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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Monsoon Marketplace: Inscriptions and Trajectories of Consumer Capitalism and Urban Modernity in Singapore and Manila

  • Author(s): Gonzaga, Fernando
  • Advisor(s): Trinh, Minh-ha T.
  • et al.

This study aims to trace the genealogy of consumer capitalism, public life, and urban modernity in Singapore and Manila. It examines their convergence in public spaces of commerce and leisure, such as commercial streets, department stores, amusement parks, coffee shops, night markets, movie theaters, supermarkets, and shopping malls, which have captivated the residents of these cities at important historical moments during the 1930s, 1960s, and 2000s. Instead of treating capitalism and modernity as overarching and immutable, I inquire into how their configuration and experience are contingent on the historical period and geographical location.

My starting point is the shopping mall, which, differing from its suburban isolation in North America and Western Europe, dominates the burgeoning urban centers of Southeast Asia. Contrary to critical and cultural theories of commerce and consumption, consumer spaces like the mall have served as bustling hubs of everyday life in the city, shaping the parameters and possibilities of identity, collectivity, and agency without inducing reverie or docility. Focusing on logics, functions, and processes that are said to be characteristic of the mall, such as monumentality, enclosure, prestige, modernity, and spectacle, I uncover their emergence and variation in prior consumer spaces across different periods and locations. Delving into the archive, I analyze the spatial, literary, and visual cultures of these milieus. I highlight changes in the form, meaning, and usage of significant words, images, ideas, narratives, objects, practices, and spaces commonly associated with the realities of consumer capitalism, public life, leisure time, and urban modernity.

Across the various chapters, I pursue several threads: Firstly, I explore different forms of modernity, particularly sanitary modernity, a regime of health, morality, beauty, and order, which the government applies to the cityscape and its population. As discernible in its temporality and influence, I trace how its character shifts from evangelical religion in the 1930s, to national development in the 1960s, to neoliberal cosmopolitanism in the 2000s. Secondly, I discuss the passage from a bazaar economy to a formal system, with its corresponding changes to the norms of commercial arrangement, consumer behavior, and visual perception. Thirdly, I look at shifts in the dominant basis of social value in the city from the display of material wealth, to the emulation of movie stardom, to the pursuit of an excessive lifestyle. Lastly, I examine different modes of spectacle, which commercial and leisure spaces have deployed in order to attract consumers, including those that produce absorption and immersion in spectators.

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