Here be pirates

Is it real or is it digital? Ziauddin Sardar shows how Malaysia's shadow economy helps its citizens

I go to the mall to buy a specific product. On the first floor, near the cinema, buried inside a record store, is the shop of my friend Jimmy. It is very easy to miss: the loud audio and visual output of the record shop does not allow anyone to focus on anything. But pick out the detail and you perceive that there is a shop within a shop. Behind the facade of the real economy there is another economy. One manifestation of postmodernism in Kuala Lumpur is the strong political economy of the fake. If there is no difference between the real and the imaginary, the object and its image, as postmodernism maintains, then the real is as good as the fake.

And the fakes that one finds in Malaysia, and the region in general, are not just any fakes - they are "genuine fakes", as the smiling young purveyors of fake watches constantly reiterate, luring tourists to their stalls. It is not marketing hype. Digital music sounds exactly the same whether it is on a real CD (the one sold by its manufacturer) or on a fake CD, the copied version sold everywhere by street vendors and hawkers. The world of fake goods is not limited to music. All manner of designer products, from watches and sunglasses to clothes and shoes, as well as computer software, spare parts for cars and machinery, are available as "real" fakes. This underground economy has played an important, though unrecognised, part in the development of Kuala Lumpur.

Jimmy sells fake films. Even though his shop cannot be seen easily, Jimmy can spot his potential customers the instant they appear on his floor. He will begin by doing a hornet's dance around you, before manoeuvring you into his secret enclave, all the time dropping the names of the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Jimmy sells three distinct varieties of fakes and an experienced customer will insist on knowing the pedigree of the imitation.

The commonest type is the film that has actually been re-filmed. This involves smuggling a Super-8 video camera inside a theatre and recording the proceedings. Invariably the sound quality is bad. Often you get only part of the film, because the secret recorder is sitting too near the screen or off centre and not all the action fits into the lens. This way you get a surreal effect: mouths speak, without eyes being visible, to people who are invisible, standing tantalisingly out of range in acres of landscape. But this is compensated for by an added value - the postmodern experience of observing the observers. One can hear the audience laughing, booing, hissing and gasping with fear or excitement, as well as witnessing their excursions to buy popcorn or visit the toilet. The added value is immeasurable for the truly critical viewer.

The next sort is the film that is not quite yet a film. It is what one would imagine to be the director's pre-release cut and it comes complete with time codes at the bottom of the screen. The quality of these copies is rather good, but that is not their main strength. They have an extra postmodern dimension that the real video does not contain. The ending in these "fake films" is sometimes different from the commercially released version, or they may contain scenes that do not make it to the cinema, if the initial audience preview forces the director or studio to make changes to suit the American market. This is not only an invaluable asset for students of film but also an economic boon for Jimmy. Sometimes he will sell his pre-release fake with one ending, and cheap at the price, together with the released version at an inflated market price. The world of fakes is a win-win world.

The last type of fake in Jimmy's lair is the film that is more than a film. This variety is copied to video from a laser disc, so here we have digitised picture and sound. The sound in a motion picture is usually recorded on two channels: the main one is used for dialogue and the secondary for music and sound effects. In pirate videos, however, the sound is always recorded in reverse: the main channel carries the music and sound effects, and the dialogue is demoted to the secondary channel.

Not surprising, really, since the South-east Asian audience is, on the whole, more interested in bang, bang, wham than banter, banter, silence. So the film jumps out of the screen every time a gun is fired, a car crashes or a punch is thrown, and then fades back into background noise that can just about be distinguished as dialogue. There are added dimensions to the picture as well. It could slow down, freeze, speed up, break up into billions of pixels and then morph into its original digital form. All this means that laser disc copies are invariably longer than the original films. So you get, Jimmy says, "more for your less money".

Now Jimmy is not just any merchant; he is a philosopher merchant, a Chinese businessman who is also intensely Malaysian. Buying from Jimmy is not a transaction. It is a social relationship. Jimmy's philosophy is simple: he is a die-hard believer in free speech and free trade, and you get plenty of both at his shop. His regular customers are showered with a generous dose of abuse against the ignorantly applied prurience of the local censors, drowned in reportage of the local political scene and drenched with liberal references to Malay proverbs. There is one that Jimmy cites more than frequently: "One should never interfere with another man's rice bowl." When he has cited this proverb more than once in less than ten minutes, you know the counterfeit police have been round. But Jimmy takes these raids in his stride. He is constantly under threat of being closed down, but the threat is as fake, or indeed real, as the films he sells.

Jimmy is scrupulously honest and more than generous to his regulars. He will sell you a film only reluctantly if he thinks it is a bad film or he knows the copy to be poor. So buying a film from Jimmy is a ritual, involving three distinct steps. First, you ask if he has the film that will be released in New York in a couple of weeks.

"Got, got," he will reply enthusiastically; then he will launch into a colourful critique of the film before giving his verdict: "Story no good, lah." Jimmy likes films with strong narratives - meandering, cyclic plots that, in the final analysis, like Serja Malayu (the classical text on Malayan thought and myth), have something to say. It is not surprising that he dislikes most of the films he sells.

So we move to the second part of the process. Does he have a decent copy of this film with a rotten story? "Copy no good, lah! Good copy in two weeks." If you insist, he will slip the film in the video set up at the corner of his shop and let you decide for yourself. We thus move to the final phase. Can I have a lousy copy of this lousy film, please? At this point Jimmy disappears. He grabs a carrier bag and runs out of the shop at great speed. Ten, 15, 20 minutes later he re-emerges, triumphantly holding a reasonably watchable copy - invariably with added value.

"Bring it back if you don't like it!" he says as he slips the naked video into a flashy, shrink-wrapped cover. He means it. When I don't like a film, I take it back, and Jimmy exchanges it for a film that I think I would like.

As with Jimmy's added-value films, there is more to this business than meets the eye. Many of the films he sells carry prominent invitations to call a freephone number if you have bought a pirated copy of this not-for-sale version of the film. Why do I, an author, not stand four-square with the international conventions on copyright and intellectual property rights? It is far more complex than the lack of a comparable market in genuine branded films in Malaysian shops. Such local video stores as exist import only the worst action movies, and the films cost more than double the pirate price and have been hacked to pieces by the local censors. Thanks to them, you can buy films that make no sense at all, where vital plot twists have been lost, along with unseemly baring of bodies, leaving only the blood-and-guts sections intact. The delights of the classic video store - old, vintage films - are entirely absent. To be entertained, one can only turn to the likes of Jimmy.

South-east and East Asia is where cheap electronics and the hi-tech ingredients of all information technology are manufactured en masse. It is also counterfeit country. There is no contradiction here. Those who labour in the factories to produce all the consumer desirables often earn too little to buy the branded end products, which, despite local production of components, end up as costly imports from other countries. In Malaysia low-income groups need never suffer from the true definition of poverty, which is not absolute absence of disposable income but the socially more cruel fate of not being able to participate in the consumerist illusions of the postmodern era. Thus the fake economy, the inability to tell the real from the imitation, enables those with little money to keep themselves in the game of social presentation and fashion. Slight and delicate Malay bodies, enshrouded in fake designer jeans and fake T-shirts, wrists adorned with fake designer watches, clutching fake designer bags and cloned handphones, look as if they have wandered straight out of Beverley Hills, despite the pittance that the get-up cost them. They are included, fashion and fancy, not excluded, marginalised onlookers. In the international politics of self and style, they are fully empowered.

This is an edited excerpt from Ziauddin Sardar's "The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur", to be published early next year by Reaktion Books

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, America says: never again!