The Malls of Iloilo


April 14, 2006


Browse in Philippines

Iloilo is the provincial capital of the province of that name, and the main city on the island of Panay, which is around the middle of the Philippine chain. It is a tired gritty city, with low buildings that become a blur behind the dark web of utility wires, and the grime. There are distant echos of Spanish colonial architecture, a few parks in traffic circles, a bevy of universities that have a bit of grassy charm. But overall, as in much of this country, there is a sense of maintenance deferred to the point of exhaustion, and of a battle against entropy that is not going well.

Partly for this reason, I suspect, Iloilo has become a city of malls. I have not made an exact count, but there must be three or four major ones in the immediate downtown area, plus a number of smaller ones, and a new bohemoth that has arisen somewhat omenously on the outskirts. The appeal of the malls is not hard to figure out. They are clean, bright, and blessedly cool, in a place in which those qualities are not in abundance. People in Washington, DC, often take refuge in movie theaters in the worst of the summer heat. Here it’s like that for much of the year; in the mall you can get cool for free.

The malls here are not entirely the gated chain store enclaves they have become in the U.S. The smaller ones, such as the one I am working in now, are really Asian markets gone indoors, with a happy clutter of stalls, along with beauty shops and bargain clothing stores. Even at the larger ones the food courts are mainly mom and pop pansit shops and the like, though the big guys such as McDonalds and its local competitor, Jollibees, have the prime spots downstairs. (One of the refreshing aspects of life here is that the local chain actually has succeeded in putting McDonalds in its place.)

But the trend clearly is towards the big guys. The new malls are staging areas for global corporation, the way they get control of markets on the ground. At the older malls, and outside, there are stalls where you can buy CDs and DVDs at well below the official price. It seems unlikely that Disney et al get their cut. At the chain malls you pay the official price. One way to wipe out what they call “piracy” I guess is to displace the retail venues at which the low cost discs are sold.

But there’s a more basic point I think. The growth of malls in this grimey city suggests something about them that is present everywhere but appears here in especially stark relief. They are a kind of three dimensional television, in that they provide escape from an unpleasant actuallity and thereby diminish the inclination to do anything about it. Who really cares what the streets are like, the tired women on their haunches who peddle fried peanuts and fish, the urchins who beg for pesos, when you can enter such a happy world — one bright with the promise of products, and of problems that always can be solved with something to buy?

My first trip to Iloilo, about four years ago, I noted that the streets seemed especially grim at night. It was beyond sinister, something that made me think of Batman’s Gotham, but I couldn’t quite say why. Then we went out one night with my wife’s youngest sister, who was at a local university at the time. I mentioned this and she said, “Oh, that’s because the street lights aren’t working.”

“Why is that?”

“Because the city doesn’t have the money to pay the electric bill.”

We were walking out of one of the malls at the time, leaving the bright happy world for the grim one outside. At that moment the streets of Iloilo seemed to be the streets everywhere, our shared spaces everywhere, if we continue to submit to the privitization of consciousness, and let our awareness of daily life sink into the solipsistic enclosures of of the corporate market –video games, cell phones, television and malls.


The hotel we are staying at is connected to this older mall, and it includes a gym that I get to use for free. I was pleased to note that the equipment has improved since our last visit. Apart from the need to convert kilos to pounds (roughly double, right?) the workout was every bit as good as in my small local gym back home, maybe a little better. I was pleased, I said; but also troubled by what I had been thinking about the malls.

The gym is a part of that, I realized, part of what this Western economy of ours is doing to the world. We fill it with traffic and fumes to the point that people don’t even want to walk outside, so that they come indoors to walk on a treadmill. They use electricity for what they used to do under their own power, and pay money for something that used to be and ought to be for free. (Can someone tell me why it’s not possible at least to hook treadmills and bikes up to electricity generators that we produced bio-electricity instead of consuming fossile fuels. Aren’t people doing that somewhere?)

But more, the gym represents the commoditizing of human exertion itself. We invent a life in which physical effort isn’t much required, and then go out and buy an ersatz version that does no work and helps no one besides ourselves. (Fitness for what, exactly?) It is the malling of our bodies, and I say this as a gym regular and therefore a prime offender. My wife prefers to work in the garden. Though I’m not going to give up the iron just yet, I do think she has the higher ground.