Despite the Orchard Road light-up, Christmas is not quite discernible
By Ray Zhang
It’s the last Friday before Christmas*. I have taken time off from work to shop. Rather than the last-minute rush that seems to be what I see around me, I have decided to shop for myself… leisurely. That, and to soak in a bit of the festive atmosphere even when I was told to “not expect too much.”
“You’ve been away most Christmases,” my friends tell me as if berating. “This isn’t London. Don’t expect Tokyo either. Not even Bangkok!” To be honest, I am not expecting anything. Neither am I expecting this… Orchard Road retailers and mall operators have given up on Christmas.
Except to make the most money with the least interesting merchandise and virtually non-existing visual merchandising. I am not out looking for a Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas window or Ellen’s set during ‘12 Days of Giveaways’, but the thing is, this year’s Christmas windows are conspicuous by their absence. Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA**) may like you to believe that, with their heavily sponsored light-up this year, the festive season has arrived, but inside the air-conditioned comfort of malls, Christmas is no-season flatness. Retailers, like the Grinch, seem to have hearts “two sizes too small”.
The shockingly bland entrance of Tangs
Or a year-end budget too tiny to give windows a touch of—forgive the cliché—Yuletide magic. While I do not expect to see Orchard Road as Whoville, it is disconcerting to me that for most of the shops, stores, and malls, it is let’s-do-the-minimum-for-Christmas-this-year. Or, nothing at all. Could it be because there is no more Best Dressed Building Award*** that has been part of the Orchard Road Christmas Light-Up?
Once, we could always count on Tangs Department Store for more than a little festive cheer. Being a business proudly owned by Christians, it was unsurprising that Christmastime was when a huge portion of the marketing budget went into making their storefront and their interiors experientially stunning to bring in the crowds. But when I stepped off the escalator from the underground that connected me to this side of Orchard Road today, I was really rather shocked. Except for a box plonked in the middle of the entrance way that touted the offerings of their trim shop, the Tangs entrance was as bare as Santa’s shiny pate.
For many years since Tangs opened at Tang Plaza in 1982, the department store once known as C K Tang had been one of the most stylishly dressed during the year-end holiday season. One thing always impressed me: Tangs never had to resort to traditional Christmas motifs and mascots to decorate their store. Led by one of the best visual merchandising designers of the ’80s and ’90s, Ng Weng Sang (known professionally as Weng), Tangs, in the heydays of Orchard Road, was one of the very few retail stores willing to consider an equatorial Christmas, even intermittently employing Peranakan patterns and batiks.
The simple but striking pair of reindeer in the Bottega Veneta window
The result was always something that felt authentic even if it may be disingenuous to say so since Christmas, if identified by Santa and fir, and such, is largely a Western import or the subject of songs never written in this part of the world. Yet, Tangs was never deterred, and their Christmas aesthetic was always so unusual and yet familiar that other stores look to them with envy, or so I was told. But that Tangs was no more, particularly after they renovated their store in 2012 and basically forwent windows for a see-through into the ground floor, or space that can bring in what the industry refers to as “extra revenue streams” by renting parts of the frontage for advertising use. The long stretches of window, once festively glorious, now consigned to our memory.
Back at ION Orchard, thought to be the swankiest mall along the 2.2 kilometres of Orchard Road, once considered to have some measure of international standing, the Christmas cheer is a mere hum. This year, the mall—jointly owned by CapitaLand and Hong Kong-based Sun Hung Kai Properties (believed to be “the second most valuable real estate company in the world”)—tell us that is here “Where Christmas Truly Sparkles”. Frankly, I don’t see where the sparkles are (perhaps my astigmatism is blurring them from me). ION Orchard, for the most part, look like it always does: spanking sterile swank.
Even the outside, traditionally an expanse to draw selfie-mad shoppers, the decor/diorama is less grand than, say, last year. Sure, there’s the Ferris wheel in place of a towering Christmas tree, but this is not the site of a Christmas fair. Conspicuously sponsored by Cartier—even the seats are oversized versions of the luxury retailer’s jewellery boxes, the Ferris wheel gives the mall front of ION Orchard a decidedly playground vibe, yet one can’t ride the Ferris wheel, just as one can’t partake in the smörgåsbord that’s part of Dolce & Gabbana’s recycled window display, a stone’s throw away.
The discreet decorations that are rather hidden in ION Orchard
Inside, it was—as the office catchphrase goes—per normal. I am thinking: If the mall is not going to splurge on plastic Christmas trees and such, surely its tenants would do their part. Right in the middle of the atrium, two pop-ups—Bvlgari and Valentino—were set up. Both, nary a bauble in sight. In the windows of the other stores, it is anti-Christmas tinsel-free. That’s not counting Louis Vuitton’s trees, which could be transplanted from some enchanted forest, and decorated by Naiise.
Most festive at ION Orchard are the little troughs/planters that discreetly dot the mall, so discreet, in fact, that I almost miss them if I did not sit down on a bench near the escalator on level two to pen my thoughts for this blog post. These compositions of an imagine Christmastime in the woods, bauble-strewn and backdropped by poinsettias, are, I suppose, like secret gardens—when you stumble upon them, they rather make your day.
While looking at the only semblance of a Christmas window in ION Orchard—belonging to Bottega Veneta, I see a man near the entrance and strikes a conversation with him. As it turns out, he is from Bangkok and he is here with this wife, who is looking at a bag inside. “We came here to soak up the atmosphere,” he tells me. Do you like the atmosphere, I ask. “Not much atmosphere this year.” Why do you think that? “Maybe they are on a tight budget. Not so grand. Bangkok is not bad, you know. You should see IconSiam.”
Fendi has taken the maximum logo look for their clothes in recent seasons, but for Christmas, their windows are bare
I do not get to see IconSiam, of course, but I do get to see the rest of Orchard Road. The festive-free shops in ION Orchard are, as it turns out, not the exception. Luxury brands are as likely as fast fashion labels (H&M is particularly sad-looking) to go the without-Christmas-decor route. Inside Gucci at Paragon, it was business as usual and last-minute grab fest, sans festive decor. Even Paragon itself is a shadow of its usual Christmastime crowd-pleasing glory. Opposite, at Ngee Ann City, they are happy to just let the sole—this time not-sponsored—tree in the main atrium stand for the season’s high, for the rest of the mall. Even the Santa’s nightcaps above glum faces at Gong Cha in the basement level are more festive! This bare minimum decorative approach stretches all the way to Raffles City, which, like other CapitaLand malls, has welcome the Grinch with open arms.
I suspect retailers and mall owners can’t be bothered because they are happy to let ORBA do the work. But cash-strapped ORBA is looking to Disney to sprinkle the festive dust, which has, unsurprisingly, upset the National Council of Churches of Singapore—more interested in getting people to go worshiping than shopping. As it is, shopping anywhere on Orchard Road is no fun. Minus the Yuletide decoration, retailers are minimising what is increasingly recognised as a key ingredient to drawing the spending crowd: experience.
Outside 313@Orchard, I saw a bored teen of about eighteen, unburden by even a single shopping bag, persuading his mother to go home. “回家啦，回家. (hui jia la, hui jia),” he said, then, in English, added, “Nothing to see here.” The Grinch won. Even the Sugar Plum Fairy is of no match. And I am not hoping for a pas des deux between those two!
*A note on usage: Christmas here denotes Christmastime—the festive season rather than specifically the Christian holiday. ** Inexplicably, the ORBA website http://www.orchardroad.org has been down for more than a week. *** As such, we can’t confirm if the annual Best-Dressed Building competition is on this year
Photos: Chin Boh Kay