From music to cooking to shampoo, newer isn’t always better

Peter Kammerer questions the need for constant change, after a recent search for an audio cassette player reminds him of the charm – and usefulness – of consumer products now considered outdated

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 January, 2018, 2:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 January, 2018, 9:22pm

A new year is a time to look forward, but lately, I’ve been looking way, way back. I recently bought a cassette player, one of those boombox-type devices with a radio and big speakers. I’m also on the hunt for body care products not laced with chemicals, most elusive being bar shampoo. Much as I like the convenience of the latest consumer goods and technologies, they’re not always improvements. The resurgence of vinyl record turntables and Hong Kong’s enjoyment of Cantonese cooking from a bygone era, for example, show I’m not the only one nostalgic for the “good old days”.

I hadn’t thought about cassette players until a recent trip to Japan. Most department stores had shelves lined with audio and video products I believed were obsolete. There were turntables, but also CD, video tape and laser disc players, plus video and cassette recorders. I remembered a seven-cassette pack about Hong Kong history I bought from a charity shop in Central in the 1990s and never listened to due to not having a tape player, so decided it was time I got one.

Japan uses a different voltage than Hong Kong and I wasn’t about to invest in converters, so left the buying until returning. Our small shops mean there is room only for what’s popular and new. But after much online searching, a store on the upper levels of iSquare in Tsim Sha Tsui had what I wanted and I bought one of the two available models. I’m now happily working my way through Rock of Fortune: Memories of Hong Kong, elderly residents’ recollections on our city from decades past, I’m guessing recorded in the 1980s.

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I grew up listening to music on vinyl records, eight-track cartridges and cassettes. Our formative years and fondest memories shape our preferences later; it’s why Japanese stores have so many “old school” products. There’s a belief among some listeners, myself among them, that music produced and played digitally is sterile, lacking warmth and depth. That’s why there’s continued demand for players in markets with appreciation and space for items most of us assumed could only be found in museums now.

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New products aren’t always about improvement; they’re most often about convenience for the producer or the consumer. I long ago gave up on shaving foam, knowing the pressurised aerosol cans were environmentally damaging, but also because the alcohol in the cream they produced was too harsh on my skin. I shave as my father and grandfather did, with a safety razor, soap dish and plenty of warm water. As a child, I washed my hair with soap, the marketing machine behind shampoos and conditioners not having gotten into gear and plastic bottles still being uncommon. Looking at all the chemicals used to make them, from the containers to what’s inside them, I now know I’m doing myself and my surroundings no good with my purchasing habits, so am looking into alternatives.

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I’m far from the only one who thinks the way things used to be done was better. Steve Lee Ka-ding, a martial arts star and moviemaker-turned-celebrity chef, is driving a trend for old-style Cantonese cooking. He has followed a popular cooking show on TVB with a restaurant in Causeway Bay and books, the latest being Grandpa’s Kitchen. The difference between cooking then and now is largely about preparation and ingredients; what once took days is now done in a matter of minutes, thanks to artificial additives. Our demand for fast food means quality, taste and even our health can suffer.

Government tells us we need to become a smart city. In most cases, that means using technology to make life easier, but will it be better? Progress doesn’t have to mean consumerism, discarding what we have that already works.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post