Is it the “Mall of Asia” or “Asia, a Mall”?

Recently, I was sitting in a car with a fellow bamboo enthusiast and he remarked on the sight emerging before our traffic-bound car– a huge mall. “You know,” he said, gazing abhorrently at the towering structure boasting of a cineplex and chic boutiques, “isn’t it ironic that for a country that is so poor, we have so many malls?!”. I’ve thought about this statement for quite sometime now, and after my stay here in it’s fifth week, I have to admit that the mall culture is somewhat ravenous here. I know the U.S. is guilty of similar extravagances, but here it’s like the elephant in the room, the expensive one that no one wants to talk about but everyone is waiting to go on a half-marked down sale.

And I don’t think it’s just a marker of my age, that because I am no longer a prepubescent teen I don’t flock to the mall at the drop of a red tag sale. Well, I guess don’t, but there is something different about it here, the larger provincial towns all have malls, and even the smaller ones (like Los Banos) have mini versions.  And they all have names like “MegaMall” or (the reason why I”m writing this post) “The Mall of Asia”. Which is saying something. I realize that there are some advantages to these indoor “common” areas that are breeding grounds for advertised goods that are in effect owned by the very companies that are providing you with “free” parking. The most obvious advantage is the air-conditioned relief you get from the hot and ever-humid outdoors. Even I am guilty of seeking out this amenity whenever I can get it (internet shops are another guilty pleasure, and I think the reason why Asians are so good at video games, but it’s just a theory).

However, despite the drive to escape nature’s abundant heating resource (namely, the sun), the sheer number of malls here is unexplainable. There are people packed into apartments, earning less than livable wages, and even the air is not free of charge– of such a low-quality that it is a serious and deadly cost to their health. So how is it that the Mall of Asia has a skating rink with people practicing their triple luxes in it?! I have no idea, but I have never in my whole life spent so much time in malls as I have in the Philippines. The mall is like the cultural attache of the Philippine future, quietly grabbing people by their elbows and nudging them out of their wet markets, suggesting they leave their tin-roofed towns to seek a greater fortune– one that includes dark denim jeans on deep discount and a country that is even more deeply divided.  What I do know is that the gap between low-income and poor is something I am afraid to put into words, it humbles you and makes you stop saying “Oh, I can’t afford that, I’m poor”. It is difficult to describe a state of affairs that lingers in the dark, one that starves children and adults, creates beggars and thieves, is silenced by shame, swept up and put behind walls. That’s what they do here. When you’re driving along the highway and you see walls alongside the road, it’s because there are shanty towns that exist behind them (you can see them between the cracks and holes), and sometimes it looks like the walls are working more as retaining walls, as if the poverty might spill out and erode down onto the street; exposing the truth. And the truth is that Asia doesn’t need anymore malls (who does?!), they need a lot of things, but clothing outlets and Auntie’s Famous Pretzels aren’t one of them.

All of that said, I am glad to have seen these “mega malls” and towering billboards promising better lives and healthier skin, they make one question the necessity of ‘stuff’ and the ‘things’ that we can’t live without.One thing is for sure, I will be glad to be home and away from the allure of air-conditioned shopping complexes. And I’ll  be more grateful the next time I take a hot shower or set the thermostat to 75!

But there I go again with those American sensibilities, they are tinged with the scent of privilege…  🙂

Ingat! (Take care!)



5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sara Jarrell on July 18, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    This blog made remember the crazy, huge, Americanized malls that I saw and guiltily visited (ac is a big pull for sure) when I was in Ecuador. All of your blogs are amazing thanks for writing them. Can’t wait to see you in person and hear the details.
    Love ya,


  2. Posted by elizabeth on July 18, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    If ever there was a reminder that “progress” and consumerism are inextricably linked, this is it (she commented, guiltily). It is as if the mall is one of those very shantytown walls saying “Don’t look there! Look over here! Shiny! Shiny!” If only distraction did eradicate poverty. You are there, though, on a different mission. Venture capitalists want the next big thing, so if you can help make that bamboo rather than shiny you will have made the world a better place. And you will/are!


  3. Posted by peter on July 21, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Hmmm…shopping mall or shopping maul?


  4. Posted by Wendy Robinson on July 21, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    Malls represent what we think we need and want and remind us of what we do not have. They are strange…especially in another country.


  5. Posted by Wendy Robinson on July 21, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    I just remembered as a child going to Palm Dessert, California during the middle of the summer to visit my grandparents and we would always go to the mall, which had an ice skating ring. It was the best escape from the heat. Reflecting on that now it is strange to me to ice skate when it is a 120 degrees outside.


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