Mid-afternoon commuters could have easily missed the petite, elegantly dressed woman fussing over flowerpots outside Phrom Phong BTS station in Bangkok. The more eagle-eyed may have stopped to watch her as she surveyed and tended to her rather sprawling plot of real estate.
Dressed in chinos, strappy flat sandals, a white shirt and a jaunty straw hat, she looked as though she might have been caring for her pots of magnolias and peonies in a garden on the Ligurian coast or at a rambling compound in one of the nearby side streets. But this wasn’t primping and pruning for a garden party — it was essential work in the run-up to rush hour. “There’s so much to do and I want to keep the city looking good. I have these gentleman here from the BTS transit authority,” she said motioning over her shoulder, “because I want to improve the way the station looks for people coming to visit us but also for everyone visiting Bangkok.”
She sounded like the most gracious hostess crossed with a renegade urban activist. I took a few steps back to watch her assess the flowerpots while she chatted to the gentleman from the Thai capital’s transit authority. As vice-chairman of one of Southeast Asia’s biggest mall operators, it made sense that Supaluck Umpujh was focusing on both small details and big infrastructure as she is in the middle of unveiling what’s arguably becoming the most important urban redevelopment project in Southeast Asia.
Having established the upmarket Emporium shopping/office/hotel complex in the heart of Sukhumvit 18 years ago, Umpujh’s Mall Group has grown to become such a force in retail innovation that even Japanese developers and retail analysts keep tabs on the way it attracts brands, promotes innovative design, and clusters shops and markets both domestically and internationally.
For those who haven’t experienced Thailand’s approach to upscale mixed-use development, it’s worth seeing how its cinemas, grocery stores, food halls and public toilets all leave the rest of the world looking under-developed and not terribly innovative. Fuelled by a healthy competitive environment in which the Mall Group, Central Group and Siam Piwat all vie for the deep pockets of Thailand’s upper classes and expats on fat pay packets, every new retail project pulls in bigger-name architects, curators, chefs and landscape talent. Indeed, one of the showpiece items of the new EmQuartier complex is a 100-metre green chandelier that cascades down the middle of an atrium that will soon be home to 45 restaurants.
Launched last month, EmQuartier has raised the stakes to such a point that the world’s biggest luxury groups have felt it necessary to make a pilgrimage to see supermarket staff break off from work to start dancing in the aisles to Pharrell’s “Happy”, or see the long queues for special fried chicken from Taiwan, or the deluxe cinemas with VIP lounges and sleeper-style seats. “The Thais are quite amazing to watch. They’re not only buying up football teams in Europe, they’re also buying up department stores,” one journalist told me.
Although I feel most comfortable on a shady street lined with interesting, independently operated retailers, my upbringing in Canada’s harsh climates has given me an appreciation for covered places of commerce that are also climate-controlled. For sure, most mall development around the world continues to get it wrong but there’s a certain ambition in Thailand at the moment that suggests there’s room for big-scale development when it’s well integrated with public transit systems and when operators can elevate the experience from the somewhat predictable to the seriously inspiring.
Still in soft launch mode, Supaluck Umpujh still has another two “opening parties” to host before EmQuartier’s scheduled completion at the end of May. I may not need dancing grocery store staff but it would be great to see the Thais go global with their approach to food retailing — just as they’ve done with their cuisine.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine