They were going for a monument, and a monument was what they got. At first, the New South China Mall was a monument to China’s new consumer culture and position as a rising power in the world. Then it became a monument to China’s pedal to the metal, overzealous development that has produced seas of unneeded, empty buildings and underused infrastructure throughout the country. But now this mall has become a monument to China’s incredible resolve, as it endures and tries maintain face through even the most eminent of failures.
The New South China Mall is the largest mall on the planet in terms of leasable retail space. The Chinese built this colossus in the city of Dongguan in Guangdong province in 2005. Seven years later it remains 99% abandoned. They built it and nobody came.
It sits within a 170 km urban corridor that has become the world’s largest megalopolis. Hong Kong and Shenzhen are immediately to the southeast, Macau to the south, and Guangzhou to the west. This is an urban area unlike any in the world in terms of size, growth rate, dynamism, and complexity. It surrounds the Pearl River Delta and was the first area opened up to international trade during China’s first experiments with economic reform. To put it simply, this area became a global catalyst of economic stimulus, sprouting businesses by the thousand, attracting foreign enterprises, and bringing in millions of migrant workers from around the country to provide the muscle needed to prop up this new economic behemoth. The area quickly became known as the world’s factory, and it has been China’s manufacturing heartland ever since.
In this place where skyscrapers seem to grow like weeds and factories and businesses spread like mold an instant noodle tycoon named Alex Hu decided to build an all out monument to his country’s rags to riches capitalist fairy tale: he set out to build the largest, most incredible shopping mall the world has ever known. It was initially called the South China Mall, but was quickly dubbed The Great Mall of China. In the process, he created a brick and mortar symbol for the changes the country continues going through.
The South China Mall was one of the first big malls in China, and was supposed to have ushered in a new era of Chinese consumerism. It was one of the first major initiatives to sell luxury goods to the Chinese people rather than always shipping them abroad. The project was an earmark in history, as it indicated an economic shift demonstrating that the Chinese have become a viable consumer culture in their own right. The floodgates were being opened and the vast retail market of China was primed to be tapped. The NY Times called the mall “proof of China’s new consumer culture.” Newsweek magazine called it one of the seven “new wonders of the world.” Simply put, the mall showcased the new Chinese paradox that a communist country could be symbolized by the world’s greatest shrine to capitalism.
20 acres of farmland that firmly stood outside the gates of the Guangzhou/ Shenzhen urban zone was cleared for the site of the colossal monument. When it was finished the noodle man’s masterpiece covered an area of over nine and a half million square feet and had 2,350 retail spaces. It was the largest mall on the planet, dwarfing the Edmonton Mall as well as the Mall of America, which it is twice the size of.
The New South China Mall was meant to be an attraction in and of itself which went beyond the boundaries of being a mere place to shop. Researchers were sent to malls all over the world to scrap, copy, and gather ideas for its design, and they returned with a bag of tricks that were intended to make this place the mother of all shopping complexes.
The final product is a mall themed to be a miniaturized replica of the world, its various sections styled as places from around the globe. Sections were created to look like Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Venice, Egypt, the Caribbean, and California. Each one boasting the telltale architecture, facades, and monuments of the places they represent. Some of these monuments are massive works in their own right, and include an 82 foot replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a copy of Venice’s St. Mark’s bell tower, and a giant Egyptian sphinx.
They also built their own public transportation network in the form of a 2.1 km canal upon which gondolas could transport tired passengers from wing to wing of this massive mall, an amusement park which contained, among other things, a 553-meter indoor-outdoor roller coaster, myriad fountains and kitsch, and one of the biggest IMAX theaters in the country. The place was like Las Vegas transformed into mall, no extent of gimmicky, over the top monumentality was spared.
70,000 shoppers per day were expected to flood into this living symbol of the New China. But nobody showed up. The Chinese “if you build it they will come” mentality went bust.
To put it simply, very few retailers ever signed up to be a part of one of the greatest retail ventures of this era, and the New South China Mall opened for business 99% unoccupied. The place never even had a chance to die, it was never born to begin with. The overzealous facades, grandiose architectural mimicry, canal transportation network, roller coaster, and world record size was not enough to lure in the businesses necessary to give the place a pulse. It all sat empty waiting for something to happen.
The reason behind the initial failure of the mall was simple: the location was horrible. Alex Hu, the project’s initiator and main financier, was from Dongguan, so he wanted to build this masterpiece for his home city. What he didn’t take into account was the fact that this city is mostly made up of factories and factory workers — definitely not the target clientele for high-end shopping mall.
Though it has to be stated that the mall is not too far distance wise from the ritzy areas of Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou, but there was simply no efficient transportation arteries linking the mall to this potential lifeblood, and getting there from just about anywhere proves to be a hassle. The place was built in the middle of nowhere, unable to attract foot traffic and difficult for even residents of its home city to access.
I read about this in advance and knew that getting to this mall from downtown Dongguan was going to be a hassle. But nothing could have prepared me for how much of a hassle it really was. I rode into Dongguan by train and immediately began asking around about how to get to the mall. I described it, asked for it by name, and even showed people its characters that I had written down in my notebook. Even people running the city buses seemed clueless as to how I could get there. I asked at a nearby police station — which often serve as direction giving kiosks — only to have the cops stare back at me with blank expressions on their faces. The mall that was supposed to be a national monument was even lost on the people whose city it was built in: nobody could tell me how to get there because nobody goes there.
Eventually, I found a bus driver who told me what bus to take. As I was looking for it a rotund, bruiser of a bus tout halted me in my tracks and told me to get on another bus. She, herself, seemed only half sure that the bus she told me to get on actually went to the mall, and had to ask the driver. The driver responded that he goes near the mall. Apparently, “near” was the best that I could hope for.
I rode this bus for an hour through the torn up, blown apart, dug up, maybe-soon-to-be-redeveloped outskirts of the greatest urban monstrosity on planet earth before I began wondering if I was actually being taken near the mall. From the looks of things, it didn’t seem as if I was going “near” anywhere. There were fallow farm fields to my right and dusty rows of concrete shops and apartment blocks to my left. It was the same scene that you see in the far outskirts of any Chinese city: machine shop, gas station, noodle restaurant, tire store. I questioned the bus attendant, who was a teenage girl, and she reassured me that I was really heading to my destination, and that she would tell me when to get off.
I shut up and looked out the window. Squalid. The landscape looked like a knocked down set of dominoes that nobody bothered to pick back up again: piles of buildings here, pieces of houses there. I looked at the people on the bus and in the streets. They were wearing the knock-off, cheap-o clothes that they make in the factories they work in. Run of the mill folk in the greatest factory town on earth.
I was growing restless. I was becoming nauseous and I couldn’t figure out if it was from the constant start and stop, inch-worming of the bus, the exhaust fumes that I’ve been huffing while stuck in this traffic, or if it was the mood of this run-down place itself. I was finding it difficult to believe that the greatest shopping complex ever built was anywhere near this mass of unplanned sea of sprawl. I took up the matter with a fellow passenger.
“This bus goes to the New South China Mall, right?”
She didn’t really know. She asked the bus attendant. The attendant just nodded her head and smiled at me endearingly, it was the kind of look that’s reserved for fools. I was being taken care of.
“How much more time until this bus arrives there?” I then asked the passenger sitting next to me.
She thought for only a brief moment before replying simply, “Maybe two more hours.”
“Two hours!” I responded in surprise. I was thinking that I had to have been close for the amount of time I was already on the bus: how many hours can you ride a city bus for without leaving the city completely?
For scale, I could have gotten to Hong Kong in less time that it took me to get from central Dongguan to its monumental mall. For roughly two and a half hours I sat on that city bus crawling through the traffic in a seemingly endless procession of starts and stops, starts and stops. Simply put, the analysis that this mall has a poor location that’s difficult to get to is not an understatement. I felt sympathy with the shoppers that never came: who would willingly endure such travail just to go hang out at a larger sized mall with a bunch of fake monuments and corny themes?
The interesting thing about this mall’s location is that roughly 4 million people live within six miles of it, 9 million within a dozen miles, and 40 million within sixty miles. But for some reason it seems far away from just about everyone. The problem is that it’s just not connected to everything else via efficient transportation corridors and it’s way too far away from most people to walk or ride an ebike to. It is said that most of the residents of even Dongguan would need too take multiple city buses to get to the mall, let alone visitors from Guangzhou or Shenzhen. Getting to this place proved to be a drawn out affair of wading through a glutinous mass of traffic. Who wants to do this?
I passed the time on the bus by talking with the passengers around me. I was asking them if they ever go to the mall that was my destination. One of them asked if I was going to see a movie at the IMAX theater. I said no. She then looked at me funny and asked what I was going there for. She seemed concerned that I may have been setting myself up for disappointment. I couldn’t even begin to concoct a logical explanation for why I was traveling for hours across an urban wasteland to go to a mall with no stores, so I told her the truth: because it’s the biggest mall in the world and I want to see it. I’m not sure if this made much sense.
After finally being directed to leave the bus by the conductor, I stepped out onto a busy street and gazed into the distance at a giant red tower beyond. It was one of the gimmicky facades of the New South China Mall. “Near” was right: not even this bus route went directly to the mall. I crossed the street and after a 15 minute walk I was there. A replica of the Arc de Triomphe rose above me, and I walked through it into the belly of the behemoth.
It was clear from the start that there wasn’t much in there, but I have to say that this place was in no way abandoned. The shrills of kids resonated through the corridor I was walking through. I passed by a coffee house that was packed with people. There was some kind of amusement park in the distance. Though above me rose four stories of empty shops.
I then took a right down a hallway and the emptiness became all encompassing. Shop after shop after shop was nothing but plate glass, four walls, and a ceiling with nothing inside of it but rubbish, broken up plaster, and maybe a phalanx of naked mannequins. “Abandoned” is perhaps the wrong word to describe this place, as nothing was ever here to begin with. This mall was born empty and that’s the way it stayed. A 1% occupancy rate has remained constant since it opened.
I went upstairs and walked through the long corridors of nothingness. Every single room was deficient of life. There was something unsettling about the escalators as they sat still, frozen in time, permanently blanketed beneath tarps. The fact that these machines were supposed to have been moving made them seem all the more dead.
With this lifelessness inevitably comes decay, and it was clear that this mall was slowly starting to crumble. Pieces of plaster were pealing off the walls, pipes were rusting, pieces of the great facades on the building’s exteriors were breaking apart, and the entire place displayed signs that it was gradually becoming ruins.
As I walked along one corridor a girl from the floor below began yelling at me. She told me that I was not supposed to be where I was and to get out. It was true, I had to jump over some barriers to get into this deserted part of the mall, but it wasn’t my impression that my intrusion was really going to disturb anyone. I balked at leaving, but actually just hid behind a pillar. I watched as the security girl sat back down in a chair that was positioned in the middle of a hallway. Apparently, it was her job just to sit there all day long and yell at people like me. She appeared incredibly bored, and it was inevitably only a matter of moments before she would again fix her attention onto her smartphone and I could then sneak past undetected.
There was that special stillness in this mall that only deserted places that were intended for crowds of people can have. It was like the feeling you get when walking through an abandoned hotel, an amusement park closed for the season, or a ghost town. Nothing in the world can seem more still than a place where humans are conspicuously missing. It’s almost like you’re an archaeologist looking upon the ruins of your own time, the temporal displacement is startling. An uncomfortable feeling of impermanence and ephemerality is in the air of these places, and the conception that everything — including yourself — is being hurled towards eminent demise is never more stark.
Likewise, the New South China Mall has become an odd sort of tourist attraction where people can come to get a glimpse of what a future without humans may look like.
This place was a great arc built for a flood that never came — a dream of grandeur startled awake by reality. I tried to imagine what this place was supposed to be like with 70,000 shoppers filling the corridors and feasting upon the fruit of this newly sprouted capitalist garden, and it was easy to envision the dream which this place was built on. But there were no shoppers, no shops, no people, and the only sound was the crunch of plaster and garbage under my feet.
But the eerie feeling that often accompanies deserted places was not there. I could not rile myself up with goosebumps at the thought of “what happened here?” as it was clear and evident that nothing ever happened here. This was perhaps the strangest feeling of all. This was a massive place that had no history, no drama, no plot line, no life. This place was nothing but a facade, as real as the Arc de Triomphe and the Egyptian sphinx that were replicated out in the street. They built the outer crust of a colossal shopping center in a place that had no culture or community to support it, and then expected it to come alive of its own volition. It’s people who breath life into places, places don’t animate themselves.
The New South China Mall was supposed to have been a thriving organism of capitalism, but the market forces that were supposed to make this place were the ones that broke it. The Chinese said yes but the laws of capitalism said no. This was a project conceived by developers not retailers, and the gap in methodology between the two here in China great.
The irony of Chinese capitalism is that it’s very communistic, and still relies heavily on top-down organization. If nothing else, capitalism is ideally a bottom-up system were consumer demand mandates the what, where, when, and how of production. It’s the consumer that ultimately decides whether or not a capitalistic venture will be successful — not the government, not the developers, not the investors. This is the point where the Chinese screw up capitalism: they seem to think they can manipulate and order people around like in the days of old when “the people” were treated as gears in a massive machine. In a society where consumers have a choice and the money, they have the power — and such large scale, communistic social-rigging becomes laughable.
You can’t just build it anymore in China and expect the people to come. Nobody wanted to come to the New South China Mall because it’s built out in the middle of nowhere, it is difficult to get to, and the people who could get to it didn’t have enough money to shop there anyway. Small demand here lead to small supply and small supply lead to an even smaller demand — a cycle that even the top consultants in the world have not yet figured out how to break.
Too big to fail
Now dubbed “The Not So Great Mall of China,” the New South China Mall is a shining example of China’s “if you build it they will come” ethic gone bust. But is a model that the string-pullers of this society seem unable to see their way out of. In this frame of reference the only thing to do is make one of the biggest white elephants in recent history even bigger. Yes, right now more massive construction projects around the mall are running at full tilt. Some parts of the mall are being demolished, but this doesn’t mean it’s being downsized, it means it’s being redeveloped.
Failure is not something the Chinese admit to very easily — especially when it means sacrificing a lot of face on the international stage. If this was a smaller project it probably would have fallen into bankruptcy a long time ago, been demolished and forgotten. But because this mall is so big, so well publicized, and under so much international scrutiny it is not allowed to fail. An arm of Beijing University bought out the project, so now it’s firmly in the hands of the Chinese government.
If you look at the mall’s website, you wouldn’t think that it wasn’t a 99% deserted husk of a shopping center, and this is the image they are going for. Nobody is admitting failure, and nobody seems to be quitting on this overzealous dream.
“We think the mall has a very promising future. Right now it is like a plane going down a runway, in a year or two it will be flying high,” spoke its manager in a documentary shot in 2009.
Four years later the mall has yet to take off, but the people running it have not thrown in the towel. Failure in this case doesn’t seem to be an option.
In fact, this mall continues functioning as though it has no idea it’s 99% dead. There are public performances and music going on outside of it, there are people walking through the parts of it that are open, and many of the stores on the main streets are open for business. The place is enduring as an entertainment outlet rather than a retail center, and activity is mostly centered around the theme park, the giant arcade, the go-cart track, the children’s exhibits, and the IMAX theater — not the retail outlets that these elements were originally meant to compliment.
While the New South China mall is largely vacant, it is by no means a ghost town.
It is my impression that the area around the mall would need to be completely restructured to provide it with enough sustenance to function as a retail center, and this seems to be what is slowly being done. I asked a girl from Dongguan where the center of the city was, and she told me rather awkwardly that it was moving out to the mall. I could not substantiate this claim, but I do know that the “centers” of modern Chinese cities are rarely fixed, that they can move surprisingly quickly from area to area — usually on the heels of the trendiest shopping centers and the newest fancy housing developments. I cannot say that I saw any indications of this having an impact on the mall, as 99% of the stores are still vacant, but I can say that the area around it has been provisioned with brand new middle class apartment blocks.
Whatever is the case, this mall is a reality check on China’s rampant growth and a challenge to see if it can substantiate it’s breakneck pace of development and economic growth. If this mall can be saved and made to prosper it would be a monumental symbol of what this country is capable of. This will all be told in the future.
And a future is perhaps the only thing the New South China Mall can hope for.
Watch the video from my visit to the New South China Mall