Plastic fantastic

Why is `The Pet Shop, Pollokshaws Road', plastered across tens of millions of carrier bags from Kazakhstan to western China? Words and pictures by James von Leyden
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Indy Lifestyle Online
All over Central Asia, from Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Union to the Chinese-Mongolian border, the most instantly recognisable icon is not the hammer and sickle, nor the face of Chairman Mao, nor the logo of the Coca-Cola company. It is a bright red-and-yellow plastic bag bearing the words: The Pet Shop, 992 Pollokshaws Road, Glasgow. These bags can be seen outside the mosques of Almaty and in the bazaars of Samarkand. Chinese soldiers on the Khunjerab Pass, 15,000ft high in the Karakoram mountains, store their bread in them. Their shreds flutter like Tibetan prayer flags on the windswept bushes of the Taklamakan Desert. Over the years, the bags have entered travellers' folklore. According to one myth, a container-load of the bags was hijacked by mujahadin en route to Europe. Others say that The Pet Shop is a fictitious company invented by a Kazak plastics merchant.

The real story started six years ago. Stuart Thomson (bottom right), the owner of a small pet shop in the Shawlands district of Glasgow, decided he could no longer afford to have his carrier bags manufactured in Britain. He switched to a cheaper supplier in Xinjiang, western China. Once he had printed the 120,000 ordered, the new supplier applied for an export grant from the Chinese government. Through a quirk in the system, manufacturers can obtain a subsidy if their products are defective. The manufacturer simply changed the colour of the bags from white to yellow, slapped on the wrong phone number and distributed the bags, in their tens of millions, throughout western China. The bags were an instant hit. Soon they were being shipped across the border to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. All along the Silk Route, where caravans had once brought spices, jade and lacquerware from China, where the great civilisations of East and West had met and exchanged ideas and religions, the plastic bags spread. Bags that in the Pollokshaws Road had been used to take home budgerigar seed and cat litter were now ferrying hoi sin sauce and samovars. The bags are even used by fur-sellers to wrap up their hats, often made from the fur of endangered species. A Pet Shop bag containing a baby snow-leopard cap is a common sight in Kashgar.

The irony is lost on the locals. Most of them can't read the writing on the bags. In this isolated region, even Russian and Mandarin are foreign languages. It doesn't matter a jot to shoppers in Kyrgyzstan that they are advertising a store more than 3,000 miles away, in a city they've never heard of.

To Stuart Thomson, the free publicity is something of a joke. He has had hardened Asia travellers turning up in Pollokshaws Road to pay their respects to his ersatz shrine. A Channel 4 crew filming the famous Kashgar Sunday market rang to complain that his ubiquitous Glaswegian carrier bags were making a mockery of their attempts to evoke an exotic Eastern atmosphere. They should have directed their complaints to the Chinese plastics industry. Across four million miles of Asia, The Pet Shop bags of Pollokshaws Road have become a mass-produced phenomenon, a bizarre by-product of the global village, a curious testimony to subsidised pricing

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