Mall nation

MANILA — These days, there's no escaping the mall. It used to be that Filipinos like Sheila Largoza went to the park during their days off. A maid, Largoza is not affluent enough to be able to spend a few hundred pesos a week at the mall. But come the weekend, that is exactly where she finds herself.

On a recent Sunday, Largoza, 23, and a friend were killing time at the SM Mall of Asia, the largest mall in the Philippines, which is located by the Manila Bay. "The parks in Manila are no good," she said, looking below at the mall's promenade, with its magnificent view of the setting sun. Despite having spent a good two hours inside the vast shopping center, Largoza and her friend hadn't spent a single centavo on anything.

In many ways, the pull of malls in the Philippines goes beyond shopping, as Largoza, with her $90 a month salary, illustrates. These air-conditioned malls have become more than a substitute for public parks in this tropical country. They have come to define Filipino consumer culture and, to a large degree, the character of the modern-day, remittance-dependent Filipino family.

Eighty percent of Filipinos go to the malls at least once or twice a month, according to a 2008 survey by the Nielsen Media Research, even though nearly half of the population lives on $2 a day or less.

This data alone would seem to suggest a disconnect between consumer habits and economic reality, but consider this as well: Three of the world's largest shopping malls, according to computations by Forbes magazine, are in the Philippines, for which the International Monetary Fund has predicted a poor performance of zero percent gross domestic product growth for 2009. It is topped on the Forbes list by only one other country: China, with four malls on the list and 8 percent forecasted GDP growth.

Moreover, families of overseas Filipino workers, whose billions of dollars in annual remittances help prop up the economy and encourage consumer spending, are a regular fixture at the malls, which now have foreign-exchange or remittance centers with lines so long that converting currency can often take between 15 minutes to half an hour.

It is easy to see why Filipinos are mall-crazy. One can practically spend a whole day at the SM Mall of Asia, which is the largest in Asia and the third largest in the world — it has 4.2 million square feet of “gross leasable area,” or a floor area of 148 acres, larger than the Vatican.

Here, Filipinos not only shop — they play, they stroll by the bay, eat at the numerous restaurants and cafes and the cavernous “foodcourt,” watch movies in the large cineplex that has an IMAX, or simply sit in the open parks outside and inside the mall and enjoy the breeze blowing in from Manila Bay. There's even an ice-skating rink, where the best skaters in the Philippines have trained.

“It can be overwhelming,” Largoza, the maid, said of the mall. Often she and her friends just watch the shows at the “activity center” or hang out by the bay, fiddling with their cell phones and gossiping.

At a forum last year at the University of the Philippines on “mall culure,” sociologist Maria Rowena SA Briones addressed the Filipino fascination with malls: “The mall slogan 'We’ve got it all for you',” which the SM mall chain uses, “gives the impression that when you go to a mall, everything is easy and fanciful. It makes you feel so good about getting what you want/need — the distinction is quite blurry — so that even if you don’t have money or you need not buy anything, you will anyway.”

It is a compulsion that has made Henry Sy, the owner of the SM chain that has malls all over the Philippines, the richest Filipino and one of the most affluent men in Asia. It is the same compulsion, developed almost single-handedly by SM, that propelled other Filipino entrepreneurs — several of them titans of Filipino industry and business — to go into the mall business.

So what effect has this "mall culture" had on Filipino character and identity?

“Malls have become our parks and cultural centers,” wrote the author Antonio Hidalgo in an essay on the subject. These malls, he said, “exercise an important influence on the development of our culture and values.”

The rapid spread of malls throughout the country, Hidalgo added, “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."

More GlobalPost dispatches on shopping around the world:

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How to sell to upscale Indians

More GlobalPost dispatches on the Philippines:

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The showman of Manila