I get a look at the inner workings of how the ghost city narrative was created and maintained.
In April I was contacted by a reporter for a major national television news station who wanted me to take them out to film a Chinese ghost city.
[What station and country she was from I will not say here, as the reporter conducted her work in a way that I didn’t find to be atypical — which is why this is a story that I’m posting here.]
Earlier this year I had a book about China’s ghost cities published and through the spring and summer I was actively engaged in promoting it — book tours, talking to the media, giving talks and presentations — so I agreed to give them a brief tour into China’s new city building movement.
I knew what they wanted: a big, empty city with towering skyscrapers without offices, shopping malls without stores, and sprawling housing complexes with nobody home. I figured they more than likely wanted to contribute to the cackling about China’s irresponsible urban growth and the doom that it surely portents — i.e. the standard ghost city narrative. So I decided to take them to one of the biggest, emptiest new cities that I knew of: Nanhui.
Nanhui, formally known as Lingang New City, sits 60 km from the central core of Shanghai. It started being built in 2003 for one reason: to support the new Yangshan Deep Water Port that was then just going under construction as well as the free trade zone that would begin operating there a decade later. It was to become a “mini-Hong Kong” and serve as a vibrant hub of urban life and commerce at the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta.
Construction of Nanhui/ Lingang began right as the new city building movement started going viral across China. 2003 was the year that almost every sizable city in the country began construction multitudes of new districts, new towns, and completely new cities. A German architecture firm won a contest to design this new city that was to go on Shanghai’s coast, and came up with a concept that called for a set of concentric ring roads radiating out from a central lake. Everything here would be planned and artificially created: from the circular central lake to the land it all would sit on. 60% of Nanhui’s 277 square kilometers would be on land reclaimed from the sea. The place was to be a masterpiece of urban planning, and was one of China’s first attempts at building an eco-city.
I first visited Nanhui in 2013 and continued making return trips every six to ten months throughout my ghost cities research. Each time I traversed those 60 km from Shanghai’s center I found a place that didn’t seem to be going anywhere fast. Even after the public announcement of the opening of Shanghai’s Free Trade Zones, which included the one in nearby Yangshan and sent the price of new urban construction land in Nanhui soaring, and the opening of the metro line very few people and businesses were actually moving in. People would purchase apartments and developers would spend massive amounts of money buying land and building more homes, luxury hotels, etc, but the place simply couldn’t break the inertia of its own stagnancy and remained stuck somewhere between conception and vitalization — the ghost city phase.
When coming into town there would be a blip of activity on the outskirts near the universities then nothing but empty streets, empty buildings, neglected gardens, and construction lots. Nanhui was the quintessential example of a large scale new Chinese city at a mid-point of development, so I figured it would be the perfect location to take that TV news crew.
The crew flew in and met me in Shanghai. Their plan was to go out and feature me at work, so they started by filming a talk that I gave at the Royal Asiatic Society. They wanted to do a reenactment of me making a research trip to a ghost city. Though awkward and contrived it would give them some good visuals to compliment what I was talking about — and it also sounded amusing.
The following morning I met the crew at their hotel. There was just two of them, a reporter and a cameraman. They were the only members of their news agency based in Asia, and had the responsibility of covering not only China but all of East Asia. This wasn’t out of the ordinary, as many big news agencies around the world have slimmed down their international correspondents to the bare minimum: one person to talk and one person to film per region of the globe.
That said, I admired their endurance: they spent most of their time flying from city to city, country to country across East Asia, chasing big stories and filing their reports from the road. They had the kind of job that kids imagine themselves getting when they first start studying journalism, though so rarely ever materializes.
The news crew had no previous training or educational background on China before being airdropped int the country with the directive of covering some of the biggest breaking news stories on the planet.
“There is this idea that just because a reporter does well in some place like Iraq that they will do well in China. Iraq was an American show, China is something else entirely. It takes them a couple of years before they can even do anything here,” a China correspondent for a major American public broadcasting network once expressed to me over beers.
We walked out of the news crew’s hotel and piled into the van that they hired for the day. I told the driver where we wanted to go, but he had no idea where it was. Nanhui — or Lingang — isn’t a place that people just end up passing through from time to time. It’s out there. I explained to him where it was: “You know the end of Pudong, by Yangshan Port? There.” He asked why we wanted to go there — a very good question.
We arrived a little over an hour later. I told the driver to go down the new city’s main street. The last time I was there was almost a year before and there was more or less nothing but buildings and roads, more or less nobody but myself. I grew a little uneasy then as I watched an unending stream of cars emerged from the once abandoned town center and pass by us going the other direction. There were people on the sidewalks and some of the formerly empty office towers had workers spewing in and out.
It couldn’t be. By the time we’d cross the radius of the circular city and hit the central lake I knew what had happened: Shanghai flipped the switch. Since the last time I was there the headquarters for Shanghai’s free trade zones, other government agencies, and offices of some SOEs were shipped in.
I remembered a conversation that I had with a developer here some years before:
“Who do you think will come to this hotel? There really isn’t much going on here.”
“Don’t worry, man, all that will change,” he replied with a chuckle. “It is just a matter of time,” he said.
We were now in the downtown district. “They will all be filled,” he said as we rolled through an entire city of empty buildings. “It’s just a matter of when the government is willing to give the right price. I give it five or six years, then this place will be filled.” He paused for a moment before concluding, “The only question here is when.”
The developer’s prophesies have started to come to fruition and the “matter of time” that he spoke of had apparently come to pass. The place was filling up fast.
Video of what Nanhui looked like before this visit
We poured out of the van because the cameraman said he wanted to get a shot with the city rising in the background. He struggled to find a location to set up his giant TV news camera. He would set it down, connect it to the tripod and peer through the lens, scoff, walk ten feet away, and do it all again, scoff . . . The crowds of people recreating by the waterfront seemed to have been throwing him off.
“Who are those people?” the reporter asked.
“Tourists from nearby towns.”
“What are they doing here?”
“Enjoying the lake.”
I knew what she meant. I fucked up.
“Look, you’re going to have to change your angle on this story,” I pleaded. “This place has really come to life since the last time I was here in an absolutely amazing way. Seriously, a year ago there was nobody here. These streets were hardly even paved, there were no tourists, it was a complete ghost town. Now Shanghai has started moving people in and it is really incredible how they did it. You should change your report to be about a ghost city that came to life, do something different, otherwise it is going to be really difficult to say there are not any people here.”
She did not concure. “No, I think we can keep it the same.”
It was a good try on my behalf, but as I already knew, big international media has little interest in China’s ex-ghost cities.
Meanwhile the cameraman was busy filming dead fish floating in the lake.
“Why are their so many dead fish here?”
“It’s China, there are dead fish floating everywhere.”
But as they spent the next fifteen minutes filming the legions of upside down, bloated fish instead of the legions of tourists frolicking on the lake shore I felt myself drawn into a very difficult position.
The news crew returned to the van and we began driving around the city. Knowing very clearly what the Russians wanted and partially feeling guilty for taking them all they way out to a place that wan’t really how I represented it I instructed the driver to go to the new technology park, which was completely deserted on my last visit. We drove over there just to find that new restaurants had opened and groups of workers were sitting out front eating lunch.
“None of this was here before,” I claimed. “These restaurants are all new, none of these people were here a year ago. It’s really amazing what had happened.”
They didn’t seem to think it was amazing. All Nanhui having a budding population meant was that they would need to try harder to find desolate areas to film.
Near the tech park the reporter pointed the driver down a narrow side street. We drove down what amounted to an alleyway on the outer edge of the developed part of the city — a place that didn’t even really have paved roads a year ago — that wasn’t yet inhabited. Here, they determined, would be an adequate location to start rolling.
We stepped out of the van and the cameraman filmed a long idle pile of cement tiles that was sitting on the sidewalk as I was mic’d up. The camera was then turned towards me.
“Describe what you see here,” the reporter requested.
I realized that I had been baited. The other side of the building I was standing in front of had a crowd of people packed around it eating noodles but this wasn’t visible from where I was being filmed. I was on a completely empty street lined with empty, never occupied shops, what else could I say? I hesitated.
“Just tell us what you are looking at?”
I did, then added a somewhat pathetic “but on the main street in front of this building there are shops and restaurants that are open.”
“Why is it so empty?”
“This street is empty because it was just built, the last time I was here it was dirt. We are right next to the new technology park that is just starting to open. When it does this street probably won’t be as empty as it is now.”
“Talk about those street light that aren’t turned on.”
. . .
“Tell us about that empty building over there.”
. . .
“Go up and try to pull the handle on the door of that abandoned building there.”
. . .
They really liked these live action shots of me trying to open the obviously locked doors of empty buildings.
The news crew then wanted to get a shot of the reporter and I walking down the middle of an empty street together. The cameraman positioned himself in the back of the van with the doors wide open. I instructed the driver to drive really slowly down the center of the street at the same pace as I was walking behind him. We began.
“You are now walking down the middle of the road,” the news reporter set the scene, “tell us about how you can walk down the middle of the road here because there are not any cars.”
“I can walk down the middle of this road without needing to worry about being hit by a car because we are at the edge of town and nothing has been developed beyond this point, so there is really no reason for anyone to drive here. The last time I was here this road was still being built, there was construction equipment right here. This is a development that’s still growing.”
It was a game of dueling sound bytes. I tried to stuff as much information about the place that I felt was accurate into my responses and the reporter tried to get me to describe the city as an empty ghost town.
As we continued walking down the middle of the road together we talked about China’s development strategies, the housing market, and how new cities are built and populated an empty bus rolled by. The reporter cut me off and ordered the cameraman to film it.
“Tell us why that bus had no people on it,” she quickly asked.
“That bus had no passengers on it because the last stop is right behind us at the station. The bus is probably just ending its route.”
Then the police arrived. The pulled up from behind us with their lights flashing and ordered the reporter and I to get out of the street. They told us that we couldn’t film ourselves walking down the middle of the road anymore. I acted dumb, apologized, and they sped off.
I told the news crew that we should probably go somewhere else to film. They didn’t want to. The cameraman stepped out of the van and set his tripod up in the middle of the intersection and began filming an empty building. He remained there for an incredibly long time. Long enough for the police to return and tell us to stop filming for a second time. I again told the news crew that we had to go.
The driver of the van, who received the brunt of the polices’ scolding, was getting nervous. “Tell them they can’t film here!” he pleaded with me, waving his hands in the air.
“They won’t listen.”
The cameraman continued filming the empty building from the sidewalk.
“We haven’t done anything wrong. They can’t tell us to stop,” the reporter stated. “We have journalist visas.”
Although the restrictions on foreign journalists have gotten vastly more lax they still do not have to right to report from anywhere they wish whenever they wish to. A foreign news crew with their big camera filming in the streets of an obscure city is enough to put the security forces on edge, especially when it’s clear that permission wasn’t granted to do this in advance.
But the cameraman refused to be moved. The driver continued yelling, waving his arms. If the authorities were to take action against us he would probably receive the biggest blow. The rest of us were foreigners — we’re stupid, disposable, and punishing us is complicated. He’s Chinese; punishing him is quick and easy, nobody will find out about it and few will care. I made it very clear to the news crew that we had to leave that area immediately and keep a lower profile.
“But we have journalist visas.”
We then drove to another part of town to film a desolate residential area. This proved vastly more challenging than when I did the same in 2013. While almost all of the properties in Nanhui sold relatively quickly, they were mostly purchased by people who did not plan on moving in immediately. Speculation was rampant and government employees whose offices were being moved in were given housing subsidies that they cashed in on. But most were hesitant to move from central Shanghai or wherever else they were living into a ghost town, and economically affordable homes (which buyers must inhabit) were yet to be constructed. Now all this had changed.
I’d seen new cities in China attract a population and come to life before, and when it happens it often happens fast. Many of the housing complexes in Nanhui had filled up, little shops had opened up around them, and the streets were full of cars and action. It was an all out migration.
The news crew wanted to see the inside of a housing complex so we found one and drove in. There was laundry hanging on almost every balcony, there were things in nearly every window, cars in each parking spot. The reporter went for a little walk, came back, and told me that this place wouldn’t do.
“It’s full of life,” she said. “It just looks like normal.”
She was right.
“What do you want?”
“An empty place,” she replied simply. “We need to find places where people live, the empty ones.”
We drove around the corner to a housing complex that was still being constructed. One major section of it had not even risen above the ground and another was merely a concrete core wrapped in scaffolding that workers were hanging off of. There were large promotional posters on its outer wall that showed what it would someday look like. The cameraman filmed the workers on the side of the building then turned his camera on me.
“Why won’t these apartments have people living in them?” the reporter baited.
There was nothing but a dirt lot on the other side of the wall behind me.
“It’s not built yet,” I replied. “I can’t know if people will live here or not before it is even built.”
I thought of just turning around and running away. I feared for my fledgling reputation.
I gave the reporter some sound bytes about the reasons why many homes in China’s new cities are often left vacant for a number of years as the area matures enough to host a population, then retreated to the van.
The news crew stayed out filming a housing complex that was under construction as a couple of traffic cops walked up and began questioning them. They just ignored them and continued filming. Then one of the cops came over to the van and asked the driver what they were doing. He honestly replied that he really didn’t know.
“They are filming a movie,” I responded. The truth — “They are trying to show your city as deserted so people in their country can laugh at you” — probably wouldn’t have made the situation any better.
The crew eventually returned to the van. “The cameraman says that we need to go back to the empty part, where we were before,” the reporter informed me.
He wanted to go back to the area around the tech park on the fringes of the developed part of town where the police had twice reprimanded us for filming. The budding parts of this new city, this incredibly story of how a former ghost town was coming alive didn’t hold any journalistic appeal.
As we were on our way there we passed by the district government complex.
“That building looks abandoned,” the reporter proclaimed and told the driver to stop.
“It’s not abandoned,” I protested, “it’s the Pudong government headquarters!”
The cameraman got out and turned his camera upon the imposing, monolithic government building before us. Within seconds a security guard was at his side, screaming.
“They can’t film here!” the driver yelled to me. He was now freaking out, pounding the steering wheel and flailing his arms.
Though they were being yelled at, the news crew made a slow retreat, camera continuing to roll.
I had to do something. The news crew was going to get their story by any means necessary and I really didn’t want to end up detained because of it. I told them to get back into the van and I would give them what they want.
There was a massive newly built housing complex on the edge of town that I knew wouldn’t be inhabited yet. The last time I was there it was a construction site where I interviewed some of the workers.
We drove over to the complex and right through the gates. The outsides of the buildings had been constructed and the streets and some of the landscaping was completed but it was too early for it to have been opened to residents.
We got out of the van. I stood next to the reporter in front of a backdrop of deserted houses as the camera started rolling.
“There’s a lot of empty apartments here. Why are they so empty?”
The news crew came to Nanhui with a singular mission: find a ghost city. They filmed empty streets while ignoring full ones; they filmed uninhabited high-rises and left the ones that were full of people outside the frame. Their script was written before they set foot on the ground. It was investigative journalism in reverse. Rather than going out and collecting information to discover what was going on in a place they had already decided what was going on and then set out to prove it.