Ghost Malls of the Instant Cities
by Tong Lam
When the South China Mall (later renamed the New South China Mall) opened its doors in Dongguan, Guangdong province in 2005, the Western media hailed it as a symbol of China’s new consumer age. With more than 7 million square feet of leasable space, the mall was supposed to have over 2,300 stores and was meant to be the largest in the world. The developers estimated that the mega mall would attract at least an average of 70,000 visitors a day. As a comparison, the Mall of America in Minnesota, the largest in the US, is only about one-third of that size. Even the massive West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, the largest in North America, pales in comparison. In their initial promotional material, the developers boasted that the mall would become a “one stop consumption center” and “a global business model.”
However, since its opening, the mall has no more than a few dozen, mostly small tenants at any single time. Over 99% of the retail space has been vacant and will probably remain so. As a result of its disappointing performance, the planned luxurious Shangri-La hotel was never built; nor were some of the supporting facilities. Yet, given the magnitude of the project, the mall is not allowed to fail, and has even been designated as a tourist destination by the government. For now at least, the mall has stayed open, and it is essentially the most deserted mall in the world. On a regular day, most of the people on the premises are maintenance and service personnel.
During the past decade in China, close to a hundred new shopping malls have been built each year. While some of them have become modern ruins, there are also many thriving and successful cases. The failure of the New South China Mall is therefore not an indication of the lack of consumer culture in China. Quite the contrary, after the Tiananmen uprising in 1989, consumption became the government’s major answer to the growing political demands of the middle class and the rising social tensions in general. When the global financial crisis began to unfold in 2008, the central government further emphasized the importance of using domestic consumption to bolster the national economy. The failure of the New South China Mall can instead be attributed to problems of speculation and overdevelopment, poor urban planning, as well as the absence of organic growth in these “instant” cities. For instance, although Guangzhou, the provincial capital, together with the neighboring cities of Dongguan and Shenzhen, have a population of over 25 million, New South China Mall was built on agricultural land on the outskirts of Dongguan, reachable only by car. Given that the prefecture-level city of Dongguan is made up of new factories and low paid migrant workers, the failure of the mall is no mystery.
Deserted mega malls like this are only the tip of the iceberg. All over China, there are instant cities that are becoming “ghost cities” with plenty of unoccupied residential buildings, office towers, and shopping complexes—all deemed too large to fail, at least for now.
Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall. A short documentary film by Sam Green and Carrie Lozano, about the New South China Mall. The film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and was broadcasted on PBS’s acclaimed POV documentary series.
Images of a vintage poster depicting Shanghai No. 1 Department Store in the 1950s. These images reminds us that a vibrant urban consumer culture did not just exist in early twentieth century, it lingered on at least in Shanghai into the early years of the People’s Republic.
Read the rest of LARB’s China Blog here.
Images © Tong Lam
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