If you like shopping malls, you would like Hong Kong. I will admit that I have only visited three parts of the city: Tsim Sha Tsui, Central, and Sheung Wan. Things might be quite different in other parts of Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, and they are almost certainly different in the Outer Territories. Yet in these densely populated parts of the city where I have walked around there are a very large number of malls.
Is this good or bad? The answer is somewhat complicated – probably both. Most streets in Tsim Sha Tsui have the feeling of a chaotic mall even if most of the shopping is street level, while many of the taller buildings in the area seem to have multilevel malls occupying the first three to ten floors. Central is less chaotic and has fewer street-level shops, but still has a large number of multilevel malls. Sheung Wan has fewer multilevel malls but innumerable street-level shops. It is hard to think of any shopping arrangement that is more soul-crushingly bad as American strip malls (with large suburban malls only slightly better). What I have seen in Hong Kong is mostly superior to anything we have at home, with notable exceptions in both directions.
One thing I particularly like here is that the multilevel malls have easy connections with the street life, without doors providing a barrier between the two spheres. This lends itself to the chaotic energy and appeal of these neighborhoods, particularly in Tsim Sha Tsui. I have been impressed with the fact that some of these shopping centers actually have the ability to create a sense of glamour (as opposed to the feeling of mild desperation in all but the most successful American malls), with gleaming marble floors and stylish shops representing all of the big names in global fashion. I also love that in some cases there has been a real effort to create spaces where people want to hang out, sitting at a coffee shop or eating at a café. Similar to my experiences in Europe, these shopping malls also have far superior food options compared with America. The food courts often have a terrific selection and there are nice restaurants sprinkled throughout the upper floors. The final positive aspect is that many of the larger facilities also have other services like theaters and gyms and supermarkets, which dramatically increases the foot traffic throughout — they don’t have the isolated feeling of the American strip mall with its big box stores. I would imagine that city planners have promoted the development of these multilevel malls as a way to provide services to this large and densely packed population. Given that this provides some sense of community while providing the environmental benefits of density, this is great.
Still, a sense of artifice remains. Most of these spaces still feel relatively sterile, with their air-conditioning and artificial lighting. They might not crush the soul, but they certainly don’t feed it either. I have been struck by the mélange of peoples in this city. Shanghai seemed to be populated mostly by Chinese, Europeans, and Americans. Hong Kong has much greater variety. I have seen or met Indians, Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Britons, Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Koreans, and even some Africans (which weren’t in evidence in mainland China at all). Yet my first impression is that the mall culture seems to reduce the benefits of this ethnic diversity. It might be an equalizer, but it also drains essential cultural vibrancy. So, while the multilevel indoor mall approach might be one solution to providing a sense of community and sustainability within the urban context, I’m not convinced it is the right one. These aren’t places worth caring about. They aren’t places to love.