I remember being disgusted by all the new restaurants in HK when I first returned. Two abominations stood next to each other in prime retails space, the first was a less than mediocre Italian restaurant that fashioned as a grocery store slash high-end canteen. You purchase a call card thing upon entering before the cashier gives a lengthy explanation on how to “maneuver” the space while I kept murmuring under my breath, "I just wanted some good pasta, dammit." But no. Instead, you walk along an open kitchen. The first counter you choose your appetizer, then your main and then because logic, you circle back to the front to choose your dessert, all the while beeping your card to keep track of your orders. Its neighboring Japanese dessert café is directly tethered to a shop that sells an eclectic assortment of jewelry, hats and candles. I have no idea why either.
It seems it’s no longer viable to simply produce good food. Even without relying on gimmickry, expensive décor has somehow become synonymous with food quality. A new mall opened in Hong Kong with half a dozen restaurants, with stories behind their décor each more extravagant/ ludicrous than the next. One enlisted a world-famous artist to craft a handful of surfboards to hang on the sunset-colored walls, then an Indonesian restaurant commissioned a whole, massive tree trunk from Bali to be airlifted into the space because a local tree simply won’t do and people can totally tell the difference. Oh you’re wondering about the food? Who cares! That’s not the purpose of restaurants, silly.
So I guess those insipid online magazine headlines of “The 10 Most Instagrammable Cafes in New York City” are really not that insipid because that’s apparently where our priorities lie.
Most of the time for something to sell, it needs to be objectively good or marketable. Preferably both. But it doesn’t always happen. Plenty of quality products die anonymous deaths and plenty of trash go mainstream.
I keep thinking about a random lady who came to look at my furniture in NYC when I listed them on Craigslist. She was a writer. She said she had just finished a novel and after I had congratulated her she gave me a rueful smile: "Thanks but, I’m having a hard time pitching it to editors because it doesn't fit a particular genre." It's not enough to produce something good, it then needs to then be a viable addition to an existing infrastructure. I didn't realize there were these invisible (or may be not so invisible) parameters to creativity even in fiction, something that by definition has no boundaries.
Have we really become so shallow that we can no longer appreciate quality if it’s not wrapped in a bow? Have we come to let packaging dictate content? Why must all food be camera-worthy? Why do all books have to know whom its neighbors are gonna be on a shelf? What happened to quality for the sake of quality?
I ask these things because they can have deeper ramifications than an overabundance of breakfast photos. In a world where clickbait reigns supreme, where every thought can become public within seconds, sometimes to be "marketable," to find where they "stand out" I find authors relegating to talking about what will “sell.” Sometimes it means relying on their race, their sexuality, or the most embarrassing thing they did. While on one hand it can be seen as empowering, as I witness headline after headline pouring through my feed of “I’m in an Open Marriage with Four People and It’s Not What Everyone Thinks It Means,” I sometimes wonder, as a writer, would anyone even glance at me if I didn’t whip out the most exotic thing about myself? What if I'm Asian but I don’t want to talk about being Asian in any shape or form? But I guess it doesn't matter--who has the time to read anymore? Maybe I'll just post a picture of my $100 organic green juice from this rustic juicery. #yum