On my way to see the art studios in Fo Tan, I stopped by New Town Plaza in nearby Sha Tin to grab a bite with dad, as Fo Tan is an industrial area with little options for good eats. Unbeknownst to my dad, there's also another reason why I went (not too out of my way though) to the mall: nostalgia. I don't think of myself as too sappy a person, but everywhere I go or do in Hong Kong seeps with nostalgia. The reason that nostalgia is so strong for me in Hong Kong is twofold: 1) I only go back once a year or less and 2) the pace of development is mind-blowingly fast. You see those NYC subway commercials by the MTA about how they are updating train stations – the first big projects in half a century or more? In comparison, Hong Kong's rate of change is supersonic. Spend more than a year away from the city? Et voilà, a WHOLE NEW SUBWAY LINE. The speed at which Hong Kong (and by extension most Asian countries in general) develops is pretty unfathomable to your average American (and perhaps Europeans too? I have no idea).
Malls in Hong Kong are nothing like the malls of suburban Middle America. New Town Plaza is the place where I frequented most often after going to elementary school (5th-6th grade) and secondary school (7th-8th grade) near here. I didn't go out too often back then, but whenever my friends wanted to go watch a movie, get something to eat, window shopping or people watching, this would be the default place to go to. Sha Tin was not a poor district by any means, however it was still a far cry from the more posh areas like Tsim Sha Tsui or Central or Causeway Bay. Therefore the mall itself was not nearly as upscale as the Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong, Pacific Place in Admiralty and IFC Mall in Central. This was utterly fine by my tween self. The mall had everything I could possibly want: great cinema, inexpensive yet interesting eats, and of course those sticker photo booths that I spent way too much money on in hindsight.
A few years ago (around 2009 if my memory serves me correctly), the mall went through a massive facelift. There was extensive renovations done throughout the place and the mall noticeably felt a tad more upscale. Although some bigger brand name sorts have started to trickle in, for the most part the mall still felt familiar. The places that I used to frequent – the photobooths, the cafés, the bookstores, the cinema – were all still there. As I grew older, my friends wanted to hang out in different places so for the years since I have not been back there at all. Four years later, the place has changed entirely. Big flashy European brand name shops are everywhere, taking all of the big store spaces that used to be occupied by smaller shops. That alone though wasn't what threw me off entirely. What truly changed the entire experience of the mall was not being able to find any of the places I used to go to, save for the cinema. There is little difference to a lot of the more upscale malls I've mentioned above.
Such development to the mall can be ascribed partly to the shopping power of the Mainland Chinese (the term may have slightly pejorative connotations nevertheless I'm using it simply as a way to differentiate between local Hong Kong people and the China Chinese). In the past only the wealthy would take shopping trips in Hong Kong, for the low taxes and guarantee that you would buying the real deal. As the upper middle class got more "sophisticated" along with the ever growing middle class, an increasing number of Mainland Chinese came down to Hong Kong for their conspicuous consumption. The phenomenal rise of Chinese spending power (increasing number of shoppers compounded by the increasing amount spent per person) led to a rapid expansion of brand name shops in areas where traditionally its inhabitants would not have the kind of spending power to sustain such high end stores. I used Sha Tin as an anecdote here but similar transformations can be found even in less affluent districts like Tuen Mun and Yuen Long.
It would be a gross oversimplification still to say that the Mainland Chinese are the ONLY reason for the mass proliferations of malls, versus brick and mortar shops on the streets. Hong Kong have alway suffered from an insufficiency of space. Malls are a far more efficient in maximizing the little real estate Hong Kong has in accommodating more shops, restaurants, arcades, movie theatres in one giant hub. The malls are easily integrated within the existing urban fabric through linking up to mass transportation systems like the MTR and underground passages to other buildings via the MTR station. It is attractive to real estate developers because you can easily stack malls underneath office buildings or apartment complexes. To investors it is an almost guaranteed return on your money because of the sheer amount of traffic that would come through the mall.
As an economist-in-training, I should be fully embracing the idea of malls for maximizing both utility and scarce resources. However as a consumer, I much prefer shopping on the streets. While malls are one of the reasons why living in Hong Kong is so convenient and easy, the clinical interiors makes for poor window shopping experience. The clear demarcation of everything the mall has to offer lessens the sense of discovery and wonder. There is more of an immersive experience to wandering and getting lost on the streets – the loud neon billboards, old school mom-and-pop stores and the streams of cars honking on the road. That is not to say that there isn't smog, some pushing and shoving and many run-for-your-life moments when crossing the streets, yet life feels so much richer and more fully lived this way.