From the archives

At home in a mall

An uncalled-for memory was called up by two things I read in the Straits Times yesterday and today: first, some readers had complained about the bright lights of Singapore’s three newest malls, the Ion Orchard, Orchard Central and Iluma@Bugis; and second, the release of Red Cross volunteer, Italian Eugenio Vagni, from his terrorist kidnappers in the southern Philippines.

The memory: summer of 2000, working at Trumpets Playshop to save up for the ridiculously expensive thesis year of my architecture degree.

That summer I was at the Shangri-la Plaza mall Monday to Saturday, from 9am to 9pm, working mostly as a theatre workshop administrative assistant, then as children’s musical theatre teacher three hours each day. I survived this high-energy job on banana milkshakes, frappuccinos, double cheeseburgers and Broadway music.

That summer, too, every morning entailed a metal detector body search and bag-sniffing by bomb-detection dogs before entering the mall. When we set up the makeshift classrooms throughout the mall (for the most part, we used shop spaces that weren’t occupied), security briefed us on the measures they were taking to keep mall visitors, especially the children, safe as there were bomb threats and rumours of bomb threats floating around.

Even as the days of April and May flew by, and no bombs exploded yet, fear was palpable in the chilled air of most Manila malls. For our students, children from the age of three, the bomb-detection dogs became familiar sights, the bag and body searches a “normal” everyday occurrence.

Then towards the end of May, mayhem erupted at two of the metro’s biggest malls. A bomb blew off in a ladies’ washroom in SM Megamall, and within a handful of days, Glorietta mall in Ayala Center also experienced a major blast. Some mallrats died. Other parts of the country also seemed under siege, and there were talks of the need for martial law.

We considered suspending the rest of the summer workshops, including the students’ end-term performance shows. But this is theatre, and the show must go on, if only to not break our budding thespians’ little hearts. And the utterly dependable security staff of Shangri-la Plaza assured our safety.

The year 2000 capped off with five more fatal bomb blasts on December 30th. None of them occurred near or in the Shangri-la Plaza. In January 2001, a bomb- and incompetence-weary Philippines deposed another president. I went back to the mall for another round of summer theatre workshops in 2001, as did most of our faculty and students.

Today I live in a city of sparkling – and more importantly, safe – malls. But Shangri-la Plaza will always be my favourite, because for that one summer, it was the safest place in Manila to be.

Blogged on Dish On Design, July 13, 2009