Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Natural Life of Malls

Like a school of fish spiraling upwards in ocean currents, Singaporeans in crowds move from basement to rooftop of a suburban shopping mall. Up the escalators from MacDonald's to Cotton On to Best Denki to Food Junction, and then into their cars to drive the long way down the spiral multi-storey carpark exit. All day, every weekend.

I wish we had something more to do with ourselves. But the mall is part of Singaporean life cycle, a gene activated at birth, strong as salmon swimming upstream.

Window shopping mothers (but there are no windows in malls) hoist sleeping newborns into chest carriers, who become howling toddlers in Crocs. Over time they elongate themselves into bespectacled tweens, slopping noisily in slippers beside their parents at the mall's supermarket. Those tweens put on school uniforms, transform into teenagers holding hands at the cinema upstairs. They sit through one forgettable action movie after another, trying to make the hours go slower.

They grow, a little more. The boys in National Service scarf down a last burger at the last mall, before getting on the bus and ferry back to Tekong. The girls say goodbye to them at Burger King, self-conscious fingers tugging down the hems of their short-shorts. As adults they head home from their first jobs, and the train station opens out to a mall where they buy dinner, get haircuts, pay handphone bills and meet friends. On Fridays they go to the malls in town, flourishing their new paychecks at Zara and Forever 21.

Next comes marriage, and a four-year wait for a flat, and babies to push around in prams at the new mall next door. Their children attend creative thinking lessons at the enrichment centres on Level 5 while Mummy and Daddy pick up groceries at the basement NTUC, just like their parents before them. Those parents are now old, the guests of honour at weekend family excursions to the new malls in the city centre. "Leave me here on this bench, I'm tired." "Alright, we'll just walk around for a while more and come back to pick you up for dinner at Crystal Jade, OK?" Better hope grandma doesn't have early onset Alzheimer's: there are enough shoppers to crush an old woman underfoot without anyone knowing.

There should be something more, there is something more - but where is it, and what do we do with it? It can't be bought in a shop, can't be saved up for and paid for on hire-purchase terms. Not priceless; it has no price. It cannot be bought and sold, and so none of us know what it is.

But it is there. Those of us who manage to find the occasional window catch a glimpse of it, flashing past like quicksilver, like bursts of sunlight on water. Like everyone else I am too tired, too distracted to try to catch it, to even ask, "What is it?" Instead I turn my attention in the same direction as the crowd's. Another sale, another opening, another store outlet from overseas. In the malls we flip through menus, try on new jeans, run our hands over the fingerprint-smeared surface of the latest Apple product. We stroll across every level of every mall, schools of shoppers moving in spirals, always stationary.