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A short visit to the mother of all Indonesian malls

In the last of a five-part series, Post editor-in-chief Michael Hayes explores the weightier side of shopping in Jakarta, which has a population of between 14 million and 17 million people depending on what time of day it is.  With that many potential shoppers, mall developers are reaching for the sky with new and exciting ways to keep customers happy and coming back for more.

Photo by: Michael Hayes

The seductive aroma of the Krispy Kreme shop attracts donut junkies at the Grand Indonesia Shopping Town. Only Rupiahs 69,500 ($6.31) per dozen.

Anybody who doesn't like shopping malls probably has extremist tendencies-anarchist, Communist, Islamo-fascist, eco-terrorist, you name it.  Kinda like some of the expat NGO workers operating in Phnom Penh.

But that doesn't seem to be a problem in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Southeast Asia's largest metropolis, which residents say has a population of maybe 17 million  during office hours and maybe only 14 million before or after rush hour, seems to have a mall on almost every block.

One reporter told me that since the currency crisis in 1997 he'd heard that an additional 800 malls had been built in the greater Jakarta metropolitan area.  

That may seem like a lot, but when you consider that driving into the city center from the airport the greater Jakarta metropolitan area feels larger than Greenland, things begin to take on a bit more perspective.

While this figure, like the city's total population, could not be confirmed by this reporter, there is no doubt that Jakarta is a mall rat's dream come true.

Spontaneously, I did a Tiger Woods fist pump and murmured to myself: "Yes, Burger King!"

So, as someone who was weaned on malls in America in the early 1960s, in particular the world famous Shoppers World in
Framingham, Massachusetts, I decided to undertake an exploratory expedition to what I was told was Jakarta's newest and largest mall: The Grand Indonesia Shopping Town.

Just the name itself was enough to get my adrenalin flowing.  Imagine! A whole "town" dedicated to shopping. How exciting is that!

As anyone intimately versed in Asian mall design knows well, the food courts are usually on the bottom or top floors.

I took a gamble and headed straight for the basement, and sure enough I was immediately surrounded by a multitude of sophisticated culinary outlets.

It seemed best to pick one first, make a mental note of its location and then head out to explore the mall before returning for a civilized dining experience nestled in the ample bosom of industrial strength air conditioning.

I scanned a hallway of restaurants and my eyes lit up when they landed on a purveyor of fine American cuisine.  

Spontaneously, I did a Tiger Woods fist pump and murmured to myself: "Yes, Burger King!"

Comforted with the thought that after a determined trek through Shopping Town I could safely return to recharge my batteries by savoring the delectable interplay of a flame broiled Whopper, fries and cola on my palate, I headed off with renewed purpose only to run smack into an invisible, tsunami-like wave of air-born sweetness emanating from a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop.

Shopping Town's over 430 stores offer everything under the sun. MIG-29 wrist watches (far left), nuts and bolts from the Do-It-Yourself store (center), or shiny pieces of stone from one of 37 different jewellery stores.
Photo by: Michael Hayes

The jolt to my blood sugar level was intense as was the recognition that this was my first encounter with the renowned Krispy Kreme franchise.

Scanning over the trays of Lovely Dovey, Chocolate Peanut Filled, Manhattan Oreo and Chocolate Iced With Sprinkles doughnuts, I thought to myself: "Exotic foreign cultures鈥戔€憈his is what living in Asia is all about! But how is USA Donuts going to compete with these guys when they come to Phnom Penh?"

Wondering what Marco Polo, Ibn Khaldun or Hans "the Navigator" van Zoggel would do in a situation like this, I resisted the temptation to devour 1,000 calories of low trans fat carbs in a few bites, took some notes on how a bunch of Indonesian kids seemed to enjoy picking out a glazed and speckled dozen just like kids would back in the States, and resolved to go up one floor to try and decompress from the sugar rush before my nervous system collapsed.  

Fortunately, an escalator was just nearby.

On the ground floor, I was immediately sucked into the Seibu Department store because that's the effect their bright lights and shiny displays are supposed to have on unsuspecting shoppers.  The Japanese may have lost the war, but their Samurai salarymen came back with a vengeance in the sales and marketing departments.

Even though growing up in the 60s made me aware of these counter-revolutionary marketing gimmicks, there was no point in resisting.

Photo by: Michael Hayes

It’s easy to get lost in Shopping Town which has 90 escalators that help customers wander aimlessly for hours from one floor to the next in search of the exit while they wonder which quality product they’d like to purchase next.

I was confident in my mall-jockey skills, the first rule of which is to use the magnetic pull of displays to add thrust to an unspecified trajectory aimed at the only shops worth visiting in malls-the book stores.  

It's sort of like when astronauts use the gravity of the moon to slingshot their space capsules around the back side so they can head back towards earth.

So I let Seibu pull me in but made sure not to come too close to clerks eager to unleash their seductive sales pitches, especially the real tricky ones with hidden, Tantric-like double meanings such as "Can I help you, sir?"  

That's a key operating principle for mall trekkers: make sure not to come within five meters of the clerks otherwise they may capture your attention like the Greek sirens trying to lure the Argonauts to their ruin. Constant vigilance is a must on this front.

Seibu has its own set of internal escalators so I spiraled and zigzagged up two floors, working my way past the cosmetics, ladies handbags, more cosmetics and more ladies handbags sections, reminding myself that these were mysterious and complicated product lines that men should forget about ever understanding.  

In fact, most guys learn early on that if a discussion of the merits of various brands of ladies handbags comes up in mixed company, it is best to just smile, nod your head and say, "Oh yes, how nice."

On Seibu's third floor I realized it was time to move out of the department store into another section of the mall as two Seibu security guards whispering into their radios were on my tail. They must have picked me up in the Barcalounger section when I was monkeying around with the speed controls pretending to be Mario Andretti at the Indy 500.

At this stage, I realized it was time to get serious about my mission at hand.  There were no bookstores in sight, so I plowed on confident that Shopping Town must have at least one.  Thirty minutes later, I ran into the Gramedia store, found and purchased a book on Bandung and took comfort that no matter how long I wandered through the mall, with at least one product in hand I was now a legitimate and welcome shopper. My purchase was my passport to respectability.

Ambling along another corridor to nowhere, it was obvious that Shopping Town had  an outlet of every designer product known to man-Gucci, Polo, Esprit, Giordano, you name it.  There was even a shop called Red Star Watches that had in a display case MIG-29 watches, no doubt a popular item among Indonesia's aircraft engineers.

About a hundred meters on and then a dogleg right brought me to what the mall designers must have envisioned would give them an advantage over other malls.  On a large sign welcoming shoppers was written:

"The Entertainment District is the place for exciting shows, theatrics, nightlife and fun.  It recreates a feeling of New York City life, featuring its own Chinatown Street and a central Rockefeller Plaza where a light and water spectacular will entertain the audience."

But to my shock and utter dismay, the district wasn't open yet.  How was I supposed to experience the feel of a Chinatown?  Now I might have to go to the real one in north Jakarta.

Photo by: Michael Hayes

Shopping can be a lot of work. Tuckered out shoppers rest their weary feet at the Level 3 Food Louver which gives them a chance to take a crack at one of 36 different kinds of cuisine on offer.

Feeling despondent, it seemed best to head back to base camp Burger King.  The nearest set of escalators took me straight down to the basement but there was no food court.  Was this the ultimate mall management ruse of all time, some kind of Twilight Zone thing that would keep me here for weeks on end until I agreed to spend my last nickel?

I went up and down floors a couple of times to no avail. Totally lost and fearing for my very survival I decided to dust off my broken Indonesian language skills and ask for help.

Approaching a young woman standing outside a Cool Teen clothing store I said: Maafkan embak.  Rumah makan Amerika dengan hamburger yang paling besar di dunia di mana? (Excuse me miss. Where is the American restaurant with the world's largest hamburgers?).  

The woman looked at me nervously like I was an alien with three heads.  Worried that she might panic and cry out for help, I fled.

Finally, at wits end, I ran into an Information Desk and there the Gordian Knot was thankfully cut.

It seems that Shopping Town had two wings that weren't connected on the lower floors, so I had to go back up to Level 3 and cross over the Skybridge, then down again to the food court.

Completing the long haul back and feeling once again like a king, I ordered my lunch and began to reflect contentedly on my brief visit to the Whopper of all malls.

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