It’s A Mall World

August, 2001

A visit to Ala Moana Center is always an alluring shopping experience, but we like it more for its serendipity. This may strike you as an offbeat, even heretical point of view, unless you’ve ever been mesmerized by the magician performing on the ground level stage, or marveled at the semi-finals of the Hawaii State Yo-Yo Championships, or stretched with the 7 a.m. Saturday tai-chi classes, or gazed at the assured seduction of a sunset from the Mariposa Restaurant. As it happens, this is implausible astonishment, and it entices us to come to the mall as often as we can. We come for the eccentricity and the wackiness, as well as the glitz and elegance. Amid the status-creating shine of the prestige shops (who doesn’t recycle shopping bags from Neiman Marcus and Chanel?), the ritualistic fervor of spending, and the good-feeling clamor of the springy crowds is also the awareness that a visit to Ala Moana might bring a palpitating adventure beyond even the expectations of a well-ascertained purchase. Let us dramatize the thing: This is a place where you can have a good time scrutinizing the Human Condition. Come see. Why not take a walk around the mall?

Certainly, what time of the day you approach Ala Moana makes all the difference. Choose wisely. We prefer the early morning, before the hordes arrive with their unbridled energy, credit cards at the ready.

Technically, you can always walk in; this is the real house without a key. At daybreak, Ala Moana is a ghost mall, a haven apparently for the perpetually insomniac, but easy to savor, although not for shopping because all doors are closed. (Well, Zippy’s is open, but Zippy’s is always open). And at six o’clock in the morning there is another advantage: you’ll surely find a parking stall, take your pick, no need to drop your car halfway to Molokai. Once inside, once your eye is attuned to a shopping town without people, look for things both familiar and unknown.

7:30 a.m.: For those who swear that a good day begins with physical fitness, Ala Moana Center is not a bad place to be on Saturday morning during special tai chi classes. You can bet the people in security, hidden away in their quiet room, will be watching as you loosen mind and body.The sweepers are out in force (“Good morning, why are you here?”). Chunky food trucks arrive with piquant trays of delicacies. Gardeners water exotic plants, touchingly concerned. The koi get fed. Fast walkers — they are almost joggers — lurch from Pikoi to Atkinson, just doing it, mall-end-to-end, and back again. Old folks read the papers. Security is at work: Big Brother is always watching. Early sun, asserting itself, slices through contemporary latticework, casting complex shadows and mysterious illuminations. The air is clear and fragrant; in suggestion, it’s the purest time of the day, the hint of an experience to come. And isn’t that the first whiff of mocha roast?

Shoppers arrive at Ala Moana even before the shopkeepers. The early-birds saunter up and down the mall looking for possibilities, eyes glued to windows: they’re here to gawk. Shop doors open and shutters bang up as early as nine, but usually at ten. The Food Court starts early too, is full by mid-day, and nobody as far as we know has ever gone hungry at Ala Moana. By the late afternoon, there is a considerable bustle. You can feel it in the air.

10:30 a.m. A Day in the life of Ala Moana Center wouldn’t be complete without entertainment on center stage, where the life of the party, if you can yo-yo or dance or juggle or sing can you. Girls critically eye their competition in a hula contest, while youth at Waldenbooks seemed more engrossed in reading than performing.

It’s like an engine in overdrive: the real crowds have arrived, like a mild, pleasant roar. Soon arrives sunset, a quiet, comfortable dimming of the lights.

In an instant the night itself becomes a celebration. There is still anticipation and insouciant gaiety (and especially now that restaurants and bars stay open late, creating a true and beguiling nightlife: just ask the parrot in the Mai Tai Bar).

In this pictorial tribute to the enduring impressions of Ala Moana, we share some of the fun, hoisting the banner of possibilities. In many people’s minds, Ala Moana has always been the place to go to shop or to just meet up or hang out, but we know that there is more to the center than that, more even than meets the camera’s eye. Fact is, laden with atmosphere and visual incantations, Ala Moana offers no end of amazing detail, although sometimes we can barely recognize it.


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Tom Chapman