New South China Mall: Too big to fail

Six years after the world's largest shopping mall opened, over 99% of its shops remain empty. And yet the mall continues to expand.

Such a perfect day. Another beautiful day in a perfect world. The sky is blue and pollution-free. Does it make you feel happy? It should, but it's not enough. Ah, yes, go shopping and have a stroll in…

"…sunny and zealous South California Coast and San Francisco, clear and enchanting Amsterdam, elegant and romantic Champs- Elysees Ave (sic) in Paris, mysterious and passionate Venice, sensational and beautiful Caribbean coast and adventurous Tropical Rain Forest. Such zones display the world's famous water scenes and create relax and romantic shopping and living environment: you can enjoy yourself and have delicious foods while shopping and also enjoy cultural communication and body-building while in diversion. In terms of humanistic concern, it allows you to enjoy anywhere and delivers to you the higher spiritual enjoyment besides the creature comfort."
(Unedited quote from the New South China Mall website)

Six years after the 2005 opening ceremony of the New South China Mall, Living City, its 892,000 square metres still afford it the title of the largest shopping centre in the world. Yet less than 1 per cent of the 2,350 planned shops are occupied. Five escalators are running in this megalomaniac project that has burst onto the former farmlands of Dongguan's suburbs, in the rich southern province of Guangdong. Most of its space has never been occupied and is still in the state it was in six years ago when the mall was inaugurated. Empty halls and lines of shop windows in which metal structures outline possible walls and electrical wires draped from the ceiling indicate their intended use as shops. Many promises of a bright future. Broken light bulbs and traces of various attempts of bringing life to the concrete. Footsteps, cigarette butts and food packaging left over by some wandering lost soul: the archaeological terrain of an idealised consumerist society.

The Chinese government's emphasis on encouraging economic growth fosters the birth of gargantuan real-estate projects. The decrepit hallways of the New South China Mall express a unique form of decay: the decline of an architectural mash-up before its success, even before birth.

Still, all this misfortune hasn't dampened private and public investors' enthusiasm, and the mall survives indefinitely thanks to an architectural equivalent of life support. Meticulous employees clean the canal every day with chemicals and nets for a daily wage that would buy them a single ride on one of the mall's attractions. At the Amazing World funfair the music booms and passengerless roller coasters fly. Gondolas cruise. A woman attempts to feed goldfish with milk from bottles. Neighbourhood residents come to do their morning t'ai chi exercise and practice martial arts. Ticket vendors doze in their cabins, while others kill time rehearsing party tricks. Foreign reporters are greeted warmly by the security services. Migrant workers labour through night shifts to complete the construction of the Venice and Amsterdam sections, in the undying hope that the once-hoped-for 70,000 daily visitors might materialise.

China may have undergone three decades of transformation since it opened up to the outside world, yet it still hasn't lost certain traits inherited from its communist years, such as the compulsion to chase superlative statistics and a sense of grandeur offset by a streak of surrealism. Come over and enjoy this perfect day. "South China Mall, the shopping heaven, amazing world, illusion city and a commercial legend of new century is expecting your presence."
Grégoire Basdevant

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