It does not surprise me at all that the words “malling” and “maller,” which are commonly used in our conversations, are Filipinisms that cannot be found in standard English dictionaries. In the last two decades, we have enthusiastically flocked to the shopping malls that have sprouted all over the country with a passion rarely seen elsewhere, such that “malling” is now a favorite pastime of Filipinos of all ages, income brackets, educational levels, and ethnic origins. We are about as united in our fondness for malling as we can ever be about anything else. This has given us the right to coin our own words to denote those who spend a considerable amount of time in shopping malls and what they do.

Malls have become our parks and cultural centers, aside from being places for social and business meetings, eating, shopping, playing electronic games, surfing and e-mailing at Internet cafes, and catching a movie. Provincial folk even charter buses to make excursions to Metro Manila malls, just as they used to make excursions to the Sibul Spring in Bulacan or to Los Baños in past centuries. And the cultural fare in malls—plays, ballets, classical music, books, the Internet, the hottest pop singers and dance groups, mime, yoyo exhibitions, badminton, rock-climbing, and other sports contests, and, of course, movies—long ago outstripped the offerings of the Cultural Center in its vibrancy and the size of its audience.

I suspect that malls exercise an important influence on the development of our culture and values. Most of them belong to large chains and have a basic uniformity in design, types of shops and eating places, and entertainment fare. Hence, the rapid spread of malls throughout the country probably has the effect of providing common experiences to previously very disparate ethnic groups that had been sheltered in the cocoons of their sub-cultures. Put in another way, the malls can be seen as moving us towards a more unified culture by spreading the big-city values of Metro Manila throughout our archipelago.

The economic importance of malls is obvious. They are powerful catalysts for urban development. Malls played a large part in the rapid physical development of the bustling Ortigas Center that straddles the cities of Quezon, Pasig, and Mandaluyong. They are doing the same thing in Southern Metro Manila in the Filinvest, Alabang, and BF areas, in the North in the Fairview and Commonwealth areas, in the West in the reclaimed areas of Manila Bay in Pasay and Manila, and in the East in Taguig, Cainta, Pasig, and Antipolo.

Malls directly employ hundreds of thousands. And the sales that they generate spur economic activities among the tens of thousands of suppliers to the shops, department stores, and eateries in the malls that benefit millions more. I have not yet come across measures of total mall sales, but their humongous magnitude can be deduced from a survey a few years back that showed that some 300 thousand people went to SM Megamall over a very good shopping weekend. When I mentioned this to my visiting brother-in-law, who is German and lives in Geneva, he sucked in his breath and exclaimed that this was the entire population of Geneva!
As a sometime urban planner, I once criticized our malls on two points. I didn’t think that they should have been built along our major thoroughfares like EDSA and the Alabang-Zapote Road, for they take in and disgorge a very large number of commuters and private cars that severely hamper the flow of traffic going elsewhere. I also found most of them rather unimaginative, box-like structures that have very little that is Filipino in their design.

However, when I recently reviewed the sales of books of my publishing house that sells mostly through the National/PowerBooks stores in malls, I found that most of my sales were in the malls along EDSA, including the new SM Mall of Asia, which is actually at the end of EDSA. I figure that this is because most Filipinos commute through public transport and don’t ride in private cars, thus they find it more convenient to patronize the malls along EDSA. Perhaps this explains why gigantic malls that were built in places with no substantial residential communities like SM North Edsa and SM Mall of Asia have been so successful. If only because they provide equal access to the less affluent who commute on public transport, I guess the malls on the major thoroughfares are in the right places, after all.

I still think that the design of our malls should be more imaginative and Filipino. There are notable exceptions, however. Ayala Cebu and parts of Ayala Alabang were inspired by the traditional designs of our cockpits. And the new Greenbelts I to IV, SM Mall of Asia, Gateway in Cubao, and the new Trinoma are good Western-style designs. Too bad that SM missed a great opportunity to build an outstanding mall in the breathtaking location of the former Pines Hotel in Baguio City.

Despite the widespread popularity of malls, not all Filipinos like them. When I was putting together and editing “The Milflores Guide to Philippine Shopping Malls,” a compendium of reviews and essays on specific malls throughout the country by 25 well-known writers, my good friend, poet Jimmy Abad, told me he wouldn’t join the book because he hated malls and hardly ever went to one. I think he considers them a waste of time that could be spent on worthier pursuits.

Militant groups have criticized them for their unfair labor practices, encouraging excessive consumerism, catering mostly to the affluent, harming the poor by enticing them with things they can’t afford, diverting scarce investment funds away from programs for the poor, etc.

They may have a point in doing so. My wife and I once saw our bright housemaid through computer school. Upon her graduation, she left our employ to work as a cashier at a supermarket in a large mall. After six months, she visited to borrow some money from my wife to tide her over. Apparently, her first contract was only for six months and she couldn’t get another contract from the same supermarket without a six-month interregnum between her first and next contracts. She didn’t find it easy to find alternative employment during the six-month interregnum. It has been several years now and she is still living on the edge, often unemployed and borrowing money from my wife, which she conscientiously pays back when she is employed.

I don’t think our malls cater only to the affluent. The sheer number of mallers disproves this. All the high-end malls, even the Glorietta in Ayala Center, always have people from all income classes. And there are many low-end malls like, Sta. Lucia, the Ever-Gotesco chain, and Metropolis in Alabang, that did not target the affluent from the start. The enjoyment of malls and malling seems to be one of the few things that cuts across all classes in our country.

How the less affluent and the poor cope with consumerist pressures is another question. To be fair, however, malls are not the major source of these pressures—they are generated by the nature of modern city life itself. Witness how most common folk—housemaids, drivers, etc.—now have cell phones. Think of the mounting cases of cell phone snatching and of the ubiquitous underground market for these stolen phones. Malls have little to do with this phenomenon.

Certainly massive investments have gone into Philippine malls in the past two decades. But their economic success has resulted in multiplier effects that have benefited the entire economy. While their economic benefits are not pro-poor per se, proper taxation (note that our current tax structure is heavily skewed towards consumption taxes through e-vat) and sound government policies could harness these resources for social development programs.

The larger question, of course, is whether the high-consumption, high-growth, economic model invented by the Anglo-Saxon societies, which has created malls, is sustainable for all mankind in the long run. Creeping climate change and the imminent exhaustion of some natural resources like fossil fuels warn that this model may lead to disaster and our possible eventual extinction. We may soon find out the answer to this very important question with the rapid rise of affluent and consumerist China, with its 1.2 billion people, and India, with its 1 billion.

Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy malling. I find it fun, comfortable, convenient, and entertaining.

(The University of the Philippines Forum, November-December, 2008)

Posted on December 22, 2008