Phnom Penh’s AEON Mall for a dreamer city
I visited AEON Mall today in Phnom Penh. Fortunately there was not too much rain in the city, so it was possible to move in my favorite urban transport: tuk-tuk (still I have to check the urban bus.) Entering the 205 million dollars mall, I remembered October 1999 when I arrived for the first time to Phnom Penh from Bangkok and then I could made a lot comparisons between two of the Southeast Asian capitals. Phnom Penh was a dusty town full of thieves, beggars, electricity service was limited, Internet was dominated by a single poor service company, unpaved roads, odors from a nonexistent sewage system… Then, before this huge mall between Diamond Island (Koh Pich) and Sothearos Boulevard, one friend pointed to it and said “A big mall for a poor country.” In fact it is, but I don’t share the same intention of the announcement. It is similar to the comment of one visitor to my social communication section: “But these boys don’t see coming from poverty… they have laptops!” Sure, they have, because I have been promoting that they give value to education even in the middle of their poverty to be able to break their poverty circle.
Aeon Mall isn’t, of course, a big laptop for a young student. It is something more complex and it has many reviews to. The point is why a country like Cambodia could not have a mall?
The social contrasts are evident: problems of evictions, poverty, impoverished rural areas, reviews on human rights and many others would put a big question mark to an enterprise like this that is by the way the largest shopping center in whole Cambodia.
Let us keep always an eye on the social problems a developing country like Cambodia has, but let us open also spaces – platforms – for that development and for the overcoming of those situations. For me, a mall like Aeon is some way a contribution to fight aid dependency that to my view cripples the economy and promotes administrative corruption.
The growing youth population needs employment, while it is important to increase markets and create a culture of work. It is important to measure also the social impact of enterprises like this especially in a city like Phnom Penh that dreams with modernity and development. Of course, it attracts the high class (we need them to buy, to invest in their own country their money), but it involves also a growing middle class that is necessary for the national running.
Social researcher Dr. Lisa Scharoun of the University of Camberra says in her book “America at the Mall: The Cultural Role of a Retail Utopia“, that “more than simply a place to purchase goods, this veritable “temple of consumerism” has become a primary place for community and social interaction and an essential element in many citizens’ day-to-day lives” (Scharoun, 2012).
Few streets far from Aeon Mall you can see garbage just at the front of shops and a chaotic traffic… it’s the presence of a world inside a world. Seeing so many young Cambodians in the Mall, dressing fashionable, walking in clean floors, not daring to through nothing, using properly the toilets, I think it could do a good impact to the civic culture of Phnom Penh. It is preferable to have big enterprises creating jobs and stimulating production, than to keep on a culture of beggars feeding certain NGOs that live from poor faces – and they keep those poor faces to attract more funds in an eternal circle of poverty.
Note: We should not forget that Cambodia, as most Asian cultures, like to meet. A mall by itself is a sort of modern park that attracts mainly young people. But we have to promote also the traditional Cambodian meeting places such as the pagodas. Then those urban places need also a big investment and care.