Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)


Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 28, 2012 5:55PM

I Confess: I Hate Shopping Malls

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Shopping malls in Singapore are ubiquitous, inescapable. They insinuate themselves into every level of your being, from the glam marvels of Ion Orchard and Ngee Ann City to the humbler open-arcade affairs that surround even outlying subway stations.

I’ve always hated shopping malls in America. In Singapore, they are so much a part of the cultural landscape that I’ve been trying to enjoy them for what they are: over-the-top displays of consumerism; palaces dedicated to dreams of splendor.

Ion Orchard exteriorYet, as the three of us struggled through Saturday night mall crowds recently, lugging shopping bags on the way back to our apartment, I realized I don’t like these malls any more than I do the tackier ones in my homeland.

I’m awed at the Times-Square-like hordes that pack their underground hallways on the weekends. I’m fascinated that cruising the mall is the place for young people to see and be seen: the girls in their high heels and clingy dresses, the boys with their tats and gelled hair.

I’ve been here long enough to scratch a bit under the well-to-do surface of the crowds. Some wear designer clothes or knockoffs, but others are decked in hot pants and lamé. I saw one threesome of women tottering down an escalator who looked like the “pretty one” from New Jersey, her pudgy best friend, and Auntie the Chaperone. The pretty one wore a zebra-striped mini with red rhinestone epaulettes; she kept tugging down the skirt.

(The nervous fussing reassured me, in fact. Earlier in the day, near Boat Quay and some of the fancier tourist hotels, I saw a threesome of what I’m certain were high-priced call girls—dressed in skimpy but tasteful black and stiletto heels. They wore their hair long and plain and glossy. They had the hauteur of models; there was no tugging at tacky clothing.)

Mall Crowd

"Mall Crowd on Orchard Road, Singapore" © Martha Nichols

On Orchard Road last Saturday, it was just the youthful hordes, though we passed a condom shop or two. It was a gorgeous clear night with a crescent moon. At one point, we saw flocks of chittering mynahs flying across the deep blue sky, roosting in the trees.

But nobody else seemed to be looking at the birds or the moon. We burrowed into the underpass that took us from Lucky Plaza to blocks of glitzier malls on the other side of the road. A bespectacled singer with a mohawk belted out “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in the underpass—not bad at all and certainly sincere—his open guitar case displaying $2 bills and coins. No one gathered around to listen; he was just another sight to hustle past.

I appreciate air conditioning near the Equator, but in the malls, it pounds at full blast, so icy that I always curse myself for not bringing a sweater. This works for those who wear long-sleeved jackets or dresses with pantyhose, but the arctic level is absurd, like a gauntlet flung at the tropical heat outside.

My ten-year-old son and I have talked about making a kid’s-eye map of the Orchard malls, one that indicates on which level you can cut through to the next building, where to stop at an information kiosk for free mint Mentos, how to find the best bookstore and shrimp chips.

I like approaching this as a maze that needs to be mapped, a daily adventure in which we might come across a Minotaur. But I find all the wealth, the swagger, the environmental heedlessness depressing, too—and disappointing.

Ion Orchard escalator

"Ion Orchard Escalator in Singapore" © Martha Nichols

I love urban spaces, but I am now craving nature like a junkie in withdrawal. Living in a noisy apartment beside a construction site, I have start filtering my reactions, trying to condense the most positive into pretty images: the green and red lights on taxis, glowing like jelly beans at night; the “Taste of Paradise” lit up on Ion Orchard beside “Food Opera.”

Except not everything can be filtered or prettified. In Singapore, perhaps, the goal is to go the other direction—to break all the barriers of restraint and bad taste. Still, it’s an odd dissonance and a disturbing one, in a conservative land where behavior is constrained in so many other ways.

One Singaporean artist, Boon Sze Yang, has done a series of paintings called “The Mall.” From his website: “Built increasingly beside temples, mosques and churches in land-scarce Singapore (and many other cosmopolitan cities such as New York & London), one might discover a curious convergence of function and form between malls and religious houses.”

Then he goes for the jugular:

“But malls are really soulless temples of consumerism in disguise, a place where we are promised fulfillment and happiness in exchange for our emptiness within. We are mesmerized by grandeur and made to feel inadequate…. Ultimately, malls are really like black holes—they suck you in, and fill their void with our soul.”

I agree. Yet my ten-year-old doesn’t view malls as black holes of false worship. He thinks of those near our Singapore apartment as his backyard.

When I told him about Boon Sze Yang’s paintings, saying they “would look very familiar,” Nick nodded. He likes the familiar. He’s drawn to safety and comfort. Nothing wrong with any of those desires, especially for a boy very far from home. But mixed up with consumer come-ons and the homogeneity of global culture, I say j’accuse!

Just who am I accusing, though? The average Singaporean? Shark-like developers? My own love of comfort? I’m a witness to what I don’t like, but the question of blame is a trickier one.



This post originally appeared in a slightly different form as "I Don't Like Shopping Malls" in "Martha's Singapore Column," a blog where she's tracking her family's adventures during their sabbatical in Asia this spring. You'll find more of her pictures of shopping malls there.

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I'm with you. Hate shopping malls. (I'm not crazy about shopping either.) EXCEPT for the original shopping mall, the galleria Vittorio Emanuelle in Milan, next to the Duomo. Such an old, inviting space that I was inspired to buy a necktie. Though I never wear them. It was awesome. One of my sons stole it.
The malls sound both fascinating and like an anxiety attack waiting to happen. As a symptom of what is wrong with wealthy global culture, malls are temples to self-dissatisfaction, mirages of comfort. It would be interesting to know how residents of slums deal with their very real problems. And I'd like to see a study of the self-esteem of the poor compared to the self-esteem of mall addicts (as opposed to shoppers who go in to buy something they need and then leave). A ten-year old's mall adventures, on the other hand, might make a charming film.
I have come to like some Malls. I enjoy the Mall of America, which is just near enough for an occasional visit. When it's crowded it can be crazy making in all the wrong ways, but there is something both odd and comforting about being on the third floor on a busy but not crazy Saturday looking across and down at the "midway" with kids on rides and parents happy to have a free moment.

It used to be Camp Snoopy, but the Schultz conglomerate withdrew rights, and the strange creatures from Nickelodeon took over. It was a good change. Kids should have their crazy icons, not those of their parents and grandparents.

It's got standard mall stuff, that are as cookie cutter as the complaints here state. But I'm actually bothered more when I see free standing street versions of GAP or Abercrombie or other such things. Really they should be in malls, and not wandering the streets where they really can damage eccentricity.

Still, we come and park, chat with a couple of bartenders in pretty good restaurants, do lots of browsing, some shopping, and then go elsewhere in the MSP metro for more serious fun or really good things--like a dance performance somewhere.
an old gf of mine aptly referred to mass consumerization of all culture as MallWorld. yeah I am highly influenced by the facade of it all. I walk thru malls for fun & can enjoy em as much as the next guy (my favorite splurge is the $5 leather massage chairs)... but there is absolutely a soullessness to them. its a little better if they have fountains or a garden that improves the feng shui. but a feng shui expert might gasp in horror at the modern mall. I can only think about how much natural resources from all over the planet were chewed up to create the scene of glitter, glossiness, & shininess. & then I think of the soulless models in the front posters of stores. yikes! a sort of modern capitalist zombie on full display in all their splendor. a good match for all the zombies walking thru the corridors. and then you didnt even mention the even bigger abomination of reality, Strip Malls. what a blight on humanity it all is. someday I hope we all figure out a better way. theres got to be a better way.
Ive been a little interested in Sufism & its relationship with the concept of Desire. it proposes to meditate on Desire, to become one with it. its a subtle teaching that stands at odds of some other religions eg one that I grew up in that teaches that Desire is a sort of endless treadmill. malls are a good place to meditate on the nature of Desire. they seem to be designed to elicit & maximize Desire. but Desire is insatiable by nature. it can never be satiated. hell must be something like the realm of insatiable desire-- which cant be far from mass consumerism. malls attempt to package up Desire. or rather offer packages to the altar of Desire. these offerings are are burned or crucified on the altar like young virgins. still the monstrous god of Desire is not appeased, not held off. Desire is like the black hole at the center of our universe, holding it all together, forcing everything to go in endless circles, sucking some nearby unlucky stars to their fiery, gruesome deaths.
vzn -- Insatiable desire! Yes, I think that's what malls are addressing and not satisfying in an endless round. Funny thing about feng shui: It's often referred to here, and many claims are made about feng shui practices used to situate various buildings, including mall complexes. The real irony is that when a recent newspaper article referred to the use of feng shui in building the (somewhat) historic Tangs Department Store on Orchard, the owners said, no way, that was a myth, because they considered themselves good Christians.

And so we are back to religion and malls.

Hawley: I agree that a ten-year-old's version of navigating these malls is very charming. I was even trying to convince my son to write an adventure story about strange happenings in the malls (he has yet to bite). But it's because of him that I tried--hard--to view them from more than my usual dyspeptic perspective. I see a few thrills and unexpected delights--but, mostly, they've really just come to oppress my spirits.
When I was young, I did go to shopping malls. That's where I thought I'd find the clothes that would make me look attractive, or at least less disgusting. That, like so much else in life, was a lie. Nothing makes me look less disgusting. I spent too much time and money in malls to prove the truth of that statement.

The only thing that kept me going to malls were video arcades. They had games and challenges that were interesting. A game like Atari's APB, which let you chase crooks in a cop car AND beat the crap out of them to get a confession, was worth the trip to the mall.

Now those arcades are all gone. Malls in Florida, and I suspect in most of America, are now half-unoccupied. Nobody's going there any more. No one can afford to. A terrorist who set off a bomb in a mall would kill nobody and probably improve the environment.
neutron: Yes, American malls seem very empty. One of the the things that struck me first about the malls here is how crowded they are, especially on weekends in this Orchard Road shopping district. In that way, they feel much more like a promenade space than American malls, which often seem vast and echoing and weirdly isolating. Another strange thing here is that I don't ever see many shoppers in the designer stores, even on weekends. The crowds race past, as if reveling in the bright lights and giant video displays and marble halls for their sheer entertainment value.
Isn't complaining about malls; mindless consumerism; cookie cutter stores; possible terrorist attacks; young people parading around malls instead of outside, I dunno, looking at the moon; all that stuff - hasn't all that been picked apart and discussed and analyzed about TEN YEARS OR MORE AGO? Why are you bringing up an old old subject now? If you are lucky enough to live in another country, why are you hanging out in their mall? Me? I live in an armpit of a state with the worst weather, ultra hot or blizzard. I LOVE the mall. I also go out and look at the birds, and the moon, and the stars. When I'm done with that, I do other things, and once a week , walk the mall.
Aren't all malls "over-the-top displays of consumerism," even the ones in the United States? ... I'm with you. I've always hated them, especially around the holidays. What a nightmare.
I'm not a fan of malls, but I really do appreciate underground parking, which means a quarter of the parking spaces don't disappear under piles of snow in the winter and your car isn't 10 degrees below zero when you return to it. Not to mention the month when those mountains of snow turn into rivers of murky slush and you need rubber boots on dry, sunny days.

So I celebrated the arrival of malls in Moscow.
I don't know why people who write for Slate don't like malls, or why they write about it. I live in a small Minnesota town where the bus goes to a mall in a nearby city on the fourth Monday of each month If you don't have a car, it is great to get out of Dodge and walk around in a mall, protected by the elements. Remember, the centers of these small county seats fell out of favor about the same time that the steam locomotive disappeared. I know, once you've seen the mall, you've seen them all.
pure anti-consumerism snobbery (I am guilty of it too); but to me the real issue is that of the huge amount of energy direct and indirect that these behemoths devour, thousands of them....
Btw, one comment invited a visit to the Galleria in Milan, it was based on the Galleria in Naples...both monuments to effeté consumerism, though beautiful to stroll thru and with huge open ended entrances....
I don't think "anti-consumerist snobbery" is involved at all. First of all, nobody ever got a real bargain in a mall. The stores there all overprice everything. Also, the merchandise featured there is usually stupidly selected by buyers; they're items that nobody wants, but will presumably "attract attention."

When I was a kid, I often went with my mom and sister to the occasional warehouse sales held by Famous-Barr, one of the big "mall" stores. They went looking for bargains amidst the msrked-down merchandise that nobody bought from their stores. They saw prices marked way down, all right. They also examined the merchandise and thought about how it would fit into their lives. It didn't fit their lives, and the stuff was superficial and shoddy.

And honestly, kids, that's exactly what mall stores carry. Between Evil*Mart and mall stores are other places to buy things, which offer more selection and real value. Malls are dinosaurs.
Malls can certainly be havens from extreme weather, cold or hot. Singapore is always hot and steamy, and they are havens for that reason. But they're also over-the-top in ways I haven't seen in America, at least in this Orchard Road complex. Singapore is a very wealthy country (2% unemployment, which constitutes a labor shortage), yet there are definite haves and have-nots--the local professionals and expats vs. immigrant workers.

I called this a "confession" because I'm well aware of my political leanings and snobbery. But sometimes you have to call it as you see it—or at least I feel a need to examine my own competing responses. I've found myself much more comfortable in the shopping arcades in outlying areas of the island, many of which aren't air conditioned.

One of the biggest ironies here is that "food court" has a very different meaning than in an American mall. Food courts are everywhere in Singapore, in malls and out, and they are where everyone eats, sometimes three meals a day. The food is cheap (except in areas like Orchard Road) and the stalls offer an amazing array of local delicacies. Here is where you'll find tapioca pearls on shaved ice, chicken rice, popiah or rota--where you eat at plastic tables, sweating under a ceiling fan.
I too dislike malls. As I get older, I find it impossible to take in all that's there and do any meaningful shopping. And I'm sorry you're having outdoor withdrawal. I'm enjoying these stories of a far-away land!
My wife's with you, but I can remember growing up in a very small town and it was a big deal when they put a mall up, both good and bad. Good for the kids who had a place to roam in the winter in a place where there was never enough to snow, bad for businesses like my dad's, but he survived.

A former brother-in-law of mine who grew up in an even smaller town put Wal-Mart in perspective for me. My town had a Wal-Mart, his didn't. REAL towns, he told me longingly, have Wal-Marts.

So I take the Northeast disdain of these phenomena with a grain of skepticism.
The shopping mall seems, for the present moment in history, to have replaced the public square. If we keep drifting toward a libertarian society we will just have more of the same; in exchange for small government and low taxes we will have commercial fees every time you want to piss or walk or sit. We will have the replacement of democracy and government with currency and commerce. The checks and balances of public vs. private will fade away and we will have rights for property owners, and privileges for those who can afford them. We will have private security companies and private espionage companies and private intelligence companies and corporate militarized entities struggling for market share and for the rights to own the spaces designed to herd consumers into zones of enticement and superficial pleasure in order to extract cash from them, just like herding sheep for fleecing.

There will be no freedom to go to free parks, free libraries, or stroll about a public fountain without paying for the privilege.

Imagine a public space with an enclosed greenhouse/arboretum park-like area, with fountains and benches, a library, public art, wi-fi, a mall of public gathering where people can stroll or sit without the cacophony of a commercialized carnival. Maybe include an attached wing of retail space relegated to a non-central area, no more than 30% of total square footage. The public space would be for the purpose of relaxation, of rest, of repose, of communication, of learning, of sharing ideas and meeting new people.

If we built it would they come?
Jeff, yes. The upscale shopping district of Singapore raises all sorts of questions for me about what people are willing to trade off for comfort, security, air conditioning, entertainment. Much of the island is different, of course, but many people travel in on weekends to partake of the this manufactured paradise. It very much brings to mind Thneedville in the current movie version of The Lorax.
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