Middle With Class: SM North And The Filipino Experience

Shoe Mart, more popularly known as SM, is a remarkable image of the Philippine middle class: primly dressed families strolling leisurely along tiled promenades, peering through glass walls at clothes, shoes and other things that speak of positive social mobility. To be able to take your family to SM from church and treat them to lunch at Max’s in their Loalde wardrobe is to be part of the country’s burgeoning middle class, the prime mover of its economy.

SM City North Edsa , Image from jiformales of Flickr

At no SM mall is this more evident than at SM North Edsa, the largest component of SM patriarch Henry Sy’s empire, and at no other time of the week than on Sunday afternoon, during which the mall becomes overrun with people from all over Quezon City and the Metro.

SM North comprises three main sections: the main mall, its grimy tiles clear signs of the immense foot traffic it has received since the mall opened 25 years ago; The Block, a much more oddly designed building that houses decidedly higher-end brands; and The Annex, with its smartly grouped stores and its sexy curves that, quite literally, always keep you looking for more.

The main mall reflects the boxy aesthetic present in most SM Cities across the nation: crudely positioned stores that run the entire length of all the walls you see, so that customers walk down the mall, look left and right and see nothing else. This, I reckon, entices people to enter stores, look around and ultimately buy things. No space is wasted in the land of Henry Sy, as the enormous square footage between the lines of stores opposite each other are occupied by small stalls that sell food, jewelry and personalized mugs and shirts. The characteristic mayhem of the main mall reflects the people who frequent it: jejemons, teenagers dressed in a confused mix of punk, hip-hop and rockstar wannabe, chatting loudly on the stairs and along the walk-ways, clogging up traffic as they attend to their carefully styled hair and piercings.

The adjoining Block is curiously planned, with a walk that curves rather playfully around the structure, twisting and turning you. There is definitely something to be said about this unconventional floor plan, and maybe it works for others, but I am hard pressed to find anything that ruins an afternoon of malling quicker than a building that cannot be navigated effortlessly. This is SM, after all, where people relieve stress by walking around or impulse-buying, and not the seven seas. The Block makes you navigate too much, unless you’re looking for food, of which there is much to be had in its many restaurants. This makes it a favorite of families who have just come from church and want to enjoy lunch together.

The Annex, the newest addition to SM North, is much sexier, with few masculine corners and plenty of feminine curves. The building’s interior naturally curves to the right, then to the left towards the end, maximizing space, but more importantly, enticing you to keep walking and looking at stalls just beyond the curve until there is nothing left to look at. SM’s architects have also wisely grouped the stores to make shoppers’ experience more effortless, so that you know to go to the first floor if you want to eat, or to the fourth and fifth floors if you’re looking for a phone or a laptop. It is the perfect choice for people who, like me, don’t mind being alone, as it makes walking around a painless thing—as painless as the thought of misery can be, at least.

It is interesting how, in the cacophony of voices in the mall, it is still easy to feel alone. Inside SM, as in the Metro, there is an air of indifference: the man next to you, however wildly your bodies are rubbing against each other, is a stranger, and therefore refuses to acknowledge your presence. There is a sort of controlled bedlam everywhere you go, and it feels normal, as though you never left the chaos of Metro Manila.

SM North succeeds at creating a perfect microcosm of the Philippines, especially its potent middle class: an eccentric mix of people from many different places, enjoying a respite, however brief, from the madness of life. That respite is SM, because in the glass walls, the crowded atriums and the chic paper bags, they see a good life, and when they leave, they want to make that life even better.