At the Pavilion Kuala Lumpur mall in Malaysia, a Christmas tree towers 75 feet over holiday shoppers. But its height isn’t the most interesting thing about it—nor is the fact that it’s the first of its kind at the mall. Rather, the secret is in its sparkles: It’s made of 175,000 glittering Swarovski crystals, separated into 3,100 six-and-a-half-foot strands and valued at about $700,000. A nightly snowstorm at the mall’s winter garden entrance adds to the luxurious holiday ambience.
The over-the-top tree, which took about six months to go from conception to creation, is just one of hundreds of similar displays at shopping malls across east Asia, where Christmas fever has taken over with force. Asian shoppers’ hunger for all things holiday isn’t necessarily about Christmas itself—indeed, the region’s main religions are Hindu, Islam and Buddhism. Rather, Christmas’ appeal to mallgoers seems to lie in a combination of local love for shopping malls and an overwhelming desire to celebrate.
“Shoppers in Asia yearn for a unique experience each time there is a festival celebration,” Joyce Yap, CEO of retail at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, tells Smithsonian.com. Yap says that people tend to plan gatherings and outings at malls to celebrate festive occasions like Christmas. She says that social media also fuels a growing demand for highly attractive holiday displays—more than half of global social media users are in the Asia Pacific region.
Malls in Asia are increasingly becoming mega-destinations that include movie theaters, banks, restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, zoos and more. In Malaysia alone, shopping centers encompass 100 million square feet and about $33 billion in real estate value. Given that eight of the world’s top ten malls are in Asia, it’s a logical place to get into the holiday spirit in extravagant style.
The displays are spectacular indeed. One mall in Tokyo had a Godzilla-shaped tree that breathes smoke and a glittery display of trees and landscape lighting out front. In recent years, Christmas mall displays in Hong Kong (for a century, a British colony) have included everything from two-story-tall polar bears to a Central Park-inspired indoor park with light-up bicycles, an entire Christmas town, and an Andy Warhol-themed display of soup cans. Shoppers in Malaysia have enjoyed a Christmas bazaar under a giant holiday dinner table, humongous hot air balloons, a sparkling indoor forest, a candy village, giant Lego displays, and a fairy-themed indoor town. In China, developers are even building a replica of Finland’s famed SantaPark to satisfy the Christmas-loving masses.
No Christmas tree will ever live up to the Godzilla tree in Tokyo mallpic.twitter.com/u7cN7gU6AW— Trap Grampa (@trapgrampa) December 11, 2015
This obsession with Christmas decorating may also be partially related to the absorption of some aspects of American culture. Robert Foyle Huwick of The Atlantic writes that about 275,000 Chinese students participate in study abroad programs in the United States each year, then bring American Christmas traditions back with them in order to combat solemn, serious traditional fetes with opportunities to party and shop. Expat culture also makes the holiday look pretty appealing, especially in places like Hong Kong, which is home to over 300,000 expatriates. The holiday is celebrated across the region without religious context; rather it’s an excuse for friends and family to get together and have a good time. Given the grandeur of the continent’s many Christmas celebrations—and the widely reported death of the traditional American shopping mall—there’s perhaps never been a better time to head to an east Asian shopping mall for a dose of outrageous good cheer.