The Junk Ships on Alibaba


Behind stacks of baby shoes, counterfeit Gucci wallets, and spangled iPhone cases, I got burned copies of Jean Cocteau’sOrpheus trilogy at an outdoor market in Mexico City.

A Sunday afternoon in Roma Norte, I was drinking coffee with new friends. We jumped in a cab and directed the driver to a market a little way outside the center of town. Miguel said he was going to pick up a copy of Pigsty there. I was confused at first, and assumed he was talking about something other than the 1969 Italian film, but indeed that was the one he meant. It seemed like an implausible feat to find a physical copy of any Pasolini movie, let alone a more obscure selection, anywhere without paying for shipping and waiting at least a week.

“He’s not going to find the Pasolini film here,” Manuel whispered to me, laughing as the three of us entered Tepito’s labyrinth of tents. It was mostly pirated goods: branded tennis shoes, video games, and handbags; but with some intention to the ordering of the inventory. Suppliers tend to specialize in certain items, one carries knock-offs from a single designer label, another sells only anime DVDs. Tepito sometimes functions as a wholesaler for vendors who operate smaller streetside sales in the city. We walked through the media section — Blu-rays, DVDs, and CDs. Manuel told me that sometimes you can see vendors burning these disks in the back of the tents.

One of the tents had a sign out front, “Cine de Arte.” Inside a dozen densely packed shelves included classic art house fare like400 Blows, Breathless, Paris Texas, and L’eclisse. Each had a cover made of ordinary printer paper inside a flimsy plastic sleeve.

I was happy to find Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, one of my favorite films. There were loads of Criterion collection burns, an entire shelf devoted to Fassbinder and Herzog. Miguel couldn’t find Pigsty, but there were other Pasolini films there. Manuel discovered a copy of Jean Luc-Godard’s King Lear, with Julie Delpy and Woody Allen. None of us had heard of that one before. It has been a while since I’ve discovered a film randomly just by my eyes falling upon it and not through a round of Wikipedia and IMDB clicks.

Four Nights of a Dreamer is somewhat uncharacteristic of Bresson. It is lighter and wide-eyed, albeit based on Dostoevsky’s short story about a boy who meets a girl just as she attempts to kill herself. About seven years ago, I rented it from a video store in Chicago where I used to live. Visiting “Cine de Arte” in Tepito made me think of the place and googling later that night, to my surprise, I found it hasn’t closed yet. I wonder how many years —months?—the store has left. The economy is already harsh on small businesses with their eyes constantly on the margin, and doubly so to those providing services we can do ourselves, not only more cheaply, but also in our own homes.


When I was a teenager, the local video store was halfway between my house and high school. Walking home, I’d stop in to pick up tapes from the narrow shelves in the back where all the art, cult, foreign, and otherwise “independent” films were kept. I burned through the irrefragable alienated teenage classics — Daises, Liquid Sky, Videodrome, Susperia, the rest of that lot. Most of those films I knew nothing about beforehand and selected only for the cover. Sometimes the cover was what kept me from renting. For weeks, I fretted over the one film I most wanted to see but felt worried about — too embarrassed to take Mike Leigh’s Nakedhome with me. What if my parents found it? Not for the name, but David Thewlis’ wanton gaze through the legs of a faceless woman in fishnets on the cover. About ten years passed until I actually watched that one.

The store went out of business a few years ago. Everything was marked down — the leftover candy and microwave popcorn bags by the cash registers, even the shelves had tags. Each week prices on inventory slashed in half again. And in the final days of the fire sale it was mostly those art films left. I picked up several DVDs for a few dollars each, most of which I never got around to watching.


A few summers ago, I was vacationing in Hanoi, where some friends cautioned me about the local travel agencies. I often travel alone and generally book independently, but in this case, a number of nearby destinations are regulated as to make it quite difficult to arrange sightseeing without an intermediary. Anyway, the price usually worked out much better than even the cheapest guesthouses listed in Lonely Planet. But swindles could be fatal. A number of tourists have drown in Halong Bay due to improper safety inspections of the junk ships. Best to stick with a reputable agency.

Sinh Cafe was the place recommended to me by a number of people. Trouble was that due to complexities in the licensing of franchises, I wandered through the winding streets in Old Town passing dozens upon dozens of shops with signs that read “Sinh Cafe.” A number of lax tourists even mistake the word “Sinh” as Vietnamese for travel (actually it’s a nebulous word meaning several definitions of “life.”)

I went to the “real” Sinh Cafe to book a few trips. But my tickets to Sapa said “Sinh Tourist.” Hanoi won’t register trade names of businesses started in Saigon. This means in a sea of Sinh Cafes, the actual Sinh Cafe — the one that has been around for twenty years — doesn’t even go by its own name in town, and that also distinguishes it from its copycats. The owners also failed to register the URL first so even the website is run by a impostor.


In Vietnam, I took a number of pictures cut out of Elle magazine to dressmakers to replicate. I bought counterfeit Tiffany’s pendants in Bangkok the week before that (packaged in counterfeit robin’s egg blue satchels and little blue boxes too.) What’s going to happen when Tepito stands in Mexico have 3D printers? I don’t expect in my lifetime to print fake Louboutins on demand, but maybe quite soon those Zaha Hadid plastic Melissa shoes could be made under a tent in the outskirts of a faraway city — quickly and cheaply.

Just as suddenly as the digital age dematerialized so many of our things, rapid prototyping promises to repopulate the world with objects again — different than what was lost, but things nevertheless. New mementos, new sentimental attachments. These products remind us of the physical and digital world difference, a difference as distinct as being awake or asleep.

In Charles Stross’ novel Rule 34, a character wakes up to a rogue 3D printer fabbing sex toys with a porn site URL carved on them. The screen of his computer is alight with spyware for the same website. We can tolerate the salacious popup windows, the offers for “herbal viagrax” in our inboxes because these are digital configurations, and we have the keystrokes and the tactics to evade them in the same fraction of as second as they come to bother us. But human beings must contend with physical objects.

About the time people were talking about virtual reality, “virtually” was a regular colloquialism for “practically.” Practically reality. Now that “practically” is becoming “actually,” as the digital artifact untethers itself from digital realm exclusivity, and instead may communicate with us as a physical structures. But the products that come from the ether carry with them the logic of their native territory, as they transition from digital artifact to real world object. The online territory provides a unique mutability, a blend of fictions with reality. “Reality” seems incomplete a word to describe what happens online — similarly metaphors to “space” seems ill-proportioned and IRL-centric.

The Sinh Cafes scattered all over the center of Hanoi seem so much like a living metaphor for what is a way of life on the internet — the duplications, iterations, pirate editions, altered versions of existing things, false identities, network-dependant parallel lives and other machine-oriented mutabilities.


Alibaba, the Chinese import-export connection e-commerce site, adds additional complexity to contemporary manufacturing bewilderment. It counts over 2.5 million storefronts, not just chintz and tat but wholesale for just about anything — construction materials, food stuffs, bicycle parts. Like SEO-scamming made physical, various keywords are thrown in to pick up potential traffic.

Zazzle is another seemingly endless e-commerce site. Users design existing merchandise with their own images and text. Zazzle retains all the prior art, resulting in an odd assortment of baby bibs, coffee cups, and trucker hats emblazoned with whatever someone else had thought of — strange slogans, photos of an unknown person’s father — often turning up as unexpected Google image search results.

In the middle of writing this essay, I entered “junk ships” into Alibaba’s search bar. This delivered a handful of 3D puzzles from Shenzhen. Other words brought about greater variety. “Cephalopod” even directed me to sellers of frozen octopus and cuttlefish.

There is no reason for that “junk ship” 3D puzzle to ever exist. The product is not subject to existing demand but predicts it as any loss is negligible. In a boundless e-commerce matrix of key words stacked against everyday objects, untested products pop out with desirability yet to be determined. The tables turn here, demand responds to supply. But it works. I found what I was looking for, although it was obscure. No one had to speculate whether someone might catch herself nostalgic for Halong Bay’s junk ships and then see if some kind of souvenir existed to acquire after the fact. Alibaba has the potential to be as varied and specific as the world is.


Back in the States I watched the Orpheus series on my laptop. An ad for the company that burned these disks played before I could access the menu. How funny to think I bought it not at an exclusive place for Wicker Park or Williamsburg cinephiles, but somewhere with mud on the ground, and the smell of smoke and meat from nearby food trucks.

“After years of shameful illegal downloading, I finally decided to go legal,” someone wrote in a recent Yelp review for the Chicago video store I mentioned earlier. But as I recall, much of the inventory was bootleg, only quasi-legal long before people were streaming and downloading. Four Nights of a Dreamer was a terrible copy, an obscure print from Japan or somewhere. Films would show up badly dubbed, with wear and grain from PAL to NTSC conversion.

Meanwhile now there’s an approximation of an art video store happening in a Mexico City outdoor market. A destination and community has formed around the inkjet printed covers and burned copies of various titles. That wasn’t the first time my friends had been to “Cine de Arte,” and they aren’t the only regulars. The price to keep a tent in Tepito is far less than a stateside brick-and-mortar shop. The same kind of films that were last to go at a suburban video store fire sale are pirated and distributed just like any other blockbuster film. Maybe the owners themselves don’t even care about the inventory, it is just that someone wants it at all.

This is the result of our recalibrated sense of scarcity. Markets without limits and prices inching, virtually, toward nothing. Anything could exist, and may exist regardless of whether someone wants it. That means pirate Cocteau films or trucker hats with “World’s Greatest Dad” printed above a random old man’s face. That’s why there are junk ship puzzles on Alibaba. These pieces of endless possibilities floating in the ether come out of the screen into our hands.

(originally published in Dec 2012, reprinted in forthcoming publication with The Piracy Project 2014)