Shopping Malls Conquer the Earth
Category: Newspaper / Magazine Columns
The Phuket Gazette.
Sipping café Americano this morning in the Philippines on a short trip, I started thinking about the "shopping mall" - of when it emerged during my distant, somewhat hazily recollected past to become the Godzilla-like institution it is today. I am in Makati as I write this, and it makes me blush to consider how much time I've spent in local malls during this brief journey.
Yesterday I met a friend in Fort Bonafacio, a growing city-of-the-future some peg as the country's new financial hub. In a complex called High Street there I was stunned to see dozens and dozens of American chain stores, and families throwing Frisbees - so American in appearance - like an episode of "Leave it to Beaver" (or maybe "Leave it to Beaver" meets the "Stepford Wives") - but dogs are allowed in the shops. (Which forced recollection that I was in a country infamous for canine culinary specialties - but in High Street I found none of those).
Today, back in Makati, I took a stroll round one of the malls. I knew exactly where to find everything because - as with American TV sitcoms - if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all. After many years and many many kilometers trekking through such cathedrals of commerce, I can find my way round a mall though blind-folded, bound, gagged and on roller skates - which is somehow comforting.
Over 20 years ago, when I began living in the East, annual pilgrimages home included an empty suitcase and a list as long as my leg of items with which to return here. But I no longer bother. Times have changed: communications are instant; Asia is now well-malled; and there's always Amazon.com for the impatient. Just think, we used to watch Super Bowl re-runs months after the event! In those days, to have a connection for "imported" items was like finding the Holy Grail.
For better or worse the East has evolved: strolling down the air-conditioned aisles of an up-scale Makati mall, freezing - in the tropics! - like an Eskimo, I passed a California Pizza Kitchen. The menu outside listed "green mango juice" but little else recalling a location in the Philippines. Staff were too friendly in their greetings, as in the U.S., and when I left they sang out, "Have a nice day!"
It was eery.
While America is my homeland, we Americans carry some heavy baggage. We've played a major part in trashing the world's financial system (though we had lots of help from friends). Then there was that ugly Vietnam business; and, of course George W and Iraq. At home we've thrilled to Jessica and another Simpson - and I don't mean Homer, I'm talking OJ. There's been little to boast of.
Perhaps our most shining - and dubious - achievement over the last 40 years is the malling of the world. Might not malls some day unite the world, providing a common dump for dollar or Euro, and bonding Jews, Christians, Muslims - all - in a sort of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip shoppers' paradise? Hey! We can all go to the mall. Malls are today's melting pots for the haves and have-nots: whether shopping or looking, all meet therein and wander about in pursuit of entertainment.
Some regional variation occurs. In North America, where they imagine they invented the mall, the term "shopping mall" is preferred; in Europe or Australia it's "shopping centre." Surprisingly, although Americans did develop the mall in its modern incarnation, the concept is rooted in Iran's Isfahan Grand Bazaar, which dates to the 10th Century. Isfahan, then, is to malls what Tupelo was to Elvis - their birthplace.
In Phuket, growth of community malls, strip malls and mega-malls continues apace. Family shops and traveling markets appear - like the printed newspaper - headed for extinction. It's hard not to wax nostalgic about their passing. I grew up when malls were still a novelty; small businesses and their owners are interwoven with my earliest memories.
Yet I am not thoroughly or even mostly down on malls. Like the Swiss, I prefer neutrality. Malls have their good points. Sure, I'm stifled when 20 people crowd into a six-person elevator; but on a hot day, mall air-conditioning can be nice, and there's so much to see... I might just go back to one right now and have another coffee.