Sunday, October 21, 2007

Malls and Bombs



I was planning on posting the first of a three-part blog on the changing nature of NGO work in the Philippines. Some forums I’ve gone to recently prompted this, along with an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer by Herbert Docena that looks at the U.S. military posture in the Philippines. A lot of the civilian infrastructure in the Southern Philippines is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and has far more military than civilian application. Although Herbert doesn’t address this aspect of it, a significant number of U.S.-based charities, including religious ones, are substantially funded and driven by USAID, thus the tie-in to my eventual post on NGO work in the Philippines. Herbert’s article is accessible through the following PDI link:

Or through the link with his organizational website:

I will take this up again in a future posting.


Friday morning, October 19, I spent reading at the library of the development agency where my wife works. After lunch I began my trip home on the Metro Rail Transit train, the fastest way to get around Metro Manila despite the crushing numbers of people during the morning and late afternoon commute. The last stop of the train is the North Avenue Station which opens on to the new TRINOMA mall in Quezon City. It takes its name from the fact that the massive new mall is located on the triangle bound by Mindanao, North, and EDSA avenues – Triangle North of Manila. As with many cities in the developing world, the dozen cities that make up Metro Manila have become a city of malls.

When I lived in Manila in the late 1980s there were only a few American-style malls. There was the original Ali Mall in Quezon City’s Cubao district, near the Araneta Coliseum where Mohammad Ali fought his “Thrilla in Manila” back in 1976. Then there was the ShoeMart (SM) Mall on North Avenue. When my parents visited me here in the Philippines for two weeks in the1980s we went shopping in SM North Mall. I can’t recall why. My parents had lived most of their lives in a Central California farm town of barely six thousand people, less than the population of SM North on a Sunday, at that time. My father did not use strong language. As we rode the crowded escalator up to the second floor, my father looked left and right, and through the noise I could hear him mutter, “My God, it’s a mad house." SM North is now four or five times as big as it was in the 1980s, and right across the street is the slightly more upscale TRINOMA. There are plans to connect the rival malls with a pedestrian bridge, thus keeping patrons safe above the fray, air-conditioned, and spending their money.

Many of these malls are bigger than anything you may have seen in the United States, including the “Mall of America” in the US Midwest. Many of them are far more opulent as well, including fine-dinning restaurants and combining air-conditioned walkways, vast verandas, dramatic views of the city, and with thick vegetation reflecting the tropical climate.

SM North, which is being renovated, sports bill boards saying it is “one of the ten biggest malls in the world.”

Big deal, several malls here are much bigger.

The SM Megamall, a few stops down on the MRT train and adjacent to my wife’s workplace, used to be Asia’s biggest mall. The SM Mall of Asia, on the south side of Metro Manila now claims that title.

The biggest chain of malls, the SM chain, is owned by Henry Sy. Following this are the Ayala malls owned by the Ayala family, a Spanish mestizo family and, according to Forbes, the wealthiest family in the Philippines. The Ayalas have been rich forever, and the San Augustine Cathedral in Old Manila’s walled city includes two-hundred-year-old Ayala crypts in the side chapels. Pulling up third is the Robinson’s chain of malls. Most of the MRT stations are within walking distance of a mall, if not immediately adjacent to one. It is the mall train. Several competing malls are already connected by walkways passing over the traffic below. I imagine one day they will all be connected, from Quezon City in the northeast to Pasay City in the far south. One could walk the whole of Metro Manila in air-conditioned comfort.

By the end of such a walking excursion, however, you will have suffered permanent hearing loss, as is already the case with most people in Metro Manila.

There is a direct relationship between the noise levels in a mall, the frigidity of the aircon, and the income levels of the shoppers – the poorer the clientele, the colder and louder the mall. Poor folk come to a mall to cool down, and to be entertained. They want their money’s worth!

SM North Mall leaves one half deaf after an hour, and you had better bring a sweater if you’re planning to take in a movie. The Rockwell Mall, which you can’t even get to on public transportation, goes for the very upscale shopper and is nearly silent. So, if you want powerful aircon, well, you can get that at home.

A few weeks after the new TRINOMA mall opened I realized it was not going for the same demographic as the Ayala’s Glorietta Mall in the City of Makati’s financial district. TRINOMA now leaves me almost as hearing impaired as SM North. Adjacent to a new cross-country bus terminal, TRINOMA advertises itself as a “regional mall” capturing shoppers from the provinces a few hours north of Metro Manila. You can see the probinsyanos wandering the mall, wide eyed, and hanging on to each other. ATM machines every 50 meters insure that they won’t come up short on cash before they head back to the bus terminal and the return trip to Bulacan, Tarlac, or Pampanga.

Speaking of Glorietta and TRINOMA, if you are avid international news junkies Glorietta might ring a bell for you, and this brings me back to the opening paragraph. I was in the grocery store in TRINOMA on Friday, on my way home from that library trip, looking for something to grill on the weekend. The security office at the agency where my wife works sent me and several thousand other staff and family members a text message to our cell phones. A bomb had just gone off at Glorietta Mall in Makati.

Intermittent text messages kept us informed of the events and investigation in Makati, and warned us to keep away from malls, public places, and public transportation. As a firm believer in the “lightning never strikes twice …” adage I promptly erased these messages, but I also didn’t spend any longer in the mall than I needed to look for my rib eye steaks.

While we were still dating my now wife and I used to rendezvous at least once a week at the Glorietta Mall. We don’t go there very often now because TRINOMA and the new Gateway Mall in the Cubao area are closer, but we still go there once in awhile, and we know exactly where the bomb went off.

It was serious explosion, ripping up through three floors and blowing a hole in the roof of the mall, and leaving at least eleven people dead and over 100 injured.

What is interesting is how quickly we absorb the shock, those of us who did not lose a loved one and who were not injured. On Sunday, two days after the event, we were in the SM North Mall to get some gardening supplies. The mall had about half the number of people one might normally expect for a Sunday. Barring any new bombings, I suspect the crowd will be back to normal by next Sunday.

The October 21, 2007 editorial in the Philippine Daily Inquirer notes the sadness of our country, the fact that there are so many suspects in this bombing. The real tragedy, however, is that for a great many Filipinos and other residents, including this one, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her government are among the suspects. This is not the assessment of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists, but of average work-a-day people.

In his article in the October 22 Inquirer, political analyst Amando Doronila notes that whoever is responsible for the bombing, it certainly did draw attention away from Arroyo’s latest political scandal. Several days ago a handful of governors and congress people attending a meeting at the presidential palace reported that they were given gift bags stuffed with money. The governors received P500,000 (over $10,000 U.S.), congress people got P200,000, and mayors received P50,000. Enough people admitted to this, even showing the cash to the media, that the president and her people can’t get out of it. Some of her aids deny it, while others are saying they don’t know where the money came from or who was handing it out. It is estimated that the equivalent of over $3 million U.S. was given away.

This is only the most recent and probably most serious scandal to rock the government in recent years. There’s the question of the president’s legitimacy. She took power in a popular uprising (although she was vice president at the time). She cheated in the following presidential election, and close aids and family members appear to have been involved in a fraudulent bidding process for a broadband system to be implemented by a Chinese company. It just goes on and on.

So, many people believe she may have orchestrated the bombing to divert people’s attention, or to create a pretext for declaring some form of martial law. On the other hand, many people also believe some faction of the military is behind it, to destabilize the regime.

But life goes on.

If accurate statistics were available I think they would indicate that life is safer in Metro Manila than in most cities in the United States. I can go to any neighborhood most any time of the day or night. Of course, one exercises caution, but there are parts of Fresno, or Oakland, or Washington, DC – all cities where I have lived – that I would never dare to visit.

Much of life in the Philippines is simply waiting to see what happens next.


Thanks to those of you who wrote to say you’ve read the blog, and to those of you who have posted comments.

No comments: