End of the Bata Era
September 4, 2008
I surmise that few Jamaicans under the age of 30 years old would know what I am talking about; they came of age under brandnames that they can still recognize and see in stores.
Today, reading the obituaries of the New York Times (I confess – this habit of reading the “who dead pages” was cultivated while I was quite young and I don’t plan to abandon it anytime soon) made me pause and think about how our lives, memories and identities are so heavily shaped by stuff that comes from other places.
Until this moment, I had thought that Bata shoes were made in Jamaica. How could they NOT be, I asked myself? Wasn’t this the whole basis of the stigma, the derision, the torture heaped on children like myself who anticipated that annual August trip to the Bata store on St. James Street with about the same level of joy that we drank the foul-smelling “herb” tea or ate the chalky chunk of Bricklax? Nothing seemed to say “made in Jamaica” as much as Bata. And even then, with the whole focus on buying local goods and shunning imports, I could tell that Bata was really NOT the most highly desired brand to sport – anywhere.
Well, I just learned that I have been wrong about Bata’s origins all these years. Thomas Bata, the founder of Bata shoes, just died at 93 years old. This man who has been touted as “shoemaker to the world”, had migrated from Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) to Canada in 1939 just around WWII, to expand the footwear empire begun by his own father. He soon set his sights on “less developed countries” in Africa because, in his words “[…]we expanded into Africa in order to sell shoes, not to spread sweetness and light.” And so the story goes: they are now a multinational company, still making and selling shoes, but based in Switzerland. Before he died, Mr. Bata was able to re-establish good business relations with Czech Republic, which had abandoned communist rule in 1989. There’s even a Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto; funny, I recall knowing about this place, but never did manage to get there.
So, the whole time I was wearing these shoes, I did not know that a whole world of stories and trauma had stitched into them. At some point between my mother’s and my generation, Bata shoes became the object of scorn and a symbol of working-class status. So much so, that, in the 1980s, Bata did not fare well when vendors took over the sidewalks and ran active competition with the stores in front of which they hawked their imported goods – chief among these – shoes. The new stuff was not made any better; rather they smelled like the barrels they were brought in and where they were purchased: America. A few other shoe-related stores have since come and gone from that same location on St. James Street, but none have had the cultural resonance that Bata did.
To be fair, Bata shoes never hurt my feet; that was a constant complaint that I heard from other people. I also quite liked my shoes; I never thought they were ugly and clunky, and occasionally other people were surprised that I got them from Bata and not from overseas. I did have a thing for “englan’ shoes” (that was the term attached to shoes — or anything — that did not look sufficiently “modern” ie. American even if they did come from America) though, so maybe my tastes were odd to begin with. I do remember the looks of skepticism and surprise from neighbors when I arrived home, alighting from the taxi with the orange and white bag, bearing the shoes.
But wait! A Bata yuh go? Me n’e’eh know seh yuh go a Bata to! Mi tink seh yuh modda sen yuh school shoes come gi yuh. Since when yuh deh wear Bata shoes? No sah! Mi! Mi cya’a tek di Bata shoes dem, sah! Dem used to bun off mi foot…
Just last week, I bought a pair of shoes for my child to wear to school. They resemble the shoes I work when I was in grade three, that’s really why I bought them. Mine were from Bata. The shoes I just bought are made by Skechers. Ol time some ting come back again? Or, really, just the same ol’ same ol’? There’s a little bit of us in what we consume.