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.
Yet, 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 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 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.