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Philippine Mall Culture: A Capitalist Reimagining of Public Spaces

Wednesday 10 July 2024, by Celine Li

What struck me most when I first set foot in the Philippines was the abundance of shopping malls. On the way from the airport to our residence, I counted nearly a dozen shopping malls, passing one every few minutes. These massive buildings were far from ordinary; they occupied vast acres of land, with stores and restaurants from one end of the street to the other in a seemingly endless maze, stretching for what seemed like several soccer fields in length.

Digging a little deeper, I learned that shopping malls were not only a place where Filipinos met friends and family, but also a way for people to unwind, relieve stress and even work productively (1). Interviewing a few locals on our first day of work, I learned that shopping malls were an endemic feature of the Philippines. Not only these spaces were meeting places, they also represented a fiber of the zeitgeist: a rampant culture of conspicuous consumption that has made its way throughout Southeast Asia over the past decade (2). Shopping malls are at the epicenter of this endless cycle of work and leisure, bringing these seemingly dichotomous activities together under one roof. Not to mention the fact that these megacenters serve as people’s refuge from the congested roads, unbearable heat and unpredictable downpours that occur almost every day of the summer (3).

From furniture stores to cinemas, churches to ice rinks, it’s easy to see why shopping malls attract people of all ages, preferences and backgrounds (4). The impeccable dining rooms and charming architecture drew us in, but the playfulness of famous brands like Nike and Starbucks, the interactive displays of Inside Out characters and the glittering merry-go-round enticed us to stay. Each of these elements complemented and enhanced our experience, making our journey through these malls not only immersive but also very memorable. On several occasions, my fellow interns and I spent hours wandering around the aptly named Mall of Asia, and, not surprisingly, we couldn’t find our way back from where we’d entered. Ranked as the sixth largest shopping mall in the world (5), I was certain that each visit would be filled with new discoveries, whether cultural, social, historical, financial, religious or leisure-related.

Essentially, malls combine retail with interactive, exciting and stimulating attributes, capitalizing on the global paradigm shift towards digitization, while keeping consumers satisfied and engaged, prolonging their stay and boosting sales. The comparison between the sparsely decorated malls found in America and the vibrant community centers of the Philippines becomes incomparable. "Malls are a means of escape for most Filipinos, discouraged by the difficulties of everyday life "(6). We can conclude that shopping malls represent a haven of peace in the midst of urban chaos. In a country where security, internet access and clean toilets are rare, shopping is perhaps not just an occasional outing, but an activity that contributes to a better quality of life.

As I continued to wander among the bustling market stalls, I couldn’t help but wonder how these mega-malls managed to be viable in a country where almost 20% of the population lives below the national poverty line (7)? Moreover, given the decline of shopping malls in America, how did they manage to remain so imposing in Southeast Asian countries?

As a Canadian-born Chinese student, it was clear to me that disparate economic models were affecting Asian countries like the Philippines, as opposed to Europe and the USA, but what exactly was drawing this strict line between consumers in the North and those in the South? I was both fascinated and confused, but my curiosity pushed me to the end of my questioning.

The answer lies at the crossroads of idiosyncratic economic structures and varied societal norms. The existence of shopping centers can only be sustained by a large number of employees (8). These spaces thus create jobs for cooks, concierges, security guards, retailers and canvassers, responding to the rapid growth of the Philippine population. What’s more, mall promoters have added their own unique touch to a fast-growing consumer trend: shoppertainment, i.e. the entertainment of shoppers (9). A crossbreed of "shopping" and "entertainment", the term first appeared in the 1990s and has since become popular in China and Southeast Asia. Shoppertaintment aims to offer a unique shopping experience that bridges the gap between the real world and the online world, using virtual reality, augmented reality and live events (10). Asian shopping center developers have seized the opportunity to integrate this innovative concept into existing superstores

By taking a more critical look at the emergence of large-scale, Western-style commercial enterprises, it becomes abundantly clear that shopping malls are "a repurposed site for the pursuit of old forms of colonial power " (11). In other words, the proliferation of commercial spaces creates and recreates a consumer culture that aligns with the national goal of urbanization, while simultaneously reflecting broader globalizing trends such as the privatization of public goods (12). At once spectacular, ubiquitous and commonplace, the strategic encroachment of department stores, fast-food outlets and 24-hour convenience stores into the center of cities’ liveliest neighborhoods has serious economic and environmental ramifications in the context of developing societies.

Local stores are struggling to survive, as they cannot offer the infinite range of choices and conveniences offered by multinationals. Faced with fierce competition from internationally recognized brands, many of these traditional, independent markets are disappearing, leaving small shopkeepers with little income and no choice but to seek employment elsewhere. This leads to the homogenization of products and identities, and the erosion of Philippine brands (13). More importantly, the growth of the middle class, also known as the "mall class", becomes dependent on companies such as Shake Shack, Dunkin Donuts, Tim Hortons, Victoria Secret and Ralph Lauren, all of which are headquartered in North America, redirecting money and power to the big corporations. This highly unstable consumption cycle is leading to widening income gaps, particularly between the working and middle classes, weakening existing local economies and reinforcing the subjugation of the lower classes (14).

Malls thus represent the re-creation of socio-economic hierarchies nested in ideas of inclusion and exclusion. Malls incubate a series of experiences that blur the boundaries between life, fantasy, pleasure and responsibility, while rendering the homeless and disenfranchised invisible. Shopping malls sell an ambitious lifestyle, analogous to a neoliberal ideal of modernity. They are false purveyors of economic progress, blinding us to the realities of the least developed countries, both in the reiteration of oppressive class relations and in its devastating environmental impacts (15).

The boom in shopping malls in the Philippines generates and encourages excessive production and consumption. It fuels the constant demand for new and improved products and contributes to climate change, unfortunately to the detriment of the country’s already crisis-stricken environment. While shopping malls may give a convincing illusion of prosperity, they hide the harsh reality of growing inequality, cultural erosion and environmental degradation in the Philippines.

Notes and references:

1. Rico, J.A and K.R.C. de Leon. (2017). Mall culture and consumerism in the Philippines. State of Power.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Yao., D. (mars 2010). Manila: Asia’s shopping mall capital. Toronto Star.
5. Wikipedia authors. Shopping mall. (2024, June 22). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
6. Rico, J.A and K.R.C. de Leon. (2017). Mall culture and consumerism in the Philippines. State of Power.
7. Asian Development Bank. (2021). Poverty Data: Philippines.,died%20before%20their%205th%20birthday
8. Rico, J.A and K.R.C. de Leon. (2017). Mall culture and consumerism in the Philippines. State of Power.
9. Team Storyly. (2024). What Is Shoppertainment?
10. Ibid.
11. Salazar, J. (2019). Of Malls and the Political Reorganization of Metro Manila. Talas Journal.
12. Sta Maria-Abalos, C.F.L. (2011). Communicating the Culture of Consumerism: Spatiality of SM Mall, Baguio City, Philippines. The Philippines Journal of Development Communication, 4, 1-16.
13. Ibid.
14. Salazar, J. (2019). Of Malls and the Political Reorganization of Metro Manila. Talas Journal.
15. Ibid.

Photo credit: Arthur Parado in Unsplash

This article has been translated from the French version published here: