In Manila, malls aren’t passe – they are the city itself
When asked for recommendations about their city, Manileños have the irksome habit of insisting that “There’s nothing to do in Manila,” or that “It’s just buildings,” and directing you instead to the nearest beach. But knowing that a city of Manila’s size and vitality is interesting by definition, if you press them, they will usually admit at least one thing: “Well, we do go to malls.”
And do they ever: the malls of metro Manila, 16 of them qualifying as “supermalls” – to say nothing of the various “community malls” and “lifestyle malls” – offer all of life’s necessities, and most of its pleasures. These cities unto themselves descend, in some sense, from Manila’s walled colonial-era “city within the city” of Intramuros.
But today’s largest malls offer not just the usual shops, eateries (usually including at least one branch of a chicken roaster named after the American country singer Kenny Rogers), grocery stores and movie theatres, but bowling alleys, gyms, medical offices and even churches. More importantly, they offer air conditioning, which goes a long way to explaining their success in a city whose temperature seldom falls below 20°C. (Can it be a coincidence that Manila’s first enclosed shopping mall, 1932’s art deco Crystal Arcade, was also the country’s first air-conditioned building?)
In a sure acknowledgment of the malls’ importance to the city, some trains on Manila’s crowded rapid rail network, the city’s only truly public transit system, pull right into them.
But you can get to a mall by a host of other highly inexpensive means as well, selecting, from amid the all-hours crush of cars and livestock-filled trucks, a taxi, a trike (local slang for small-engined motorcycle with a sheet-metal sidecar), a pedicab (like a trike, but bicycle-powered), or that most Philippine conveyance of all, the jeepney.
Just as Manila’s malls have come to privately provide the city a great amount of quasi-public space, Manila’s jeepneys have come to privately provide it a great amount of quasi-public transit.
Originally conversions of the American jeeps left behind after the second world war but now built locally, these elongated vehicles, decked out with a pair of bench seats and a captivating variety of eye-catching colour schemes and religious, nationalistic or simply cartoonish murals, represent not just the Philippines’ distinctive brand of improvisational urbanism, but its equally distinctive way of repurposing things characteristically American.
As a country formerly ruled by the US and where the only common language is English, the Philippines have an enduring and distinctively close relationship with American culture. The hustle and bustle of life here has long taken place against the incongruous sonic backdrop of American soft rock from the 1970s and 80s (much of it sung, impeccably, by Filipinos themselves).
But apart from a half-implemented 1905 city plan by Daniel Burnham, contributor to the plans of Chicago and Washington DC, as well as green road signs in the style I know from back home in the US, they haven’t adhered very closely to the ways of American city-building, especially as regards shopping malls. Whereas I grew up thinking of malls as distant, suburban alternatives to the city, here in Manila they constitute a vital part of the city’s fabric, right there in its core.
Usually staffed with a sometimes ludicrous abundance of security guards both inside and out (as each shop inside boasts what strikes the westerner as a forbidding phalanx of excessive employees), Manila’s malls offer other kinds of protection as well, though you don’t get the feeling, unlike in some other cities ofAsia or South America, that their walls stand as the last defence against perceived menacingly desperate masses just outside.
Still, the malls do contrast starkly in appearance and smell from much of the rest of Manila, an urban environment considerably heavier on rusting corrugated steel, scruffy wandering animals and visible diesel fumes (though no less representative of the city for it).
Experienced connoisseurs of Manila malls — most of which are built by the same deep-pocketed developers, Ayala Land, Robinsons Land or SM Prime Holdings, each struggling to outdo the last with how many conveniences, attractions and decorative flourishes it can cram on to the premises — know that each belongs to its own class.
A Filipino who frequents Greenbelt probably stands at a slightly different economic level than one who frequents TriNoma, or Glorietta, or Market! Market! But none of these places give the impression of accepting only the top stratum of Philippine society.
They seem instead to target Manila’s emerging, young, more or less middle class, an enticing demographic represented by, for instance, the many employees of foreign companies who have in recent decades outsourced certain operations to the Philippines, easing the economy’s dependence on remittances from overseas foreign workers (OFWs in the local parlance).
This outsourced workforce even has a smaller, open-air mall devoted to them: the office park TechnoHub, a joint venture between Ayala Land and the University of the Philippines, at whose Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf crowds of call-centre employees can be seen chatting on their mobile phones and holding their cigarettes just so.
Class-conscious visitors will notice other conspicuous signals in and around Metro Manila’s malls. Advertisements surround the construction sites for the new wave of condo towers now rising up in places like the financial centre Makati.
“Superlative Metroliving” promises one in somewhat Filipinised English, alongside a picture of a cosmopolitan-looking couple, light of complexion and vacant of expression. These sorts of people, typical characters in Philippine movies and television shows, represent, in their paleness, fashion-consciousness and frequent usage of English rather than Tagalog or other native languages, the height of arrogance – but also the height of success.
Such aspirational language and images may discomfit westerners, saddled with centuries of anxiety about skin colour. (One standard shock comes upon seeing the number and overtness of the Philippines’ advertisements for “skin-whitening” soap, available at all of these malls’ cosmetics dealers.)
But the de facto public space of the malls of Manila offer the best vantage point from which to observe the more ambitious, more demanding and more internationally connected Philippines that is now on the rise, coming up by whatever means it can.
That, perhaps, comes as more of a surprise than anything to westerners, particularly to an American such as myself, coming as we do from places where big, fully enclosed shopping centres, many of which have already undergone demolition, have become symbols of the increasingly passé, automobile-bound and fear-driven cold war era of urban planning.
In the postwar years, Manila repurposed jeeps, those most utilitarian American vehicles, into an iconic, useful, and flamboyant form of transit. Today, in the same improvisational manner, it has repurposed malls, those most tired of all American structures, not by building them as a substitute for the city, but by building them as the city itself.