Saturday, 4pm, Mahboonkrong Shopping Centre (MBK).
MBK is a big, older shopping mall, off \ Siam Square, consisting of thousands of little shops selling cheap clothing, bags, and shoes and all kinds of electronics like mobile phones, game-players, CDs, and DVDs – authentic or non-authentic. It even has a movie theatre, beauty salons, and food vendors. MBK is like a toy box crammed with junk and treasures. You would be surprised what you can find in there.
Mitsuko has never been alone at MBK at this time of a weekend. In fact, she has never been alone at this time on any weekend. The weekend is family time. Well, weekend or not, her time is always for family. But Yuichi tries to spend time with his family on the weekend, so the weekend is “special” family time.
But today, little Mina went to sleep over at a friend’s house (first time in her life!) and Yuichi took Kota for an overnight fishing trip. Fishing is not really Yuichi’s sport, but one of his work-related friends, Kojima-san, has a boat in Pattaya, a beach town not far from Bangkok, and he invited them down for the weekend. At first, with Japanese customary politeness, Yuichi was hesitant to bring a child. But Kojima-san has a son around Kota’s age and assured it would be more fun and easier for Kota to come along.
Mitsuko was a little worried about the two men managing the two boys at sea, but the boys were not babies any more. Plus, Kota was so eager to go on his first “men-only” trip. Seeing his pleading face, Mitsuko reckoned this would be a great experience for them.
And so, she was alone on a weekend. First, she felt a tinge of emptiness. Could this be what an empty nest feels like? But she instantly denied it. Time alone overnight was a surprise gift.
She spoke the word aloud, stretching it out, as she stood alone in her empty living room with her arms outstretched. The cheerful sound of her own voice worked better than she had expected. She felt much better.
She didn’t know why she thought about MBK. She could have gone somewhere fancier, even a luxurious spa at a five-star hotel. That was very tempting indeed, but it felt like maybe too big a jump for this little bit of freedom. She could have gone shopping at a department store like Emporium or Central Chit Lom, but they were customary among the expats. She was in no mood to bump into familiar faces. She wanted to do something different to savour this unique moment.
MBK is definitely not a place regularly visited by the Japanese expat wives. They all know about it, but it is not in their territory, even though MBK is conveniently located with a skytrain station, only six stops from Phrom Phong (a station of the Japanese ghetto). Five stops to Siam Paragon is “in” the wives’ territory, but six stops to MBK is “out.”
So MBK. Alone on the weekend. It was Mitsuko’s little adventure.
From the moment she stepped inside, she was overwhelmed by the people, many people, the locals and tourists, men and women, young and old, couples and friends and families. She felt there was hardly any air left for her to breathe. She felt that if she stopped moving, she might be taken over by the throng, swallowed as if by a tidal wave.
And the smell! The odour was a mixture of garlic and something fishy. Maybe nampla, fish sauce? Mitsuko guessed. It was definitely not the classy smell of expensive perfumes that graced the air of Emporium or Siam Paragon.
And the noise! Some kind of rock music was being broadcast over speakers. It was so loud that Mitsuko could feel it throbbing inside her skull. Am I getting old or what?
Despite the assault on her senses, or perhaps because of it, Mitsuko couldn’t help but feel excited. The exhilaration of the place reminded her of the festivals of her childhood. The shrine near her home had held festivals a few times a year, according to the Shinto rituals. Mitsuko didn’t understand the religious meaning of them, except the worship of ancestors, but the festivals were fun. There were children’s games like goldfish scooping and shooting at targets. And lots of vendors opened up their temporary little shops, selling special treats like cotton candy, caramelised-sugar-coated tangerines and apples artificially coloured in bright orange and red, barbequed squid with soy sauce, deep fried corndogs, and takoyaki (octopus dumplings fried on a hotplate with sweet and spicy sauce). They were cheap, simple, street snacks, and yummy!
Mitsuko used to like watching an old candy man who made various animal shapes out of hot sugar. After rolling a small ball of caramel-like sugar with his thumb and forefinger (Mitsuko still wondered how he didn’t burn himself), he attached it to the end of a short straw, blew air into it like a balloon, and used little scissors to snip here and there so that, in a few seconds, he produced a small rabbit, chicken, or cat. It was like magic! Mitsuko’s mother didn’t allow her to buy one because she thought it was not hygienic, but little Mitsuko’s secret wish was to buy a little candy elephant.
MBK had a similar allure. Indecent but captivating.
Mitsuko didn’t know what to buy. She wasn’t really looking for anything. But she started walking, hoping to find something like a little candy elephant.
Soon she saw a bright, grass-green belt, and she was drawn to it like a fish to bait. It was hanging with a bunch of other belts of different colors with a sign saying 199B. It was not leather of course, but shiny vinyl with a silver buckle. Mitsuko held it against her waist and wondered if it looked too cheap. Her mother used to say that she should wear decent accessories as she got older; otherwise she would look poor.
But only 199B, Mitsuko thought. It wouldn’t be much to waste, and it’s such a pretty green. The design is simple, so it won’t stand out too much, and the colour will give a good accent. It will go well with my navy-blue linen shirt and with jeans and a white shirt as well. And only 199B.
Mitsuko handed the money to a skinny young girl who was eating Som Tum (green papaya salad) out of a styrofoam box with a plastic fork. Strong smell of fresh garlic, nampla (fish sauce) and lime juice dressing floated over as she stood to get the belt.
“Kob Phun Kaa (thank you),” said the girl, as she handed Mitsuko the shiny green belt in a cheap plastic bag. When she smiled, her white teeth shined in contrast to her dark skin.
Pleased with her small purchase, she went on to the next floor which was a maze. The shops were all very small, probably 2 metres by 3 metres square, with a narrow walkway between. They all looked the same, displaying similar electronic gadgets and tech accessories. Mitsuko knew she would never find her way back to the same shop once she passed it.
A phone cover with neon-colored spangles caught her eye. It was similar to the one Mika was using. Mika had been excited with her latest purchase (she was always excited about everything anyway), saying the same cover was very popular in Japan and cost three times more there. She had joked that maybe she should start an export business online. Mitsuko did not pay too much attention to Mika’s talk. Mitsuko was neither interested in a spangled phone cover nor an online enterprise. Mitsuko thought the phone cover looked too girlish for any woman except Mika, who had a kind of Peter-Pan-never-grew-up style. But soon after Mika showed up with it, Mitsuko saw other women her own age with them and realised it was indeed popular among the Japanese ladies. She still didn’t like it, though, and that had made her feel a little outdated.
Now, at MBK, she wondered if she should get one, but then her head was turned by the tablet covers on the next rack. Just two weeks before, Yuichi had bought an iPad for their children. Mitsuko was not so sure if a six year old, or even a ten year old, needed an iPad, but she didn’t say anything against Yuichi’s decision. She made it a rule to follow her husband unless she had a very strong reason to oppose, unless it was something she could never compromise. So far, there was nothing Mitsuko could not compromise. To be honest, she was opposed to the iPad. She didn’t want her children playing computer games all day. But she didn’t want to spoil their joy, and she hoped Yuichi would find some good educational apps. When Yuichi showed them the iPad, Mitsuko just gave them a motherly smile as if to say, “It’s your lucky day, isn’t it?” as she began to plot how she would control the game time.
The kids had wanted to buy a cover case for it, but Emporium had only red, black, and white, and Kota and Mina couldn’t agree. Now here at MBK, Mitsuko saw cases in yellow, purple, blue, orange, and pink, plus patterns like polka-dots, stars, and hearts. Amazed with the selection, Mitsuko asked “Taw Rai Ka (how much)?” as she tried to remember the price at Emporium.
“Six hundred ninety nine Baht, Oku-san.” the older sales lady replied.
Oku-san means “madam” in Japanese, and Mitsuko was a bit taken aback, actually disappointed, by the acknowledgment. She knew she couldn’t fake being Thai, but how did the lady know she was Japanese? Mitsuko had to admit she looked Japanese. If there was a typical Japanese expat wife look, she definitely had it. Asako or Mika often laughingly reported being mistaken for Singaporean, or Filipino, or even Spanish in this cosmopolitan city. But that never happened to Mitsuko.
As she held the tablet cover, sealed in a plastic bag, she was surprised at the price. At the Emporium, she was sure a similar case had cost more than 2,000B, almost three times more. She tried to study the case through the plastic, wondering if the quality was that much different. She couldn’t tell any significant difference.
The sales lady interpreted Mitsuko’s silence as hesitation about the price and said, “OK, Oku-san, five-hundred-ninety-nine Baht, Piset (the Thai word for special) for you!” In one short sentence, the lady had mixed up three languages, English, Thai and Japanese.
Mitsuko was suddenly reminded that bargaining was a common practice in Thailand’s local markets, where she had never shopped. But you never bargain at Emporium, Mitsuko thought, and this is a shopping mall, is it not?
Mitsuko tried to remember the details of how and where to bargain. She had learned this a long time ago in a welcome seminar by the Mitsumaru Club, but the memory was blur. Still it seemed quite clear that MBK was a place to bargain. Gingerly, she tried a phrase she had never used before. “Rot iik dai mai ka (Can you discount more)?”
“Mai dai (cannot), Oku-san! It is already very cheap.” She gave Mitsuko an “Oh-my-God-give-me-mercy!” face.
The lady had a short tightly permed hairdo, and Mitsuko thought she could name several aunties back in Japan who had the exact same hair style. Mitsuko was instantly embarrassed for bargaining about an already cheap price. I don’t want to look like an arrogant, stingy foreigner giving a hard time to a poor, elderly lady.
She wanted to leave the store immediately, but when she looked around for a way out, the lady shouted, “OK, Oku-san, 550B. Final price!” She gave Mitsuko an “I-cannot-win-over-you” face.
In a way, Mitsuko felt saved. She didn’t particularly want the case, but relieved from a guilty conscience, she smiled and picked up a light blue case which she hoped both Kota and Mina would like.
As Mitsuko handed over the money, the sales lady was quick to change her mode, briskly opening the plastic bag to show Mitsuko the case and explaining how to use it. Mitsuko still didn’t see any difference from the one at the Emporium. The lady then handed it over in a cheap shopping bag with a cheerful “Kob phun ka.”
Mitsuko felt much better and repeated the phrase with a smile.
After that, she strolled around, picking up some silver jewellry and hair accessories for a few hundred Baht, as she worked her way toward the skytrain station, so that she could head home.
The section near the station was a fashion floor with lots of bags and shoes. She loved bags and shoes, or rather she used to. When she had been an OL (office lady), she owned dozens of pair of shoes, all sorts of colours and styles. Her father used to joke, “How many feet you’ve got?” She had also bought a couple of brand-name bags from Chanel and Louis Vuitton (just like any other OL who went through the bubble of the 1980s Japanese economy). She still kept the bags in her closet, although she rarely used them now.
But bags and shoes were not the top of her list anymore. With a husband and children, her shopping priorities had changed. It was not because they were financially tight, but because shopping for Yuichi, Kota, and Mina brought a different kind of shopping pleasure. It reinforced her sense of herself as a devoted wife and mother, running her household diligently, making her family feel good and look neat, and bringing her a new kind of fulfillment.
And actually, as for bags and shoes, functionality had become more important than style since the children had come. She needed bags that she could hang on her shoulder so that both hands were available for the kids, and the bags had to be big enough for diapers, bottles, extra clothes, wet tissues, etc. And she needed shoes with flat soles, so she could carry them and run and chase if necessary. She didn’t want to admit it, but as she got older, comfort became an important factor as well.
As Mitsuko passed the window displays of stylish bags and shoes, she remembered that her children were growing up. She didn’t have to wear a flat sole anymore or carry diapers around. And tonight, she didn’t even have to hurry home to make a dinner. She could enjoy shopping all evening if she wanted.
She walked into a rather fancy looking shop (for MBK), which could easily be somewhere in Tokyo. Maybe not in Ginza, but Harajyuku or Shimokitazawa. The shop displayed just one or two bags on each shelf, so unlike the other MBK shops which piled bags from the floor to the ceiling. The elegant bags looked somehow familiar, though she couldn’t remember where she had seen them. She reached out and touched a beautiful cobalt blue handbag, which felt surprisingly soft and supple.
This is a very good quality leather, Mitsuko thought, and very well made. And it’s so chic. It doesn’t look mass-produced for low cost, but rather handmade for exquisite customers. Very unlike MBK.
Mitsuko couldn’t resist holding the bag in one hand and looking at herself in a tall mirror.
Ta-da! It was that magical moment of shopping when you see someone else in the mirror. Mitsuko hadn’t felt that in a long time. In her black dress, the cobalt blue bag made her look elegant with a touch of mystery – and maybe even a few years younger.
The salesgirl was quick to catch the moment. “Suay ka (Beautiful).”
Though she recognised it as sales talk, Mitsuko couldn’t resist smiling. “How much?” Somehow, her words came out in English. She knew this shop was used to dealing with foreigners.
“Forty thousand Baht.”
What? That’s like $1300! Mitsuko was certain the shock registered on her face. She thought perhaps she had misheard it. The girl took out a calculator and tapped 4-0-0-0-0.
How could it be so expensive? This is the MBK, famous for cheap stuff. That’s not even in the price range of the Emporium. Mitsuko still thought maybe the girl had made a mistake in the number of zeros. If it was 4,000 Baht (which was still expensive for MBK), she would snatch it. It was such a beautiful bag with such quality.
Mitsuko looked around the shop to see if this particular bag was the only expensive one. She saw an azalea pink bag with narrow leather strips woven like a basket. It was such a sweet colour. If she had been twenty years younger, she would have loved it. The girl followed Mitsuko’s gaze and said, “That’s 42,000 Baht.” Again, she tapped it out: 4-2-0-0-0.
Even more expensive! Five figures seemed to be the price range of this shop.
All of a sudden it hit her that this was a shop designer brand knockoffs. That was why they looked familiar. These were copies of Bottega Veneta, Hermes, Gucci, Chanel. Mitsuko had not followed the latest collections of these brands, but she had recognised the brands’ distinctive designs. Maybe she had seen them in an exclusive women’s magazine. If they had been genuine, they would cost twice or three times as much. This most-MBK-unlike shop was, it seems, a most-MBK-like shop after all.
“I can discount for you.” The girl said as she pushed the calculator forward, tapping some numbers.
Yes, this is a very-MBK-like shop.
Mitsuko smiled and spoke, this time in Thai, “Mai pen rai ka, kob phun ka (Never mind, thankyou),” and left the shop.
Still heading toward the station, she walked through more MBK-like shops, impossibly stuffed bags and shoes and signs of “199 Baht” or “399 Baht.” Then she found a small shop which looked neither MBK like nor MBK-unlike-but-actually-very-MBK-like. This one just looked like an ordinary, nice store. When she walked in, a long-haired woman who looked to be in her late thirties stood up courteously. She wore no makeup which added to Mitsuko’s sense that the woman was not about to put on a pushy sales show.
These handbags were all made of similar soft leather in brown and black only but in a variety of styles. The bags were tagged as a brand Mitsuko had never heard of. It seemed to be an original Thai local brand. Mitsuko looked at one bag after another carefully. The idea of owning a locally handmade bag that no other woman would have was something that would appeal to any woman.
Her eyes settled on a small brown handbag which could also hang off the shoulder since the straps were a little longer. The leather was not like Italian, but a tanned leather that could shine if polished. The sewing was neat; not as fine as the designer brand look-alikes, but an accent of the bag, giving it a sporty touch. Casual but chic. Not very flashy, but versatile. She could wear it with both jeans and dresses. Also, the bag was much more spacious than it looked.
“How much is this?”
“Two thousand nine hundred Baht ka.”
Her English was decent, and her tone was calm. There was nothing aggressive about her attitude unlike most salespeople who spoke good English. She had been standing quietly while Mitsuko examined the bag. Mitsuko liked her, as well as the bag. And after hearing forty-thousand Baht, two thousand nine hundred sounded unreasonably cheap.
I will take it, she thought. But this was the MBK, so she should at least try to bargain, shouldn’t she?
“Rot tow rai ka?” she asked, practicing her request for a discount.
The lady hesitated but gave a calm smile. “Two thousand five hundred. OK mai ka (is it OK)?”
More than OK! Mitsuko exclaimed silently. But she nodded and smiled.
As she left the store with her new handbag, she thought, What a shopping spree! Bag and belt and other finds, and I didn’t even spend 5,000 Baht.
She felt almost like a long-time Bangkok resident, bargaining at MBK. But that was enough. She had fun. Time to go.
She was feeling hungry but eating at MBK would be too much of an experience. She was not quite ready for the food court. She pictured herself, a middle-aged Japanese expat wife eating alone at MBK on the weekend, and that didn’t look very pretty. There should be some decent restaurants at Siam Paragon where I could comfortably eat alone. Or I could stop at the Gourmet Market for a ready-made take-home meal. A lazy dinner on the couch was quite appealing after a couple hours of walking.
On her way out of MBK and into the station, she passed a small vendor’s sign: “iPad case, Special, 499 Baht!!” The sign was handwritten on a piece of paper. Mitsuko froze and stared at the vendor’s inventory. Isn’t this the same thing I bought for 550 Baht as a special price? The cases looked exactly the same. “Oh!” She covered her opened mouth and started laughing. Some passers-by looked at her curiously, but she couldn’t help it.
You got me, Auntie!
Mitsuko had feared she’d given “Auntie” a hard time with her bargaining, but now she knew that lady was much smarter than Mitsuko.
She didn’t think she would come back to MBK soon. But when she did, she was determined to come back as a much more skilled MBK shopper.
To contact the author and find out more about Bangkok Madam please write to: [email protected]