It's a Mall World

Kaye Alave

The mega mall shopping experience -- the mall as a multi-purpose space, an extension of the living room and social scene -- is relatively new in Manila.

"Many otherwise fair minded, intelligent people scorn and despise malls. Some still end up shopping in them on a regular basis. But they're not proud of it. You of this opinion may not be swayed by arguments of how the mall is the contemporary version of the souks, bazaars, arcades, bourses, and markets of olden days. But by studying the mall and what goes on there, we can learn quite a lot about ourselves -- about the state of the nation and its inhabitants – from a variety of perspectives: economic, aesthetic, geographic, spiritual, emotional, psychological, sartorial."

-- Paco Underhill, Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping

I grew up fearing elevators and malls, and I wouldn't be surprised if members of my generation had the same childhood horrors as we were terrorized by a persistent and terrifying urban legend about them. According to the story kids tell each other on the school bus and at sleepovers, the Robinsons Mall in Manila is home to a half-man, half-snake monster, reported to be the owner's prodigal son. His main hobby is lurking in the dark areas of the department store, though he also loves elevators and stairwells, where he waits for hapless salesladies and lost kids. Nobody knew where the story originally came from, or how it became a national rumor, but as we eventually grew up, the story receded from the collective memory as my generation became avid mall goers.

A few weeks ago, I made a pilgrimage to Manila's new monolith, the Mall of Asia, which first welcomed shoppers last May. It was a visit that I kept putting off; just thinking about the 400,000 square meter floor space made me tired. But when I read in the papers that you could fit Vatican City inside the mall, I was sold. Unlike the other malls made by the Sy family, the Mall of Asia is ostentatious, and unafraid of showing its size. There is a roundabout in front so motorists and commuters will be amazed at its enormity. It is the largest mall in the country, and the third largest in the world. This is a structure that stares down at you; the rectangular expanse is covered in gleaming industrial white, and undulating columns, wings and buttresses break the visual monotony. One side of the Mall faces a massive parking lot, while the other side faces the water. On good days, people stroll on the boulevard, which is dotted by slender trees. They sit on the benches, their backs to the Mall, and their faces to the sea. At night, families flock to the courtyard where clowns and men on stilts regale the children with magic tricks. And the bars on the promenade (near the sea) start to fill up. It's a family place and a date place rolled into one.

This kind of shopping experience -- the mall as a multi-purpose space, an extension of the living room and social scene -- is relatively new in Manila. Two decades ago, people ventured out to the department stores to buy food, clothes, and other necessities. The mall was not a place to hang out; the entertainment was limited, the boutiques and stores were bland, the places were too small. But over the past two decades, the Philippine shopping landscape changed.

Malling is now a national pastime, thanks to the increasing purchasing power of Filipinos. According to the Philippine Retail Association, the retail sector has grown in double digits each year. The food sector is still the largest, followed by the garments sector. The Tantoco family acquired franchise rights for Marks and Spencer, and opened Debenhams and the Spanish retailer, Zara. Local clothing manufacturers are also on a roll, extending their market reach abroad to places like Dubai and Beijing (the Sys own malls in China). Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf have etched themselves into the Filipino culture, as well. Who knew that we liked coffee, in this heat? The cafés have become status symbols; the places to be seen, the places where the hip hold their breakfast meetings. And the recent growth of the local retail sector gives the shoppers a lot to do inside the malls. The gyms, art galleries, and restaurants have convinced the shoppers to stay longer. Hell, there's even a chapel in the major malls so that Sunday shoppers can hear Mass before they shop.

Henry Sy

No person is more influential in changing the Filipino shopping experience than the Chinese immigrant, Henry Sy. He is what you call a self-made man. The mall magnate started his empire more than a half-century ago with a small store in Quiapo, near the Basilica of the Black Nazarene, and a 10-minute walk from Binondo, Manila's Chinatown. Sy had a shoe store there he named Shoe Mart, which later evolved into SM. He was the clerk, the salesman, and the cleaner. The store became popular and it begat other stores. Now, Sy's company is on the stock exchange, and there are more stores coming in. The family, or at least Mr. Sy's wife, is devoutly Catholic and they have banned R-18 films and movies from their cinemas that earned the Vatican's ire (like the Da Vinci Code), which means that they have become major arbiters of culture.

There are other mall magnates, like the Tantocos, who target the "A class" with their exclusive chain stores; the Ayalas, an old rich Spanish-American-Filipino clan, who are into everything from malls to utilities to real estate; the Gokongweis, who own the Robinsons chain. But these three families are no match for Henry Sy's reach. The Ayalas' and the Tantocos' markets are not as huge as the Sy malls, and they are not as straightforward. The Ayalas try to rise above the idea that malls are just boxed temples of consumerism which drive their capitalistic dreams; they have sculptures, parks, and museums in their shopping complexes. (The Sys used to have statues of carabaos in front of their mall in Makati City, but they took them down when they expanded their store, and needed more ground space).

But it isn't just luck and pluck that made Sy a mall magnate. He came at an auspicious time, when Filipinos' buying patterns changed tremendously. Over the past 20 years, malls sprouted up in metro Manila to respond to this phenomenon. In the stretch of EDSA alone (the 54-kilometer main artery that runs through the middle of the metropolis), there are about a dozen malls, with almost every train stop connected to a shopping complex. And the Sy clan is branching out of saturated Manila, with a plan to end the year having 27 malls and 3.6 million square meters of floor space. So does this mean that the Filipinos have become more affluent? I wish. The money mostly comes from remittances of Filipinos working abroad. At present, there are about nine million Filipino workers employed overseas, many of them in the skilled health sector (top destinations include the Middle East, United States, and the United Kingdom). Last year, the OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers ) sent a record-breaking $8 billion in remittances, and this year they are poised to break that record by sending in $12 billion. That's a lot of money for each household.

Recently, a new urban legend starring the Mall of Asia cropped up. According to rumors when it opened early this year, the Mall is unsafe because it was reportedly built on dangerous grounds, and it's sinking. In a post-2005 tsunami and post-Katrina world, it's easy to imagine this kind of catastrophe. If the mythologists and oral historians are to be believed, tales are manifestations of the collective memory. So what to make of this malicious and ominous story? It shows the ambivalent position of malls in the collective psychological landscape. Sure, it's nice to hang out inside the malls; it's convenient, and it's an escape from the equatorial heat. But at the same time, malls create desire fueled by capital … the money that's hard earned and hard to come by. You know, you don't need stuff, but you've got to have it; even if you must ask your mom abroad to send more money than usual in order to get it.

Perhaps this is the reason for the rumors. We can say anything we want about the malls; we are free to hate and love them because they're forced into the landscape, both real and imagined. Always on the way home, depending on who I'm carpooling with, I pass by two or three malls. I dread seeing them. These malls are black holes. They are manipulators. They know what buttons to push, and we are their captives.

In his book, Paco Underhill identifies how mall owners can extend the shopper's visit by subtle signs like the placement of ads, the racks, and the products on the shelf. And it works. Who knows how much time I spent looking at the racks, absently whiling away time? Who knows what kind of book or clothing I will be compelled to buy next time I'm at the mall? Oh payday, be here now.

But what would our world be like without the malls? Would it be a bland, flat landscape, boiling under the scorching sun? A commuter's nightmare of thousands of free-standing shops? In a perfect world, the Manila shopping experience could have been like those in well-planned, pedestrian-friendly shopping districts. It can exist, as Underhill pointed to the shopping experience in certain cities like Barcelona. Emporiums live side-by-side with thrift stores and mom-and-pop shops. All it takes is good urban planning and some restraint of greedy developers. The original Manila actually had shopping districts and well-placed parks, until World War II came and Allied bombers rooted out the Japanese occupational forces, eradicating the urban planning made by the Spanish and the Americans planners, including Frederic Law Olmsted (the architect responsible for the New York City's Central Park, who was commissioned to plan the part of the city that faces Manila Bay).

But we can't turn back time, and life would just be a series of disappointments if we expect too much. So Manila shoppers have to make do with what we have, even though the malls cause traffic jams, and are too huge for comfort. I'd like to think that to some extent, we, the public, own the malls, that we make them our own, even for short periods of time. They are now the new public spaces, the new parks, and believe it or not, they do bring people together. I have bumped into long-lost friends and former classmates while just passing through malls. I have made friends with people who manage the bookstores and with some people at this one cool record shop in Greenbelt. The manager said he'll give me a discount if I make him mixed CDs of obscure pop bands. Well, at least now I have something to look forward to without spending a cent when stepping inside the Greenbelt Mall.

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