Travel Diary: Wellington, New Zealand.
The natty young man sips his tiny coffee, his stovepipe jeans nipped into measured cuffs. He is fully engaged in a deft ballet of iPhone and thumb. I’ve seen a lot of these young men in Wellington, facsimiles of the Californian dandy, circa 2008. Of course, it’s unfair to pigeonhole all Wellington men into a single hipster archetype — they have the other type too; let’s call it the Melbourne Bush-Ranger: scruffy chaps in flannos sporting wooly beards and sucking on unfiltered ciggies.
There’s a Bush-Ranger sitting by the door, also fiddling with his phone. He looks a bit like the loggers I grew up with, except for his clean pink fingernails nails and legs crossed at the knee. The Bush-Ranger is worse than the Dandy in my opinion — unselfconsciously ploughing the fertile ground of boganry in a quest for post-ironic authenticity. A stray piece of friand tumbles down his tartan shirt. I want to frighten him with a hi-vis vest and a forty dollar meat pack.
I wanted Wellington to be different. I hoped that somehow this neat little city, nipped in by steep green hills and a lively wind would have resisted the pull of pan-Western fads and dreary hipsterism. But Wellington wants all that and more. It thrives on the peculiarly Western desire for a highly produced self-identity, the seamless mesh of culture and commerce that has come to characterise all Western cities, everywhere. Everyone wears the same jeans, backpacks, beard wax. Everyone Instagrams their coffee. Everyone spends their money to look more or less ‘uniquely’ the same.
The quest for ‘unique-ness’, a kind of contrived artistry that is the kernel of hipsterism, has reached its zenith in Wellington. The city is enmeshed in a death-grip marketing campaign, aimed at convincing both resident and visitor alike that they are experiencing something ‘unique’. In New Zealand, it seems, anything quaint or idiosyncratic — anything ‘uniquely Kiwi’ — is mobilised as part of a hyper-ebullient branding exercise. At best it comes across as juvenile, at worst, aggressively nationalistic.
Make no mistake: New Zealand is a big, shiny brand, combining apoplectic bravado and breathless jingoism. Cultural quirks are sanitised and marketed to death in a sort of half-hearted culture-by-numbers experiment. Wellington is firmly in the grip of ‘placemaking’: febrile self-aggrandising realised through publicly sponsored marketing.
Take Te Papa, Wellington’s much vaunted waterfront museum. Embarrassingly huge and bedecked in fake paua shell and tired purple carpet, Te Papa epitomises the fascination with plastic nationalism in the service of a global identity. It’s like an ersatz casino stuffed with glowing little boxes housing the remnants of a sagging British empire. This, it screams, is ‘Kiwi Culture’. That’s why your sausage roll cost eight dollars.
International hipsterism spreads outwards across the city in a proliferation of negative space galleries, overpriced ‘boutiques’ and micro-breweries featuring beers with tasting notes of ‘ginger crunch’ (an ‘iconically kiwi’, caramel slice, not unlike chewing on a wincingly sweet sheet of asbestos).
There isn’t much ‘uniquely kiwi’ about Wellington. Overseas fads and fashions, from shoes to coffee to gadgets, are gobbled up and rebadged in the twitching churn of fish-bowl of urbanity. New Zealand is truly the land of the flat-white iCloud.
New Zealand’s newfound role as plaything of the international rich and famous is fuelling the fire. During my short stay local newspapers heralded the arrival of Wellington’s newest resident: film-maker James Cameron; (He loves New Zealand! We’re a haven for the rich and famous!). In the absence of any comment from Cameron himself, unbridled self-regard rattled around in the silo of small town mediocrity.
It’s not hard to imagine uber wealthy patrons like Cameron viewing New Zealand as something of a quirky ingenue, a mixture rural idyll and exoticised nostalgia;
Come to New Zealand! It’s like 1960s Canada but with WIFI!
To anyone spending longer in the city than the time it takes to refuel a Lear jet, however, Wellington’s constant self- affirmation translates into an annoying inferiority complex.
Like many small places, Welingtonians’ robust self-opinion sits alongside a morbid fascination with what the rest of the world thinks of them,
‘What do you think of Wellington?’ I was constantly asked. The correct answer, in case you’re wondering, is that it’s a cross between Melbourne and San Francisco.
And to be fair, there are some similarities. Wellington, Melbourne and San Francisco are all nominally English speaking, post-colonial cities with wooden houses. San Francisco has been shaken to bits by an earthquake or two. But to the outsider, there are some notable differences.
For instance, both Melbourne and San Francisco are characterised by a kind of alt-consumerism oriented around ethical or environmental concerns. Yet Wellington remains oddly untouched by this. There’s no ‘sustainability’ marketing of the type slapped all over Melbourne especially. And, unlike San Francisco, there are precious few cafes selling local or organic anything. Perhaps this is not surprising, as there’s little in the way of country of origin labelling for fresh produce, a weird fact I discovered at the supermarket, where ‘Product of New Zealand’ apparently means; Grown somewhere on earth, given cursory once-over on the tarmac at Auckland International.
After three days in SanFranSokyoTon we decided to head north and investigate the 100% Real New Zealand. After all, that waterfall in the picture was really pretty. Iconically so.