Mall Formation

The mall has become some sort of refuge: inside the mall, the surroundings are brightly lit giving the impression that the sun is shining the whole day; it is clean, there are no garbage littering the streets; it is cool; there are trees; the toilet flushes; the service is good; and there are no crimes

Philippine Collegian
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 33, September 23-29, 2007

Jerico just came from a grueling three-hour class. He gets on a jeepney and heads for the newly opened mall fronting his former favorite. Huffing and puffing, he negotiates several layers of people, some smartly dressed, others quite disheveled. He notices the façade first. While the typical concrete and metallic interior tell him this is indeed a mall, oases of exotic flora and foggy streams of water, with fountains that wet the adjacent pavement, make him feel weird somehow. Like how the mall has encroached on the territory of parks in terms of scenery.

Still everybody competes for a piece of the air-conditioning inside, hordes of people pour into the lone metal detector by the entrance. When he finally gets in, his body quickly notices the change in temperature and begins to relax. He inhales the perfumed air and drags his feet along the tiled floor. He clutches his backpack and embarks to explore, the sweat that dripped down his back now a thing of the past.

Like no other mall in the world

The first mall in the country was the Ali Mall, named after Muhammad Ali, and inaugurated during his visit to Manila in 1975. Today, the mall still stands, although its former grandeur now vastly overshadowed by the supposedly posh malls of late.

From less than ten malls in the 1980s, today there are more than 250. Among the ten biggest malls in the world in terms of gross area for lease, three are located in the Philippines. In fourth place is the SM Mall of Asia. Opened in 2006, the imposing structure occupies a sprawling 4.1 million square feet of leasable space by the bay. The other two in the top ten, SM City North EDSA and SM Megamall, take up some additional 7.5 million square feet. Four more Philippine malls land in the top thirty.

The recently opened Triangle North of Manila (Trinoma), Ayala Malls’ answer to SM City North EDSA, is already at number 25. According to pop culture theorist Rolando Tolentino, the shopping mall boom, which has gathered renewed steam in recent years with the opening of the colossal SM Mall of Asia and Trinoma, is indicative of the Philippines’ faith in these structures. “Sobra ang kompyansa sa mall bilang tanda ng pagkaunlad ng bansa na ang mismong bansa ay nilalayong maging isang hypermall,” (There is an overemphasis on malls as a sign that the country is developing. The whole country is being developed as one hypermall.) he said.

If, indeed, much of the West thinks physically shopping for goods is already a thing of the past with the advent of online commerce, it is the exact opposite for the East. Fourteen of the twenty biggest malls in the world are in Asia. Half of these are in China alone, in what appears to be a showcase of the country’s recent economic expansion. In the Philippines, the case is no less different. Trinoma, for instance, rose directly in front of a hugely popular rival mall, indicative that the market has yet to be fully satiated.

We’ve got it all for you

Tolentino likewise commented on the illusory sense of refuge that malls offer. According to him, “sa loob ng mall, maaliwalas ang kapaligiran, maliwanag kahit saan, parang parating tanghaling tapat, malinis, walang basura sa kalye, malamig, may mga puno rin naman, nagpa-flush ang toilet, maayos ang serbisyo, at walang krimen.” (Inside the mall, the surroundings are brightly lit giving the impression that the sun is shining the whole day; it is clean, there are no garbage littering the streets; it is cool; there are trees; the toilet flushes; the service is good; and there are no crimes.)

Such pockets of First World in a Third World country are enough to drive hordes of people into these places day in and day out. Inside, time stops being a factor as one loses sight of the outside. The enclosed space is crucial in maintaining this artificial reality. Filipinos get a taste of the First World – they finally experience winter via skating rinks, eat American doughnuts through Krispy Krème, wear British apparel thanks to Debenhams. The maller becomes enamored with his current surroundings and, at some point, starts choosing this sheltered existence over the harsher conditions outside. The more a mall beautifies its premises to contrast the bleak appearance of the outside, the more successful it is in reinforcing this dichotomy.

Some factors, though, suggest that this altered “reality” comes with a price. After a long day of roaming around its shiny interiors, admiring the high-end goods for sale, and using its first-rate facilities, one will notice that there are hardly any seats for tired shoppers. The mall forces its customers to be constantly on their feet. The message that such arrangement sends is simple: if you go to a mall, you are expected to spend. And contrary to how the concept of the malling experience is advertised, it does not come for free.

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