhile noting that among the interviewees, the youngest have expressed more intensively these perceptions of intimacy and freedom. here again, we can observe the emergenceof new values among the younger generations moving away from what is preached by the authorities. thus it is not surpring that the olderst respondents do not share this enthusiasm, asuing that it is sad to drive all alone or that the bike does not represent a place of intimacy or privacy

while walking aroung the streets of HN , one can easily observe the couple holding hands or kissing while driving on bikes. this is striking since it is uncommon for pp to show signs of affection in the streets. it illustrates the perfect intefration of the motorbikes in the modern and urban values and lifesyle as flirting on bikes. the bike became a place or a tool and a symbol of libertiange. nonetheless, not all the respondents share such flirting on bikes. here the gap between generations is slearly observable

Bike racing indicates thatconstruction of a male social identity similar to a ritual of passage between the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood. races are illegal and they reffer to a certain political dimension of consumerism, an act of defiance towards the authorities, to tease the police.


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