It was a German town, designed by German architects next to a Volkswagen factory on the outskirts of Shanghai. The place had everything: housing, parks, canal-side promenades, benches, fences, shops, roads, town squares, statues, office blocks, even a church, but it lacked the one ingredient that makes a city: humans. My species seemed out of place in our own creation here, I felt like an intruder tramping upon a 1:1 scale Teutonic themed still life. Besides a stray car or motorcycle passing by every five minutes or so and an older guy pushing a baby in a stroller three blocks back, I felt all alone while walking through Anting New Town.
This development was conceived in 2001 as part of the “One City, Nine Towns” project which transformed Shanghai’s suburbs into a contrived menagerie of internationalism. In addition to this German town, Shanghai built British, Swedish, Canadian, Spanish, Italian, American, and Dutch styled suburban districts which give the impression of being a remedy for some kind of post-colonial empty nest syndrome. But this cosmopolitan montage had one little quirk:
Nobody really came.
These towns were designed to be Garden City-esque suburbs positioned well outside the hell of central Shanghai. They were supposed to lure away the city’s upper and middle class residents weary of the cramped living quarters, the traffic jams, the crowds, the pollution, of a concrete dystopia so extremely humanized as to seem inhumane. These new suburbs promised wide open boulevards, lots of space, trees, lawns, a view of the sky, clean(er) air, lakes, large living spaces, low population densities, safe communities, quaint houses — places where families could raise their children without fear or trepidation far from the woes of the mega-city.
From Shanghai Squared:
“In Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, the network nodes of a multi-center ecological metropolis were tied together into a whole by public transportation links, and it was not expected that any one node could survive autonomously.”
If these places are so good then why are they so empty?
That’s the question I had as I walked through Anting New Town.
Anting New Town, otherwise known as Anting German Town, sits like a foreign country that was plopped down in the middle of a manufacturing/ industrial wasteland on the northeastern fringe of Shanghai. To give an impression of what the scene is like out here, Anting’s neighboring district is called Automobile City. There is a Volkswagen plant, a slew of car components factories, and a Formula One race track. Up until very recently this area was a remote factory-landia that served little function other than the manufacturing of automobiles, but now the world’s most populated city is steadily encroaching.
I rode subway line 11 out to its present terminus in Anting’s older district. The stop that I got off at just opened a few months before, and the next stop down the line was still being built. A shopping mall was also erected there not a season before. Shanghai is coming, and even this far flung suburb is growing outwards to meet it.
The German town can only be accessed by a single road that discreetly connects to a highway that runs up to Anting proper. There is a comfortable buffer zone consisting of green space, artificial hills, empty lots, and a lake blocking it off from the endless miasma of modern Chinese style high-rises and other new developments, firmly keeping the outside world firmly at bay. In this way, the place is designed like a wealthy South Florida gated community: it is overtly separate from everything else around it, a self-contained island rising up out of the seas of the more mundane architecture that surrounds it.
The Chinese developers originally wanted a cheesy, storybook inspired mock-up of a romanticized Germanic hamlet, but the German architects hired to come up with the design would hear none of it: they didn’t come all the way to China to leave behind a half-timbered monument to anachronism. They refused to build a Teutonic version of Thames Town. No, they would build a place for people to actually live in, not a silly stage set for people to get their pictures taken in front of. They would give the Chinese a modern German city. The Chinese developers conceded to the German architect’s conceit and provided them with a blank patch of farmland to paint their masterpiece upon 30 kilometers from Shanghai’s core.
These German developers gave China a district of environmentally friendly, uber-modern looking, three to five story orange and lime green Bauhaus inspired buildings that are equipped with double-glazing and central heating that wouldn’t be out of place in a trendy new district of Stuttgart or Kassel. China asked for an idealized theme park of a German town, but instead they got the real thing.
The initial plan was to have Anting German Town cover five square kilometers, but after covering one/ fifth of this area the project went stagnant. What has been built has a capacity for 50,000 residents, and in 2006 people began trickling in. But this intake of residents never became a stream — much less a flood that could have actually breathed life into the place. Though the developers claim that all of the properties sold, incredibly few were actually ever inhabited. The official take is that only 1 out of every 5 homes is occupied, but the view on the ground gives the impression that this number may actually be even lower.
I’ve been traveling all over China for the past year and a half visiting and researching the country’s so-called ghost cities, but I rarely found any places that genuinely qualify for this title. Most of the cities that have been labeled uninhabited actually have a lot more brewing under the surface. Some were coming alive, others were virtually indiscernible from any other newly developed district, while yet others weren’t even close to being built yet. But it was immediately apparent from my first steps in this place that Anting German Town could rightfully be called a new age ghost town. Relative to the amount of housing available, there was almost nobody there.
For the better part of two hours I walked around taking photos of homes, stores, and offices that have never known human occupation. The buildings were devoid of life, their windows like the empty eye sockets of a skull. I climbed over a vacant expanse and onto a collapsed bridge over an artificial pond that apparently nobody found any reason to repair. I guess when pretty much nobody lives on the other side what’s the point of maintaining an expedient path to downtown. Anting German Town was just built but it was already falling to ruins. It didn’t seem to be crumbling from overuse but from the opposite: neglect. Even the greatest works of humans are reclaimed by the earth if left unused for too long. The empty streets, the vacant buildings, the underused parks, and the unneeded shop fronts provide me with a crystalline glimpse of what life would be like without humans.
But Anting German Town won’t be left the way it is.
I walked into a little square that had statues of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller standing side by side, linked arm in arm for eternity. These two bronze Germans stood surveying a town that appeared to be as alive as they were. Then a voice called out from behind me. I spun around and saw two Chinese guys sitting at a cheap patio table drinking beer. There was a bar behind them that not only was actually in business but was open.
I walked over and took a seat. One of the men introduced himself as the owner of the bar as his wife stepped outside to join him. I asked why he came all the way out here to open his business, and he looked off into the distance, raised his glass to Goethe and Schiller, and said, “It is very good here, I can drink here everyday and nobody bothers me.”
I could not question his logic here: virtual ghost cities are probably good places to set up shop if you don’t want anybody bothering you. But before I could compliment him on his living strategy a trendy looking 30-something couple walked briskly across the square and took seats at the table. It became clear that I was at the social nucleus of this place — drinks were being ordered as what 9 to 5’ers this town could offer were drifting in after a day’s work.
I then met the other two owners of the bar, and continued asking about why they started up their business in a new development that lacked the vital ingredient of commerce: people. None of them seemed in the least worried that their town was only like 2% inhabited. This is a theme that has run through my “ghost city” investigation: when the Chinese look at an empty new city they see opportunity, not hellfire, brimstone, and doom.
I asked one of the owner’s wives if she was nervous about the lack of people and she looked at me with surprise. It was as though I’d just pointed out something that she’d never noticed before. She responded that she wasn’t worried at all, and stated that a lot of Germans from the Volkswagen plant come here regularly. It seemed that business at this ghost town pub wasn’t half bad. There was a house band and every Friday night they had a big barbecue. Though there really wasn’t much competition to speak of.
“More people started coming last year,” the owner’s wife then added, picking up on where I was going.
“So you think more people will keep coming?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
As I would find out, this fact wasn’t something that the current residents of Anting German Town were necessarily ecstatic about.
I then fell into conversation with a translator who works in downtown Shanghai for a foreign law firm. She says that her daily commute is over an hour each way but that it’s worth it to live here.
She then described her hometown as being wonderful, and I had to look at her quizzically. This was the first time I’ve ever heard anyone describe a stagnant, vastly underpopulated new Chinese development with this adjective. But this sentiment was echoed by the people who were increasing in number out in front of the bar.
“If this place is so wonderful why don’t more people move here then?” I countered. If the houses were already purchased, why hadn’t more homeowners actually moved in?
“It is far from the city,” she replied. “There is not much opportunity here. There are not many places to work. But for me it is good.”
I asked her what she thinks the future will bring to her town, and she thought for a moment replied with a blunt, “I don’t care.” But she then continued: “Anting New City is stuck. This was a project of the old mayor. Now he is in prison.”
“Why is he in prison?”
The Birmingham University educated Chen Liangyu was the visionary and driving force behind Shanghai’s “One City, Nine Towns” suburban renewal project, and with him locked up and out of the picture the new government doesn’t really seem to know what to do with all of these foreign themed towns they’ve inherited.
The translator said that Anting German Town is no longer getting much government support anymore. This place is just sort of floating out here, waiting for something to happen. Though what will happen is obvious: the sprawl will come knocking.
“Do you think there will be more opportunity in the future?” I asked. “Is the government developing the surrounding area more?”
I was thinking of the brand new subway station that was just built hardly a two kilometers away that now connects this place with the rest of Shanghai as well as the masses of apartment high-rises that are closing in on every horizon.
“Maybe,” she replied, “but I hope not. Then more people will come.”
“So you don’t want more people to come?”
“No,” she retorted with an almost shameful smile and giggle. “There are not many people and this is good. My kid can play outside, it is not busy here. It is good for me.”
It was clear in that moment that these people like their ghost city as a ghost ghost city.
I then took a seat at another patio table in front of the bar. Two little girls were eating Haagen-Dazs ice creams, I struck up a conversation with their mother, who was baifumei through and through.
“What do you think of this place?” I asked.
“It is very peaceful and wonderful and lovely,” she replied with a smile that could only be described as beaming.
She told me that she was from central Shanghai and I asked her why she moved all the way out to the fringes.
“It is better for my kids,” she replied simply. “They can play outside in the streets and there is no traffic and people everywhere. They can ride their scooter, play tennis, golf, and ride their bicycles. It’s safe here, not like in the city.”
She was pretty much listing the reasons which drive suburbanization the world over.
“We know our neighbors,” she continued. “In Shanghai I never knew even the people who lived right next door. We were always too busy. The people here are so friendly, we are like a big family. When we go to places we don’t call each other first, we just meet. Like here.”
Residents were literally coming out of the woodwork and gravitating to the bar. It was like watching pioneers recolonizing a city that had endured some kind of apocalypse. A place that only moments before appeared abandoned now had sparse groups of people shuffling through the streets, converging upon the square for their evening rendezvous with Goethe and Schiller and their neighbors who were hanging out in front of the bar.
She then told me that when she moved to Anting German Town she quit her job in Shanghai. The commute would have been too much. She told me that her husband is a factory owner who was able to move production out near Anting so that he could live more comfortably in the new town. Both of these moves were clearly not actions that every Chinese person — or even every Anting German Town home owner — could reasonably make.
“I enjoy my privilege,” she spoke.
“Do you feel like you discovered a secret?”
We continued talking about the town, but the picture she was painting seemed very different than that of the international media. I then pulled out my tablet and opened a rather unflattering article article in Spiegel Online about Anting German Town and offered it to her to read.
“Nobody wants to live there” she read aloud from the opening paragraph. “That’s not true,” she countered. “I put pictures of this place on my website and my friends look at them and they all admire me. They say that the place is so lovely and how they wish they could live here.”
She was visibly perplexed and was already irritated by the picture the foreign media has painted of her home.
“The plan was for 50,000 people,” she continued reading the article. “That would be so terrible,” she commented with a laugh.
“Do you want more people to come?” I asked.
“Honestly, no,” she replied. “If more people come it will be like the city. Now is enough.”
There are roughly 1,000 people living full time in Anting German town.
She returned to the article, making brash huffs and puffs at regular intervals. When she finished I asked if it was an accurate portrayal of her town.
“That’s not the new city I know,” she retorted.
As the article was published in October of 2011, I asked if the city has changed much since then.
“In 2008,” she began, “I could walk for 10 minutes and see nobody except for security and people cleaning. In 2010 more people started to come. When I first moved here I could park my car anywhere in the streets. Now you can see all the cars parked. Now I have to look for a place to park. The train now comes here and there is a now a shopping mall full of restaurants and a cinema, and a supermarket. All came last year.”
“So this place is getting bigger?”
Anting German City is slowly being included within the Shanghai matrix, but there are still fundamental facilities that it lacks. I was told that there are not yet any good schools or any well equipped hospitals nearby.
China is going through the initial stages of mass suburbanization. With the proliferation of the personal automobiles, the middle class and wealthy are being granted the privilege of moving out of big cities and into the suburbs. Raising families in noisy, crowded, polluted urban hells — places like Shanghai — is going out of fashion here. The moneyed classes of China are looking for escape routes. At the same time that rural people are pouring into China’s cities by the million, many urban dwellers are sneaking out the backdoor to the suburbs.
Shanghai is the world’s most populated metropolis and, along with the Bohai Economic Rim and the Pearl River Delta, is destined to be one of China’s three insanely huge mega-cities. In 15 years the city’s population has grown by eight million and size has increased nearly seven fold — outward expansion clearly being seen as a key to diluting the almost absurd population density.
Eventually, many of the new suburbs of the One City, Nine Towns initiative that now sit idle on the fringes of Shanghai will not be so remote. They will one day be well connected nodes encircling the central nucleus of the city, surrounded with development and made complete with adequate infrastructure — and these ghost city reports will be firmly filed away in the archives of history.
“Someday they will build it,” the mother of the ice cream eating girls admitted sadly. She meant that she knows this area will be built up, developed, no longer a place for idealistic pioneers like herself who are currently at the forefront of China’s suburbanization movement.
“Then do you think there will be too many people?” I asked.