Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The New Town Center

By Beth Green

Shopping—it’s not a necessity in Asia. It’s not even a pastime.

It’s become an art.

And since art needs a gallery, every respectable city in Asia has a fantastic shopping mall.

If an excess of period kung-fu movies has you envisioning the goat-and-chicken type of outdoor markets when you envision Asian shopping, you’re missing the big picture.

And I mean the really big picture.

Wikipedia has a list of the world’s largest shopping malls. Perusing this list, except for the palatial malls in the UAE, you see Asia, Asia, and more Asia. Even the Philippines, where I now live, boasts some of the largest shopping malls in the world, despite locals having far less disposable income than do people in the USA. 

A monk checks the wares at an Apple store in
IFC Mall in Hong Kong
While nostalgia and poverty (and tourists wanting to capture both of those on camera) keep traditional markets alive in rural areas, urban Asians flock—no, gravitate, as if being pulled by some planetary force—to the nearest shopping malls.

Malls, oh air-conditioned beacons of comfort, here take the function of what Westerners understand as the town center.

Shopping malls, in China and developing nations especially, symbolize how far the region has progressed in recent years. Progress, prosperity, the future—you can find all of those things between the doors, on your way to the cinema. Or going to the beauty salon. Or visiting the swimming pool, or making for the fitness center, or the driver’s licensing authority, or the amusement park…the whole town is here.

In our first city in China, the assistant assigned to foreign teachers could not get his head around the idea that we wanted to go to a wet market—the traditional, open-air shopping experience where you pick the fish you want out of a bucket by your feet and fondle a zillion strange vegetables, still encrusted with the farm’s dirt. Instead, he took us to shopping mall after shopping mall, pushing us to ride the escalators and bask in the cool air, while cautioning us not to buy anything (“too expensive!”). He loved showing off the city’s new wealth.

Asia also has shopping malls that are completely devoted to single categories of product. I think this has to do with the old grouping of tradesmen to particular quarters of the city. In olden times you’d have the tailors in one district, the silversmiths in another, and so on. Now, they’ve got baby clothes in one five story mall, shoes in another, and—my boyfriend’s favorite—technology in yet another.  If you think it’s difficult to pick out just the right gadgetry when you go to a department store or browse online, try visiting a whole shopping mall full of technology stores and then making a decision. I found visiting computer malls (and their close cousins, camera malls) in China exhausting, because of the crowds of people, stores blasting music to show off their speakers for sale, and floors and floors of kiosks and storefronts packed with wares. I finally had to tell Dan he needed to give me two days’ warning before visiting a technology mall so that I could summon the energy to quash the ever-growing urge to flee. If I was lucky, he left me at home.

Lion dancers bless shops in a mall in Guangzhou, China
during Chinese New Year
Of all of the countries in Asia, perhaps I like the malls in Malaysia the best. Malaysia is a bargain shopper’s paradise, like China, but without the crowds. Once, we were in Kuala Lumpur waiting in line at a foreign exchange bureau in a lower-end mall. Always nosey, I peeked over the shoulder of the blonde woman in front of me in line. She had a highlighter and a five-page list in small font of a “suggested shopping itinerary” from an Australian travel agency. Judging from her notes, not to mention the bags dangling from her bent arms, she was out to verify the whole list. No wonder she needed more cash!

One of the reasons I like Malaysian malls, in addition to the moderate crowds and the bargains to be found, is the food courts. Usually, you can find, tucked away on an upper layer of the mall, a low-cost food zone where vendors sell a variety of pan-Asian treats from small kiosks or carts. I always order either the “economy rice,” which comes with a choice of toppings plus soup, or I get tandoori chicken, with spicy chai and freshly made guava juice on the side.

Is shopping art? Perhaps I miswrote. Shopping, in Asia, is simply life.


  1. This excellent post reminds me of two things, Beth.

    One, that malls in Mumbai are nearly the same---multiplying and getting bigger by the day, it seems. It seems like the most mundane of activities, but all age groups just love hanging out there, even if it's just for a cup of coffee and to people watch. The only part I'm not sure about is whether India has the same sort of single-product malls. Will have to find out. Oh, and yes, every Indian city has "the world's largest mall." Sometimes two or three of them. ;)

    And the second thing you reminded me of is a friend who recently visited Singapore and complained that she couldn't find a single "authentic" experience there because everything was so modern and new, and so shopping oriented. Well, welcome to the new and improved authentic experience, I wanted to tell her. ;)

  2. Oh, and one more thing: Indian malls also have the best food and surprisingly reasonably prices as well. Interesting to know the other Asian malls are the same. You'd think with all the expensive overhead, the prices would be so jacked up, no?

  3. Thanks for the comments! You haven't visited Singapore unless you've gone shopping. That's just *what you do*. Prices in malls in China are higher than at other retailers, but very often you can't find the same quality elsewhere (or even the same products, as in the specialty malls). I was in India for three months and I don't think we went to a mall! Next time, I'll have to go see how it compares with this side of Asia. :)