Mega-Mall Mania & Morality

 | Wed 13 Nov 2013 16:09 ICT

Currently, Wikipedia lists 15 malls that exist in Chiang Mai, although only about five of them are considered “proper malls”, by my own definition. I don’t consider three floors of techno-junk a “proper mall” – in fact, I never trust a place that is made up of an unnecessary number of shops selling the same thing. Does that mean they are run by really competitive sales-minded geniuses that want to outshine their neighbours with similar products, and it’s up to you to find that golden egg of a printer or USB cable? Or does that just mean all the products are equally rubbish? I tend to go with the latter, which is why I’m only going to focus on “proper malls” from now on.Gorgeous sunset lurking behind a mega-mall.

Chiang Mai residents know by now that the city is exploding with development, and I often hear people saying that Chiang Mai is The Little Bangkok or The Second Bangkok. Both those names irk me, being as irked by the real Bangkok as I am, yet I’m undeniably one of the many excited face-fanners when it comes to the thought of Central Festival opening up right on my doorstep. Those are usually the moments when one particular Thai friend of mine will sigh, roll his eyes and say something like, “Crazy farang.”

If I’m going to digress here (which I will, because I’m very good at it), I’d like to mention that this particular Thai friend is a young, wealthy student at CMU, and particularly blunt for a Thai person (might that be the influence of all his crazy farang friends?). He regularly moans about Little Bangkok becoming overcrowded, overbuilt, and most of all, overrated. He’s one of the many kee bon (a Thai expression for a nagger or complainer) who have no desire for a fancy Central Festival or a massive Maya to arrive in humble old Chiang Mai.

My friend is also one of the many Thais, young and old, with fond memories of their hometown that contain little of what makes Bangkok so vivid and wild. Chiang Mai, to him, used to be vivid and wild in a different way – vivid with people, with “slow living” and tradition, and wild with nature (at least, more of it), and a feeling of freedom and simplicity: a place you could feel the breeze, or hear the birds. Now, Chiang Mai often feels like a concrete jungle, full of smoggy claustrophobia and desperate blocks of buildings, creeping into every corner of the city, and ultimately, suffocating the beauty that was or might have been. Deep, I know.

Promenada’s stunning architecture is no joke.

The revealing part is: I don’t ever try and tell him why I’m excited about the arrival of Central Festival Mall. The boring truth is that I was programmed to be a consumer from the first moment I flipped through a Cosmopolitan and learnt that I should buy some frilly lingerie ASAP to prove I too was part of the bootylicious female horde. Or it might have been caused by watching too many Hollywood movies, which made me long to be then-40 year old Kevin Spacey’s sexual fantasy, along the lines of teenage Mena Suvari in a massive bed of blood red roses. Or perhaps my addiction to consumption was parallel to my mind’s consumption of the insecurity-rich, morally-poor world around me. So naturally, by the age of 13, I was already subliminally learning how to achieve an unrealistic womanhood dictated to me by society. Our globally-shared compulsion of amassing utter crap, constantly, went a long way in helping me along.

I can imagine Ghandi shaking his head at me in disappointment, while Jesus starts up a prayer circle in the background. Sorry, guys. Greed is never a virtuous trait, but we all suffer from it, whether we can admit it or not (and if you don’t admit it, that’s just the pride talking). At least while I was being sucked into the price tags of jeans ala make-your-butt-hot and Big Rack Here signs posing as dresses, I was also getting into the likes of Nietzsche, Aldous Huxley and, of course, Rage Against the Machine. Take The Power Back, Know Your Enemy, “if we don’t take action now we settle for nothing later” – all that pleasant jazz. Thankfully, when I was exposed to opportunities to self-reflect, I tended to take them, and this sort of behaviour (destructive at times) has led me to the stance I take today:

No, I don’t need alien-like coloured contact lenses because all the Thai girls wear them – you already have blue eyes, numnut! No, I don’t need a new strappy dress from Uniqlo because the models on the billboards clogging up the city skyline look so damn good in them – are you kidding? You haven’t worn strappy dresses since you were ten years old! To be perfectly honest, I probably don’t need anything, ever, from a monster-mall.

But, I want them.

And I’m grateful Noam Chomsky is my corner when he says, “All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.” I’m glad I read between the lines in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and now I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m just another Veruca, shouting “I want an Oompa-Loompa!” just for the sake of having one. Unless we’re living with the blinds down, or we’re pretending we are just that strong, we are all affected and influenced by cruel, insecurity-driven advertising and corrupt marketing propaganda for the duration of our lifetimes. It is just up to us to see it, and maybe choose what to do with it.

The colourful interior of Promenada Resort Mall.

So, all this is why I don’t like to sum up my feelings about the Chiang Mai mall boom to my Thai friend. Perhaps all this is why I feel so uncomfortable in shopping malls, yet still feel drawn to them in a perverse and needy way. Perhaps this is why I found myself at the Promenada Resort Mall a few days ago, resentfully drinking a delicious 100 baht coffee in Tom Tom. It was there I realised I was addressing my own “mall morality”, sitting with a different Thai friend, who happens to be in his late 30s, supremely well-mannered, well-dressed, and well-off. Unsurprisingly, he has no qualms about the mega-malls sprouting out of the ground in Chiang Mai. In fact, he’s ecstatic about the whole thing, and can’t wait to see the city transformed into a newer, prettier, cleaner Bangkok.

So once we left the strangely familiar Korean-owned Tom Tom (it felt like a Starbucks, as they all do), we wandered around the peaceful building, commenting on the design of the place; how the glass ceilings let in natural light as opposed to the common power-sucking fluorescent ones. And then we mentioned the view outside; how the young saplings planted outside were going to blossom into fully-fledged trees, enclosing the mall in nature, albeit man-made. We sighed contentedly, and decided the place was “nice” – just the usual free-love, flower-child sort of hippy stuff, basically.

Then the talk got less whimsical, as we moved past the numerous, identical-seeming restaurants and stores. When we passed by the cinema, my friend mentioned that Major Cineplex, the biggest theatre operator in Thailand, was coming to Central Festival. I jokingly responded, “That’s great news for me. The only reason I drive all the way to Central Airport Plaza is to watch a movie.”

He shot back with the absurd question, “So you don’t go to SFX cinemas?”

And I realised I was looking at one, really, probably for the first time. (I must be one of those skanky consumers, not bothered whose hands are ultimately fondling my money.) While my friend prattled on about powerful company disputes and board room trickery by fat cats in suits, I daydreamed about my personal reality TV show – Being Loaded at The Mall – which included splurging on some unnecessary jewellery, treating myself to a shmancy dinner, and watching an aggressively loud movie in the Honeymoon Seats for around 400 baht a pop.

Actually, scratch that daydream – I’d rather get some Thai street food to take home and snuggle up with my boyfriend to watch a DVD. Max 30 baht per person. Pressures of consumerism not included.

A true city sunset, behind a highway and electricity wires.

Yes, I might find the growth and invigoration of a small city exciting, but at the same time, it saddens me. What comes next, after 15 malls and counting? What’s out there beyond the concrete heaps dressed up to the nines in flashy brands and clever lighting? What will we do to recover from our mass addiction to spending? How do you fill your life with meaning, when self-indulgent modernisation fills up so much of it whether you like it or not?

Maybe I’m a little more enlightened, at the naive old age of 23, living in this Buddhist nation of polarity: between old and new, between genuine smiles and greedy grins, between beautifully simple and disgustingly overbuilt. Or maybe I am just as blind and willing as the rest of us, because all I know is I’m off to H&M at Central Festival as soon as it opens (which is tomorrow, by the way!), to finally buy myself a bra in my size without extra padding. Thank Buddha for H&M!

Adrian is a South African writer and photographer.

You can find more of her work at her blog Market of Eden.