Field notes #3: Family Mart (multiple locations)

Or, “I only have time to go to the convenience store.”

In our collective imaginations, the convenience store is an in-between place. It’s almost never a destination in itself, and visiting the convenience store is never an event. Even our homes, which we take for granted more than most other places, offer us feelings of relief or joy upon our return. But going to the convenience store doesn’t stir up any emotion, because it’s often a place we visit out of necessity, a place that’s accessible and decently-stocked and open 24/7.

The convenience store is the closest thing we treat to a home besides our own and our loved ones’ homes. In the convenience store, anything is allowed at any time of day, and no one bats an eyelash if you turn up with unbrushed teeth and hair. It’s a place where people bump into each other in between the tiny aisles and the cashier almost never even looks at you, let alone smiles; rudeness in the convenience store is accepted more readily than it would be anywhere else. You’re in a rush, you just woke up, you’re trying to find that one specific thing and can’t figure out where in all the haphazard organisation it’s been buried. The aisles have no names and the people aren’t really people. The convenience store is a place that doesn’t really exist; like a dream you forget the moment you wake up, the convenience store exists only when we need something, and then disappears again at the chime of the bell over our heads on our way out.

As such, with the convenience store being so much a place we take for granted, it offers a small slice of home, ease and relief at every corner. We need the convenience store like we need a home, because it provides for us, but also because we need these places where we’re allowed to just be, and this provision by the convenience store is perhaps one of its most overlooked services.

FamilyMart, however, changes the way we interact with convenience stores. Maybe the Japanese are used to FamilyMart, but Malaysians were not. The franchise first opened in Malaysia in 2016 and it took Malaysia by storm—everyone became enamoured with FamilyMart. It was treated as a true novelty when it entered Malaysian markets, because of how much it provides in the name of convenience. FamilyMart is a place where you can pay your bills, get cheap coffee hot or iced, buy a hot meal and enjoy it in-store, and the franchise is always innovating further for the future of convenience.

Above all, FamilyMart actually makes you think, unlike the mynews or 7-11 or gas stations that we’re used to, because it is so wholly foreign and untested to us. It offers the sense of escapism that any predominantly foreign brand store would offer. Next to the gardenia breads you can find a “green tea melon pan”, and next to the Lipton iced lemon tea you can find “clear” milk tea. Next to the normal cashier counter, there’s a special “oden counter” where you queue up if you want to buy fish cakes and udon noodles in hot soup. FamilyMart offers variety in an establishment that we frequent because of its lack of variety. FamilyMart becomes a destination in itself because it offers an alternative that we’re not used to. Why should I walk down the street to the FamilyMart when there’s a mynews next door? Because I want something specifically Japanese that only FamilyMart can provide.

The convenience store is predictable, because we know what we can get there and more importantly what we can’t get there. We can’t often get fresh food, and we can’t get an experience, and while it fulfils our most pressing need at the moment, it perhaps doesn’t do it in a way that’s healthy or most desirable for us. But FamilyMart offers all the same things that we expect from a convenience store while packaging it in the dream that, more than just fulfilling our needs, it can also fulfil our desires.

***

Recently, I watched Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 movie Chungking Express for the first time. Something that struck me was his use of the convenience store, even though this location didn’t play a big role in the film as a whole. I was interested by the way the convenience store served to facilitate Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung’s desires, building a bridge between the personal & mystical with the banal everyday. In the convenience store, Takeshi can find his canned pineapples that will expire on a specific date, and Tony can dry a wet letter from Faye Wong on the grill, as if the convenience store was there to accommodate exactly these very specific needs.

Though Chungking Express was filmed in Hong Kong, not Japan, and though it was released years before the emergence of FamilyMart on the global scene, the way Takeshi and Tony use the convenience store in this movie made me think of the way we use FamilyMart these days—or rather, what FamilyMart provides for us in services that we didn’t even know we needed.

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Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character looking for his canned pineapples in a screencap from Chungking Express

The use of the convenience store in Chungking Express to facilitate desire made me think about FamilyMart as a place that provides for everything, and about what kind of significance convenience stores may hold for our future. The transformation of the convenience store into more than an in-between, but into a destination in itself: starting with a café (many FamilyMarts already have a small sitting area where people can enjoy their hot meals), and then what—a restaurant, supermarket, mall? Many other supermarkets, such as Giant and AEON, have already expanded into becoming full-fledged neighbourhood malls, while the upscale Ben’s grocery store has even commanded a whole street of Ben’s-owned restaurants and stores out on Jalan Batai*.

In-between places can’t really exist in a capitalist economy, because many businesses endeavour to expand outward, provide more services and thus become more profitable. FamilyMart isn’t an in-between place, because we’re allowed and given reasons to spend more time there than is expected for a convenience store. Convenience stores lay the foundations for our lives, because we need convenience more than we need variety: we need an all-in-one place where we can rest, nourish ourselves, pay our bills, withdraw money and settle everything that is extraneous to our working lives. (Unfortunately, the reality of capitalism is that food, drink and rest become as incidental to our lives as topping up our phone.) And as FamilyMart grows to fulfil extraneous practical needs, I wonder how much it will grow to fulfil other needs as well.

Needs such as Takeshi’s need to find canned pineapples that expire on a certain date so that he can move on from his ex, needs such as Tony’s need of a grill where he can dry a rain-sodden letter from Faye Wong. I’m wondering about how much the convenience store can really provide for us. I’m wondering if there will come a time when all of our lives can be settled at a FamilyMart.

***

Because of how much the convenience store provides for us, I’ve personally always thought of it also as a site of desperation. Yes, you go to the convenience store when you’re in a rush or need a quick fix, but you also go there when you’re down on cash, or because something else is preventing you from doing something that’s good for you. I’ve visited the convenience store when I felt too useless to go to the grocery store, and I’ve visited the convenience store when I’ve been too anxious to go out to a normal place and eat a normal, cooked meal.

As I’ve said, the convenience store offers a safe haven where you can indulge in the same anonymity, ease and ugliness as you would in your own home. At the convenience store, you forget to leave all the emotional baggage at the door because you’re allowed to bring it in, a “service” you may not easily find anywhere else.

Underneath all of its plans for future services to expand into, perhaps what FamilyMart is truly striving to provide is the veneer of a home outside the home. On every corner, a convenience store that provides for the entire hierarchy of Maslow’s needs, including self-actualisation. And then, just as Japan’s innovations in improving standards of living are all ultimately in the service of increasing productivity, back to work and “the real world”.

***

(I’m thinking, also, about that one evening we’d fought, and decided to make our separate ways back, and I’d stumbled upon you again smoking a cigarette and checking your phone outside a FamilyMart. Is this one of the services it offers as well? Everyone, at some point, will need to go to a convenience store, and they will need the convenience store more often than anywhere else. Maybe if one waits long enough at a FamilyMart, the loved one will eventually return, if just to buy a pack of cigarettes. In Chungking Express, Tony Leung re-discovers his stewardess ex-girlfriend again in the convenience store, pulling a drink out of the chilled section.)

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Tony Leung’s character waiting for his letter to dry in a screencap from Chungking Express.

*It is telling that an “upscale” grocery like Ben’s expanded into Jalan Batai. A mark of luxury is variety, because there is nothing more luxurious than having the time, energy and money to go out of your way to get what you want. However, even the relatively luxurious families seem to prefer convenience over variety, and so Jalan Batai…

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