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Mall nation

Malls serve as cultural centers in a nation where many live on less than $2 a day.

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."

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More GlobalPost dispatches on the Philippines:

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The showman of Manila