Lost Dreams of FamilyMart

Lost Dreams of FamilyMart
Photo Credit: Victor Yu

What you need to know

Convenience stores were once a path to Taiwan’s middle class and a sign of economic transition to a service economy. But today a budding filmmaker’s experience working at FamilyMart reflects a stagnancy that haunts a generation.

“If I were to ever make a movie, or make something that’s worth watching, it would be of this FamilyMart,” Victor Yu says.

A budding filmmaker, he described FamilyMart as “cinematic” before self-consciously retracting it — for movies are stories, and his and his colleagues’ are not a mere aesthetic to be romanticized. At risk of doing just that, an Edward Hopper painting came to my mind. A more boisterous one, perhaps, of the morning shifts, with the store clerk multitasking between making coffee, cooking tea-eggs, making a game of Tetris out of all the delivery pick-ups. A more forlorn one, in the dead of the night, of a clerk hiding away from the camera to scroll on his phone. Rather than Hopper’s soft strokes, it’s the unabashed bright light of a FamilyMart, 24 hours a day.

Yu, 23, worked two short stints at the convenience store during moments of transition. The first, the summer of 2015, at the casual suggestion of his uncle, who owns three FamilyMart franchise stores; the second, at the beginning of this year, soon after returning to Taipei after five years in the United States and 14 years in China.

At FamilyMart, everything is transient: the hurried customers, the turnover of mostly part-time workers. The experience resonated with Yu. “Where am I going in my life? I feel stagnated, because although I know I want to make movies, I just feel like I’ll never be able to,” he said. “It’s such a far-fetched dream. It feels so weird to have a goal, but still feel lost.”

An interim arrangement

In 1995, before Yu was born, Taiwan Today published an interview with Lu Chien-hung, a 7-Eleven clerk working in downtown Taipei. “This job is just a steppingstone for me,” Lu said. “It’s not a highly respected job, but it’s stable.” Lu started working at 7-Eleven after completing military conscription. Trained in electrical engineering, he found the convenience store pay higher, and was determined to start his own business one day.

In the 26 years since, the number of convenience stores has steadily increased to over 11,000 today. With a density of stores that is second to only Korea, Taiwan’s market has yet to saturate, thanks to increasing auxiliary services and products, transforming clerks into multitasking Swiss Army knives. Corporate leadership is investing in technology like smart vending machines and self-check-out kiosks, yet the roll-out languishes. 7-Eleven’s first automated, unstaffed storefront opened in 2018 to initial excitement, but closed due to lackluster demand. Taiwanese consumers, the CEO explained at the time, prefer service with warmth and interaction. Many stores are short-staffed for late night shifts, and employees are sometimes asked to work overtime without pay.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
An employee piles up instant noodles at a 7-Eleven chain store in Taipei, June 1, 1998.

The growth, from another perspective, is also an expansion of jobs marked by stagnancy, offering little in social advancement or wage growth.

“At thirty thousand a month, the pay is not terrific, but it’s pretty good for a young man just getting out of the military,” Lu said in 1995. That’s the equivalent of over NT$42,000 today, higher than the starting salary of NT$29,000 for university grads and similar to the national average. Not long before the interview, Lu bought an apartment in Taipei for NT$3 million.

On 104, the job-search site, a FamilyMart job posting didn’t shy away from a punny invite. “Welcome to our big family!” The various openings in Banqiao ranged in pay from NT$30,000 to NT$35,000.

For both Lu and Yu, FamilyMart was an interim arrangement. Lu was cheerful and took pride in his work. Yu went to work everyday pretending he wasn’t pissed. Their personal dispositions aside, they also occupy different moments in Taiwan’s economy. Lu entered the job market in the 90s, a time of excitement and optimism. It was for good reason: the beginning of democratization, the rise of social services — the National Health Insurance launched in 1995. By the end of the 80s, Taiwan’s exports were shrinking, “Made in Taiwan” was replaced by “Made in China,” and Taiwan transitioned towards a service economy. “I think the service industry will be the main trend in the future,” Lu said, and it was a future he was excited about. He wanted to learn about stocks, personal finance, and real estate; save money to buy a computer; marry his girlfriend — optimism was in the air.

Small victories and the small defeats

Today, the future looks bleak to many Taiwanese youth, who express more pessimism than their counterparts in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore. They are more concerned about rising housing costs than their peers in Hong Kong, and more eager for a busy, rather than balanced, work life than those in Shanghai, perhaps as an insurance against the perceived precarity in their future. Youth activists’ protests against long working hours between 2016 and 2018, despite their vitality, were “more of a moment than a movement,” according to NTU sociologist Ho Ming-sho. Policy changes have increased hourly wage but not real wage, lagging behind real GDP growth for the last two decades.

The convenience of life in Taiwan, a source of pride, is predicated on cheap labor. The aging population risks its supply; many stores are already short-staffed for late night shifts, and employees are sometimes asked to work overtime without pay.

As cogs in the fast wheels of capitalism, what stands out for Yu and his colleagues is the slowness, sluggishness, stuckness.

A colleague of Yu’s took the graveyard shift, like Lu. “He doesn’t like doing the job. He was kind of stuck there because his time schedule was all fucked,” trapped in an upside-down circadian rhythm. However, it wasn’t entirely without merit. “It was kind of good pay,” meaning, marginally better than the regular shifts. “It’s for people who just want to be quiet, be left alone.”

In Studs Terkel’s Working, an oral history of everyday workers on their jobs, Nora Watson, an informant, said, “Most of us [...] have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.” Because this was a temporary gig, instead of expanding the job, the spirit shrank.

“I was there for the experience,” Yu said, “I realized that the only experience I can get is training my endurance level. To be able to endure boring shit.”

But there are other joys. Terkel, in his interviews with people on their work, wrote that “[it] is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread [...] for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Yu remembers working with a woman who had a full-time job. FamilyMart was a side-gig — a hobby, even. She was shy, but the job opened her up.

“I’m a pretty insecure guy,” Yu said. “Being a store clerk gives me a reason to interact with people. I was less afraid of being confrontational, of being myself more. I wasn’t afraid to be afraid.”

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Photo Credit: Victor Yu

There’s one colleague Yu cannot forget. He went to school for architecture at his mother’s insistence. “He told me that he wanted to be a chef, but it’s kind of too late for him now because he’d have to go to school and train for that,” Yu explained, for Taiwanese universities make it difficult for students to change course without adding time and tuition. Earlier this year, he quit. The last Yu heard of him, he had entered mandatory conscription, and decided to join the service full-time.

“If I were to make a movie about my experience at FamilyMart, the main character would be this guy. Wanted to be a chef, and now he’s working at FamilyMart. There’s something that’s so poetic or ironic about it, because at FamilyMart you’re microwaving food.” Yu then laughed, “I don’t know why I’m telling you all my plans for making this movie that I’ll probably never make.”

But if he does make it, he said, “I want it to be about the small victories and the small defeats that we face in life.”

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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