Dispatch from Singapore: Mall Reviews
If you've seen one shopping center, you've seen a mall
Malls are big in Singapore. The city is hot and humid—Lee Kwan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, attributed his country’s success to multicultural tolerance and air conditioning—and so malls are a way for Singaporeans looking to beat the heat. With one at nearly every subway station, the malls are ubiquitous.
They are all-purpose, too. Maybe you go to the mall to shop. Maybe you go to the mall with your parents and kid sister over the weekend, with your high school buddies after class because it’s the only air-conditioned place you can all hang out together, with your date to see a film at the Golden Village. And maybe you, as my friend’s parents now do, drive to the mall at the airport to sit by the indoor waterfall and forest 😳.
I grew up in Manhattan, far from shopping malls and other touchstones of American suburbia. And so I was excited, anthropologically, to visit a lot of malls.
Let me describe three of them.
The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands lie under a hotel that looks like a three-legged pair of pants, but they could be anywhere: Las Vegas, Hong Kong, Hudson Yards. Feed global consumerism into a blender and let the purée sit for a while; the layer of mostly-European luxury brands that float to the top are what you’ll find at The Shoppes. Thankfully, the restaurants are somewhat more varied. Sure, Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay, and Daniel Boulud were all there (such diversity!), but so were plenty of more interesting choices. Some were good chains already familiar to Singapore, like Din Tai Fung, Ippudo, JUMBO, and Putien. Others were delightful surprises to see, like Mott 32 and Roberta’s. (Yeah, that Roberta’s!)
The Shoppes are mostly laid out in one long, straight line, making it feel like you’re walking through an interminable airport concourse. Apart from the stores and restaurants, the main attractions are a theater, which was showing a hagiographic musical about LKY’s life story during our visit, and a “canal” on level B2, where you can take a gondolier-propelled boat ride and enjoy the scenery (namely, the Fendi and Prada storefronts). There’s also a casino nearby.
What’s tragic to me about the Marina Bay neighborhood is that it’s an expensive Epcot version of Singapore embedded in the real Singapore. Why go to Makansutra Gluttons Bay, the nearest hawker center—the least impressive and most pricy food court I ate at on my trip—when Maxwell Food Centre, Tiong Bahru Market, Chinatown Complex, and Hong Lim are at most fifteen minutes away?Why see a “Retro Fever” light show projected onto the hundred-foot-tall metal “Supertrees” at Gardens by the Bay—fifteen minutes set to The Beatles, ABBA, and disco that somehow managed to be utterly joyless—when Singapore has actual rainforest? Why take a “canal” ride when the Singapore River is right there?
Who goes here, exactly? Third-world dictators banned from Paris on their shopping sprees?Wealthy gamblers and tourists who have neither the time nor the inclination to go far from their hotel? Doom-strolling American wannabe influencers looking to mine content for their food blogs? The Shoppes are a placeless place for rich people, not real people.
ION Orchard, on the other hand, does feel like a destination for real folks—them and the timekeeping-obsessed ultra-wealthy.
Aboveground are the luxury brands, spread across four levels. The majority of the stores on the second floor—seven out of thirteen—sell fancy watches, along with another five on the first floor.Serious question: can any of my readers explain to me how this makes economic sense? I’ve never bought an expensive watch, and I don’t understand how just one of Singapore’s malls can support so many different luxury watch brands. (I guess you don't need to sell that many $25k+ watches to cover the rent?) I’m baffled, but LVMH is a 300-billion-dollar business and I am not.
But descend into the earth, Dante’s-Inferno-style, and the stores get more and more approachable. “There are brands that I wear here,” my friend remarked when we arrived at B1. On B2, we saw an H&M. By B3, the Cartier watches had made way for the Casios.
ION Orchard’s bottom level, B4, is a nice food court. It hadn’t been that long since my eight-course breakfast at Tiong Bahru Food Centre, and I still had some 8:30 PM kaya toast and 9:30 PM dim sum in my future, so my snack was relatively small: a quarter of a roast duck and a plateful of roast pork belly.
Once you're ready for dessert, exit the mall and go to street level to get a Singaporean ice cream sandwich. Any yellow-umbrella streetcart will do. The vendor will slice off a brick from a long block of ice cream and hand it to you in a folded piece of pandan-flavored rainbow bread.Your discomfort from leaving the air conditioning will melt away.
Singapore’s HarbourFront/VivoCity mall complex may have been the most overwhelmingly globalized place I’ve been to in my life. It’s cosmopolitan without being homogenized. VivoCity alone is the largest shopping mall in Singapore, and there’s room for everything. Do you want ice cream alla Vermont or Hokkaido? Your haircuts California-style or Korean? Your medicine conventional or Traditional Chinese, your child’s education Kumon or Montessori? All of it is here, side by side.
It felt fresh, staggeringly different from anywhere I’d been before, and I couldn’t figure out why. Manhattan has all sorts of hair stylists and cuisines too, after all—what was unfamiliar about HarbourFront/VivoCity? Looking back, I think I felt like I was visiting a zoo—not in the sense that the place was mobbed, but in the sense that the shops were curated selections from distant lands just like so many penguins and pandas.
The complex was bustling on a Sunday afternoon. This was a mall where residents could live their lives. One could get keys cut, play an escape room, buy groceries, browse a public library. Instrumental covers of Taylor Swiftand Camila Cabello piped down from the ceiling. I felt hopeful.
But I see how it could grow stale. In the excellent “Diary Of A Man Forced By His Boss To Visit The New Funan Mall,” Pan Jie writes about the Capitaland style of mall, “designed for mass appeal and precision-engineered for profit.”
They are, by far, the most ubiquitous, but also the most formulaic. There’s a McDonalds squatting by the entrance, a Gongcha in the basement, and a flock of claw machines high above. On the second floor, there’s either a MUJI, a Uniqlo or a Challenger selling power banks on discount. In B2, you will walk past a Boost Juice, a GNC, a supermarket, and probably a Breadtalk. After a while, the different malls blend into one. You feel as if you’ve spent half your life in their arms, without ever developing any real affection for them.
Wow. Uh. Every single one of those brands was in VivoCity except for Gong Cha, which had been replaced with other bubble tea options. I’d probably get tired of the formula after living for years in Singapore, too.
Formally, the HSBC Rain Vortex and Shiseido Forest Valley. I didn’t have time to visit. Next trip!
All are a 5-12 minute drive from Makansutra Gluttons Bay, but add a few minutes for your Grab car to arrive. And those four are just the hawker centers that I ate transcendent food at during my short visit! There are countless dishes I wish I could have tried in Singapore and didn’t get to.
I am thinking here of the late Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace.
A Singaporean friend offered another perspective on the Marina Bay Sands. Locals basically don’t go there, he says, but when was the last time you went to the Statue of Liberty? (Answer: Never. Better to see it from the deck of the free Staten Island Ferry around sunset.) “For a country that is a city that only gained independence in 1965 and have a lot of cultural / national identity crises, we are mostly thrilled that it exists as a distinctive and increasingly recognized silhouette.” It’s not quite as instantly recognizable around the world as the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower are, but it’s still a lot.
This is conservative, only counting brands that I thought were primarily watchmakers (e.g., Rolex, Patek Philippe, TAG Heuer). There were another seven fancy jewelry stores that happen to sell watches (e.g., Bulgari and Tiffany), as well as one or two watch stores on L3. Some shops span two levels; I am going off of the categorization on the ION website so as not to double-count.
Wildest Dreams and Willow, both good selections.