Monday, October 26, 2009

A Surfeit of Shopping Malls

I confess: I only stepped into Ion Orchard and Orchard Central for the first time about a week ago. I am most decidedly not the mallrat, shopaholic type.

The two newest malls on Orchard Road were nice, in a generic nice sort of way. I enjoy the "new mall smell" as much as any Singaporean, but I am no connoisseur of shopping malls.

[As a matter of fact, my favorite building in the whole of town is the Killiney Road Post Office building, a squat spunky looking structure that nonetheless exudes a lot more character than any of the buildings that loom over it.]

Despite what this article says, I have a suspicion that we are, in the words of one expert interviewed in the article, "over-retailed for the population we've got". For one thing, while the square footage of retail space per capita is apparently lower here in Singapore than in South Korea or Hong Kong, I wonder what the "retail space" in the data actually includes. For example, Singaporeans do not shop solely in shopping malls. We shop at neighborhood stores, mama shops, pasar malams, wet markets ... even those pushcarts in shopping malls. Are these all captured under the rubric of "retail space"? 

The same Saturday night I was at Orchard Central (strictly to stroll through just to see what it's like), I was actually in town having dinner with my family. I was the one to choose where we would eat, and seeing as to how I'm allergic to crowds, I deliberately picked an uncrowded restaurant in an uncrowded mall.

[For the curious, we went to Indo Padang at the Cathay.] 

I knew that the Cathay was a quiet mall, which is already an anomaly on what is supposed Singapore's premier shopping street. But post-dinner, we walked to Centrepoint to browse at a store that sells ergonomic desks for kids and strikingly, and it was apparent even to someone like me who seldom goes to town, Centrepoint was devoid of crowds too. And this was only about 9 pm. Did this have anything to do with Ion Orchard and Orchard Central being the two hot new malls in town, and hence cannibalizing the weekend custom of other malls on Orchard Road?

To be fair, Centrepoint is a rather dated mall, and there are certainly malls on Orchard Road that have a pathetic mix of shops and restaurants and are generally dead anyway after hours (Park Mall, Singapore Shopping Centre, Tanglin Shopping Centre etc.). Still, I couldn't help but recall that far away from Orchard Road down south, Harborfront Mall used to be bustling before Vivocity opened for business. After Vivocity came online, it was downhill all the way for the older mall.

Diehard shopaholics may disagree with me, but Singapore seems to have a surfeit of shopping malls. Not that I'm complaining much, mind you. Even if the shopping mall in Singapore seems a little like the (bread and) circus in ancient Rome, I actually appreciate the availability of deserted shopping malls, especially in the heart of town. Malls where I can browse quietly, actually find an empty seat in a cafe, or get a table in a restaurant with friends without waiting in line. I have no use for quiet specialty malls like Palais Renaissance, aka Tai-tai Central, but I am absolutely fine with places like Millenia Walk or West Coast Plaza.


Charles said...

I think the problem is also of "more of the same".
It seems that the shopping mall experience in Singapore is akin to the 7/11 or Shell shop: every shopping mall has the same brands inside.

mjuse said...

"more of the same" is an accusation that is probably more accurately levelled at suburban malls, the kind that is clustered with a bus interchange and MRT station as part of Singapore's urban model. our malls in town are probably more diverse.

i'm not convinced that more diverse malls per se are going to improve the overall urban experience of living in Singapore. a mall is a mall is a mall. it's a destination for shopping and eating.

what will improve urban experience? more diverse (in both accessibilty of content and price) art and cultural performances, galleries, museums. more nature parks and green areas in the city. more affordable (cheaper rent) creative spaces for independent bookstores, theatres and studios. a more colorful streetscape with street artists, push cart vendors and food trucks, installation art, or even the odd protest or community organized event.

many of these things may not be possible or even desirable in singapore. our weather, public transportation system, government, population size and type, land price and wage levels are all not conducive for these things to happen.

about the best that can be expected is that singapore will be a playground for the rich where you can have a really good time, but only if you have the money for it.