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From Our Correspondent: Those Were the Days
A journey back to Asia, 1975
By ALEXANDRA A. SENO

November 16, 2000
Web posted at 6:15 p.m. Hong Kong time, 6:15 a.m. EDT


When bell-bottom trousers came back into vogue a few years ago, I found them difficult to like. Being just old enough to remember the tail-end of that fad in the 1970s, my memories of the style are mostly of extra fabric flapping mysteriously and pointlessly around the legs. Or as a staple among the musty piles of donated used clothing given away around Christmas time. Retro isn't all that cool when the stuff is catalogued in your brain under the category "clothes the poor would not take," as a character in The Sound of Music put it.

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My 1970s-aversion came back to mind when I recently found myself rummaging through racks of "vintage" gear for Asiaweek's 25th anniversary special issue. A colleague and I were assigned the editorial task of producing a two pages showcasing the hip 25-year-old in Asia in 1975 and today. The idea was to photograph a model decked out in gear from a quarter-century ago and in the current fashion. This way we could talk about not just clothes, but values (getting hitched seemed to be a priority back then) and outlook (participating in a global dialogue in business, technology, culture) in an interesting and accessible way. Not about right or wrong and who is better off, but to compare, essentially, two Asias, two worlds.

Naturally enough, we had no trouble with "now", but to try to accurately portray "then" was hard work. I was three years old in 1975, and my colleague wasn't even born until three years later. We talked to relevant folks on the editorial floor about what they remembered of Asia from back then. The Internet was searched. Movies were watched. The office photo library was scoured. I started paying closer attention to the sitcom That '70s Show. My colleague, Wei Leng Tay, the assistant photo editor, bought a book on the period.

Everybody kept telling us that the fad of the 1970s was the pet rock. Google turned up a multitude of sites (Virtualpet.com) about them — ordinary little things packaged in a box that came with an instruction booklet about care. One site was devoted to information on the annual pet-rock convention (it's in Massachusetts): Petrockfest.com. We even found a pet-rock dealer on eBay. Contacted by e-mail, he agreed to sell us a specimen for a reasonable price. When it arrived, we were very pleased with ourselves but rather surprised at how small and ordinary it was. "It's just a rock," said a puzzled 25-year-old Asiaweek staffer. "Is this supposed to be the tamagochi of the 1970s? What does it do?" Apparently, the charm is that it doesn't do very much at all. Nothing, in fact.

All in all, our journey back into ancient history proved to be lots of fun. It took me to places I would not have normally ventured to — people's memories, stores full of clothing and accessories from the period (Hong Kong movie stars apparently love them), a night-market stall hawking old LPs (remember them?). My partner in the venture continues her abiding fascinating with stuff from that time. I'm not going to try to relive the decade (my bellbottom issues remain unresolved), but it was interesting to be able to color in that era and appreciate better where so much around me today has come from. Maybe I'll even learn macramé (look it up) - Elainecraft.com .

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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