Paragon in the center of Bangkok is not just some ordinary mall – it is a gigantic marble, steel and glass shopping, dining and entertainment center, surrounded by fountains, connected with the rest of the city by a state of the art “Sky Train”. It is shiny, glitzy and confident, reflecting the limitless materialistic dreams of the Thai middle class, while satisfying all the basic needs of the minuscule but outrageously wealthy elite.
While German and French shopping centers advertise mainstream vehicles like Audis, Renaults and minuscule Smarts, Paragon floors are exhibiting the latest Lamborghinis with price tags of over half a million dollars. Two floors underground, visitors can find a huge aquarium with thousands of sea-creatures, complete with an artificial lake navigable by glass-bottom boats. The Cineplex on the top floor shows the latest Hollywood releases. Paragon is home of Siam Opera, a conference center and concert hall.
In order to make way for its construction, Bangkok authorities allowed destruction of several old buildings, one huge park and a historical area of canals.
Mega malls offer all services for the upper middle class and elites. They host luxury brand boutiques from Prada to Hugo Boss, well stocked English and Japanese language bookstores like Kinokuniya, travel agencies, real estate offices, spas and countless international and Asian chain eateries and cafes. But their main attractions are that they are spotlessly clean, brightly lit, safe and above all – exclusive.
From a city-planning point of view, most Southeast Asian cities can be described as a total disaster. Lacking integrated public transportation systems and passable sidewalks, they often resemble a poor-man’s version of Los Angeles or Houston. While historic centers have been either destroyed or neglected, new neighborhoods are either unplanned or chaotic, looking like tropical versions of Stalinist housing blocks in the former Soviet Union. Electric wires line almost all city streets; pedestrians are pushed to the side by uncontrollable and anarchic traffic, and aggressive noise is omnipresent.
“To go out” means to drive. To eat out in a local restaurant or at a sidewalk stall can easily land one in a hospital emergency room, particularly in Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam or Myanmar. And there is the unbearable sticky heat, at least in the southern part of the continent.
There are some exceptions to the rule, like tiny Singapore and rapidly changing Kuala Lumpur. But overall, to live in Southeast Asian capitals is a far from pleasant experience. The majority of poor city dwellers (a great majority of the population) is resigned to reality; it cannot afford air-conditioning, cars, and clean restaurants. At some point the upper classes said, “Enough! We want a sterile, shiny and cool environment. To have loads of money is not enough; we want to live differently, look differently and eat different food. Traditional living equals underdevelopment and backwardness. We want to be at the cutting edge!” And thus was created THE MALL.
While in the west, malls are often synonymous with consumerism and destruction of culture, in Southeast Asia many cultural institutions are located right in the middle of their enormous bellies. The most prestigious concert hall in Kuala Lumpur is right at the entrance to the huge mall built in the shadow of the tallest buildings in the world – the twin Petronas Towers. Some of the most recognized art galleries in Asia are located in the exclusive mall that belongs to the legendary Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Almost all modern cinemas in Manila, Bangkok and Jakarta are located on the premises of the shopping centers.
In Jakarta, which lost almost all public spaces (including parks and sidewalks) after the 1965 military coup, malls are the only institutions where one can take a walk or sip coffee at comfortable and clean tables. It’s where men and women from the upper class come to show off their fashionable dresses and shoes, something that would be unthinkable to do on the streets below, where narrow sidewalks are broken and full of potholes, fragmented by makeshift food stalls, and flooded during the rainy season. Some of Jakarta’s posh malls don’t even bother with the landscaping – they are surrounded by enormous parking lots, totally disregarding city-planning.
But Southeast Asian malls are much more than just clean areas designated for shopping and entertainment. They are powerful symbols of segregation, of social and cultural apartheid.
In Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta, even in Kuala Lumpur, there are malls for the rich, for the middle class and for the poor. Each man and woman knows his or her place. There are guards in front of every expensive mall, often equipped with metal detectors. The guard is not there just to protect visitors from terrorist attacks; the guard pre-selects the customers – those who seem to be fit to enter and those who are not. This pre-selection is rarely enforced as poor people hardly dare to enter expensive shopping centers, simply because they feel out of place there, surrounded by unknown products and astronomical prices.
The system of malls helps to create and maintain a standardized society. Almost all shops, restaurants, cafes and services belong to the chains. Each and every exclusive Southeast Asian mall offers standardized fare: Armani, Gucci, Valentino and LV; Coffee Beans, Dome CafÃ©, Starbucks; Japanese or Singaporean booksellers. Malls for the middle class host McDonalds and KFC. Shopping centers for the poor offer obscure local chain brands.
Each social class in Southeast Asia knows exactly what to desire and what to aim for. One’s respectability and achievements are measured by material possessions defined by the brand. Experiments and personal style are neither encouraged nor respected. Those who get out of line are frowned upon, sometimes humiliated. Malls are perfect allies of the status quo; they are makers and designers of the social structure of controlled and obedient Southeast Asian societies. They may take away creativity, but they offer identity and club status, especially to those at the top, but also, to a certain extent, to the middle class.
While all major European cities pushed their malls to the outskirts (it is generally agreed there that the mall is nothing to be proud of), Southeast Asian capitals are building their malls in the very centers. The bigger the better; the more glass and steel, the more the country feels that it is on the right path to development. Old neighborhoods are often destroyed to give way to enormous and impersonal concrete boxes. The old and traditional is thought to stink of underdevelopment, backwardness, while the new and shiny is a symbol of progress and economic confidence.
The culture of malls naturally translates into an acute lack of cultural diversity and creativity. Longing for consumer goods that define social standing and respectability keeps the population busy and away from “subversive thoughts,” from aiming at social equality and justice. That suits the rulers well, so they build more malls. If the process continues, inhabitants of big Southeast Asian cities will become homogeneous: they will shop in the same stores, drink the same coffee at the same cafes, watch the same movies, read the same books. Their city-centers will look alike. Their aims will be similar. And the social inequality will remain appalling.
ANDRE VLTCHEK, novelist, filmmaker and journalist, co-founder of Mainstay Press (http://www.mainstaypress.org): a publishing house for progressive political fiction. His latest novel “Point of No Return” and a book of political nonfiction “Western Terror: From Potosi to Baghdad” are now available at Amazon.com. He is presently working in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]