|I've actually been to this mall. By Chinese standards, it was a decent mall (by which I mean the air-conditioning was adequate). The problem is that it was far from the densely-populated areas, and most of the stores were simply branches of chains whose stores were available elsewhere. Add that to the fact that gasoline prices are high relative to Chinese incomes, and you have a failed mall.
I have to wonder if in retrospect, the building of this mall will be seen as the high-water mark of the flood of money into Chinese real estate speculation. Resulting, several years later, in the simultaneous bursting of the Chinese economic, real estate and stock market bubbles.
The people who work at the South China Mall, in the muggy, factory-filled city of Dongguan, have the honor of passing each day in the biggest shopping mall on the face of the planet. In theory, it’s a glorious place: a seven-million-square-foot retail-and-entertainment behemoth in the heart of China’s southern Pearl River Delta, the wealthiest region in a nation that boasts the world’s biggest population and its fastest-growing major economy. The mall is part of China’s new arsenal of superlatives: the world’s largest airport terminal, the highest train track, the golf resort with the most holes.
The employees of this giant mall could, if they wanted, spend their breaks driving bumper cars, browsing for house-wares, strolling along a Venetian canal, petting fake herons in an indoor rain forest, or gazing at an eighty-five-foot replica of the Arc de Triomphe – all, of course, without leaving the premises. They could also picnic next to the bell tower of St Mark’s Square in Venice, soak up the ambience of San Francisco, or take a ride on the mall’s indoor-outdoor roller coaster, a 553-meter flying railway known as Kuayue Shi Kong, or “Moving Through Time and Space”.
As it happens, it’s just those things – time and space – that give so much trouble to the workers here. They have too much of both. On a recent Friday afternoon, an amusement-park employee, slouched in a forsaken ticket booth, tried to kill time by making origami. Another worker slept, with perfect impunity, on a table. In front of the haunted house attraction, one attendant was doing hand-stands while two others looked blankly on.
There was nothing else to do, because the South China Mall, which opened with great fanfare in 2005, is not just the world’s largest. With fewer than a dozen stores scattered through a space designed to house 1,500, it is also the world’s emptiest – a dusty, decrepit complex of buildings marked by peeling paint, dead light bulbs, and dismembered mannequins.
“They set out to be the biggest, and hoped that being the biggest would be the attracting factor,” says David Hand, a retail analyst at Jones Lang LaSalle in Beijing, who has followed the project. “It hasn’t delivered.”
The world has plenty of empty malls; there’s even an American website, deadmalls.com, where connoisseurs of desolation post photos and reminiscences of the once-great, now-gutted places where they spent the Saturday afternoons of their youth. What sets the South China Mall apart from the rest, besides its mind-numbing size, is that it never went into decline. The tenants didn’t jump ship; they never even came on board. The mall entered the world pre-ruined, as if its developers had deliberately created an attraction for people with a taste for abandonment and decay. It is a spectacular real-estate failure – but it is also, as I saw when I spent two days exploring the site in May, a strangely beautiful monument to the big dreams that China inspires.
Three years ago, just before the South China Mall opened, it was featured on the front page of The New York Times as part of China’s “astonishing” new consumer culture. As the Times put it, with perhaps a trace of hyperbole, the “Chinese have started to embrace America’s ‘shop till you drop’ ethos and are in the middle of a buy-at-the-mall frenzy.” A spokesman for the mall’s developer Hu Guirong, an instant-noodle billionaire, told the Times that Hu’s team had spent two years traveling the world – France, Italy, Nevada – in search of ideas. They expected the mall to average more than 70,000 visitors a day. “We wanted to do something groundbreaking,” the spokesman said. “We wanted to leave our mark on history.”
In making size the first consideration, Hu was following a general trend among mall developers, for whom the competition for the “largest” label can be as fierce as an arms race. Consider the mall-building craze underway in the Emirates. Its largest shopping center, the 2.4-million-square-foot Mall of the Emirates, is only three years old, but will relinquish its throne this year to the even bigger Dubai Mall – which in turn will be superseded in 2010 by the gargantuan Mall of Arabia. (Together, the three properties will contain about 10 million square feet of leasable space – more than two square feet f