Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Out of the Ashes

Nearly thirty years old, Virra Mall is one of those places you can’t imagine living without. Known as a place to obtain cheap merchandise, pirated videos, and numerous tiangges, Virra Mall is what Hong Kong used to be minus the good food. Yet a few fires have laid claim to the place but like the mythical Phoenix, Virra Mall has risen out of the ashes and reincarnated itself over the years.

“Boss, gusto po ninyo ng X?” (Do you want to buy some X-rated stuff mister?) is the first thing I’d hear whenever I enter Virra Mall, or at least that was so a few months ago. Now carrying a reputation for piracy, it’s hard to believe that this mall that’s choked up by stalls, bangketas, and various peddlers used to be one of the most spacious and futuristic of malls, not to mention wholesome for the family.

Owing its name to the corporation that built it, the Virra Development Corp., the mall was erected in 1975 when Ortigas and Co. leased the land space. While it wasn’t the first structure in Greenhills Shopping Center, it complemented the already existing locales like Unimart and Greenhills Theater. Carla M. Pacis in the book Philippine Shopping Malls describes it as having “an atrium feeling of air and light”. Vicente Rafael in an article in Flip magazine goes as far as to say that it was originally designed to be a clean and safe place for the elites and middle-class. Mrs. Golden, who used to be the one in charge of the area, says it was “classy and its architecture was viewed as ahead of its time” with its see-through escalators that allowed you to see the sky and the lobby that had a fountain with benches and plants surrounding it.

The original vision for Virra Mall was to make it a commercial and entertainment center. With movie houses, boutiques, arcades, bookstores, banks, restaurants, repair shops, and other business establishments, Virra Mall was attractive as well as diverse. Now, so much has changed. The movie theater’s gone and what is predominant are the electronic shops that sell cellphones, computers, and videos. Which is just as well since according to Ms. Mayoralgo, the one in charge for tenants affairs, the image Virra Mall is currently trying to project is a venue for Telecommunications.

Telecommunications? What about all those pirated CDs and DVDs, you might ask. Ms. Mayoralgo said that lately, they’ve managed to contain it, especially when American officials made clear their stand against piracy. How did all this piracy begin in the first place? They gave permission to sellers to display electronic wares but they in turn would mix in fake items like pirated CDs and prohibited DVDs. Virra Mall has now restricted the areas where these people are prevalent.

Of course this explanation enlightens us why pirates in Virra Mall ask people who pass by if they want to purchase pirated videos, then if they agree, lead them to some concealed corner where their wares are actually located. But on a serious note, piracy in Virra Mall has dramatically lessened. I don’t get asked every five minutes by a man waving some pamphlets of movies if I want to purchase some “X”. Actually, I don’t even see pirated DVDs of movies. No, what I see now are pirated DVDs of Playstation 2 games.

Is it really that impossible to get rid of piracy in Virra Mall? Let’s put it this way: when fire struck the floors of Virra Mall in 2001, that didn’t impede their business. Pirates brought their wares out of the mall and amidst all the fire trucks and hoses, they were still selling their merchandise to onlookers and passersby. Raids don’t help either since when word of mouth spreads that a shop is being raided, other shopkeepers quickly remove their pirated wares and transport it to stalls and shops of friends they know who sell merchandise totally unrelated to CDs or DVDs so that when the pirates are being checked, there is no sign of their fake goods.

Speaking of fires, Virra Mall has experienced at least two such incidents. The first one engulfed the right wing of the third floor in 1996. Fortunately, it was contained in that area and didn’t spread to the rest of the third floor. That area is now littered with shops selling clothes, apparels, and now houses the gaming center which used to be located on the opposite wing.

The second fire took place more recently, May 5 of 2001. As if to finish what the first fire didn’t, the second instance consumed the left wing and spreading to some parts of the second floor. Smoke from the fire could be seen as far as Annapolis and began at 10:30 am.

Paul, an employee of Neutral Grounds, was busy manning the store at the time. He heard the gates of various stores closing and after several minutes of this going on, he wondered what all the commotion was all about. He went out and when he went around the corner, he saw that parts of Jollibee were on fire.

“People were trying to put it out with garden hoses and fire extinguishers to no avail. They could have saved it but since it was already eleven o clock by then, it was too late.”

In one fell swoop, the fire took out the amusement area of Virra Mall. It was usually in that location that students from Xavier, ICA, O.B. Montesorri, La Salle, and even Poveda usually gathered, since that was the place where most of the network gaming cafes and specialty shops like Comic Alley and Neutral Grounds were.

However, this isn’t the end of Virra Mall’s left wing. According to Ms. Mayoralgo, they are trying to project a new image and that place is planned to be filled with shops that sell clothes and other apparels.

With two fires occurring, one might wonder about safety when it comes to Virra Mall.

“We implement measures. Sometimes talaga lang di nasusunod, or kaya somebody becomes careless, like the most recent fire that hit Virra Mall. Somebody might have thrown a cigarette butt on that area. Yun lang. We don’t know if they really are intentional or what, but we make precautions in our facilities,” says Ms. Mayoralgo.

Fires, raids, bomb threats… despite all of these, Virra Mall is still standing and open to the public. But the Virra Mall we remember from yesterday is not the same Virra Mall today. One can’t help but wonder what Virra Mall would turn out in the years to come.
A Man of Few Words

A man in his fifties, my father, Charles, lies down on his bed, fiddling with his mobile phone as I interview him. There can be no mistake about his age as his face shows wrinkles and his hair shows several streaks of white. My interview with him can be summarized with these three words: “yes”, “no”, and “tradition”. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I begin my interview by asking him about his beginnings. He was born on May 5, 1945 in Manila, one of three sons and the brother to three girls. What makes interviewing father difficult is the fact that he answers in the least amount of words and seldom expounds. I have to drag it out of him bit by bit. For example, I drift to the subject concerning his mother, since she is the second wife to a widowed husband.
“Did the fact that your mother is the second wife affect you?” I ask.
“No.” he replies. I wait for him to add more but his eyes drifts.
Studying in Hope Christian High School in grade school apparently had a great effect on him. It was there where he met future wife, being schoolmates and best friends. It was also a Protestant school and probably determined his current religion. I then ask about him about being a Chinese living here in the Philippines.
“Was it difficult?”
“No.” Again, my father proves that he is a man of few words.
“By then, did you already learn how to speak in Chinese and Filipino?”
“Yes.” Of course I find this a contradiction since a few years back, father was telling me that when he came to school, he couldn’t speak English adeptly that his classmates would tease him about it.
“By then, what was grandfather’s job?”
“He was a proprietor.”
“A proprietor of what?”
“A cigarette factory.”
“What was your goal then?”
“I wanted to be a businessman.”
“What were you selling?”
“I wasn’t selling anything. I had an auto-repair shop.”
“Once you got to start your own business, how did things move on?”
“Describe it.”
“Well, when you’re starting something, it’s hard. You don’t know anybody and you have to do everything.”
“After the auto-repair shop?”
“After the auto-repair shop, I went into the importation of spare parts.”
“And then?”
“And then I was 1-2-3.”
“What do you mean 1-2-3?”
“I extended credit and my client didn’t pay me.”
“And then?”
“And then I went into bearing business.”
“And then?”
“And then now the printing business.”
I was thankful for the reprieve when my sister came into the room and interrupted us. It gave me a few moments to think and reflect on how reluctant my father is when it comes to interviews. I soon steer the conversation to my father’s relationship with my mother.
“Did you court someone else aside from mother?”
“No chance.”
“What do you mean no chance?”
“Busy doing what?
“Studying. And working.”
“Before that you weren’t introduced to anyone else?”
“Would you marry a non-Chinese person?”
“Because it’s a tradition.”
“How about us? Are you allowing us to marry someone not Chinese?”
“What would happen if we marry someone not Chinese?”
“What if one of us.”
“I do not know.”
“So when did you decide to marry mommy?”
“After I finished my college.”
“Did you plan for that?”
“When were you married?”
“I married in 1969.”
“When did you have brother?”
“Ask him. I don’t know.”
“Was his birth planned?”
“Why didn’t you have him sooner?”
“Because at the time I was poor. I had to save, that’s why I had to plan.”
“How about us?”
“Me and Charvee [my sister].”
“By accident.”
“What do you mean accident?”
“We practiced family planning but we miscalculated, so now you’re here. The same with your sister.”
At this point, I steered the conversation to a different angle.
“When you were born were you already Protestant?”
“I was studying in a Protestant school in grade school. And then a Catholic school in high school and college.”
“So what is your religion now?”
“My religion is born-again Protestant.”
“How did that come about if you studied in a Catholic school in high school?”
“What do you mean come about?”
“How did you make the decision?”
“I made the decision because I don’t believe in religion but I believe in Jesus Christ, so I don’t care whether Protestant or Catholic as long as you believe in Jesus Christ period.”
And so I ended the interview, my father asking me what it was for. I merely told him that it was for an assignment in class. It’s not only him that can be evasive.