Mall of misfortune Michael Donohue Last Updated: June 12. 2008 8:57PM UAE / June 12. 2008 4:57PM GMT I think we’re alone now: on a Sunday, when shopping centres are usually bustling, the largest mall in the world is empty. Philip Gostelow for The National 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 for every resident of the country.) And it’s not enough for a 21st-century mall to have shops; it must also have gondolas, trams, water slides, “Olympic-sized” hockey rinks, ice palaces or – in the case of the Dubai Mall – one of the world’s largest aquariums, to be filled with 41,000 fish. The big attraction of the South China Mall was supposed to be its “foreign” design. Learning from Las Vegas, where replicas of European monuments and New York landmarks draw throngs of tourists, the Dongguan mall modeled seven zones after various exotic world locations. Its rooftops reflect at least twenty different influences, from Czech town halls to Turkish mosques. As the mall was about to open, one of its design consultants, Ian Thomas of the Thomas Consulting Group in Vancouver, told the trade publication Shopping Centers Today that the zones were “done with such authenticity, with such great attention to detail, that you really think you’re in the real thing.” The Arc de Triomphe that stands in the very middle of the South China Mall – one of the first things I saw upon arrival – bears eleven circular seals engraved with the name of the city that meant so much suffering for Napoleon’s army: “MOCSOW”. It takes a minute to figure out that the seals have been affixed upside-down. The great arch leads you out of Paris and into either Venice or Amsterdam – it’s hard to tell, since this half of the mall, where the pedestrian walkways are all outdoors, has never been finished. The buildings have ornate, generically European facades, but their insides remain shells filled with puddles, unrailed staircases, and random stacks of tile and concrete. The exotic palm trees lining the sidewalk have been invaded by homegrown south-China weeds. A suspicious security guard, clearly elated to have something to do, turned me away from this section. “We just want to look at the tower,” my translator told him, pointing to the red-brick Venetian campanile down at the end. “That’s what they all say,” he replied. Back through the triumphal arch, past the never-opened Eagle Nest Bar, a sign heralds the entrance to San Francisco: “Here you can find high-grade perfume from France, genuine leather items from Italy, as well as well known watches from Switzerland.” But there’s nothing except vacant storefronts, with a couple of escalators sheathed in dust-covered plastic. It’s a relief to find Amazing World, the mostly outdoor amusement park on the east side of the mall. On my first day, a Friday, a few dozen schoolchildren, bused in from more than an hour away, were enjoying the massive bright-colored rides. The Action Arm, a giant yellow swing, flipped them around three hundred and sixty degrees, while the Drop Tower let them free-fall from twenty stories. (The mall’s English website asks, “Do you dare to take a try – experience the feeling of ‘death’? The answer is yes because the safety is ensured.”) A Mayan-themed flume would have looked pretty good too, if only it hadn’t been drained of water. On Saturday afternoon, a couple of hundred locals gathered in Amazing World. Chen Xiaodong, a 23-year-old insurance company worker, sat by the central pond with her boyfriend. “It’s not very exciting,” she said. The two had already tried the rides and had considered looking for shops, but decided against it. “I didn’t want to go inside,” she said, “because there was a weird smell.” Exactly why the South China Mall failed so badly is a matter of some dispute. Did the retailers hold back because there were no customers, or did the customers stay away because there were no retailers? Or did Hu Guirong doom the project by opening it before construction was finished – driving everybody away with the scaffolding and the dust? Dick Groves, a retail consultant based in nearby Hong Kong, chalks it up to inexperience in the leasing business, mixed with an undisciplined financial system. “When it’s easy to get financing without having to convince someone of the project’s feasibility, and without having to show pre-leasing commitment, you can start to get into trouble,” he says. “It’s all wrong,” said a middle-aged man I met exploring the empty storefronts, who wouldn’t give his name because, he said, he’s a rival developer. “It’s too big. It’s too confusing. But if it were in Guangzhou” – a much bigger city, about forty miles away – “you might have a chance.” The people at Hu Guirong’s company, Sanyuan Yinhui, declined to be interviewed, but Edward deSwart, an industry veteran brought in last summer to turn the South China Mall around, thinks the location is fine. “It’s a pretty good market, about 50 million people in the Pearl River Delta,” he says. “We will draw from all the cities around, but it has to be a strong enough attraction.” DeSwart got hired after Sanyuan Yinhui sold a controlling stake in the mall to the Founders Group, a division of Beijing University. “Many developers [in China] have fallen into what I call the cowboy league,” deSwart says, trying to explain how the mall ever got built. “Guys who all of a sudden have a lot of money and want to build a magnificent structure, without thinking it through.” Now he plans to “wind the clock back” and start completely over, leasing the mall in small phases over several years. (The complex does have two fairly healthy anchors, a Spar department store and a B & Q housewares center, both of which can be entered without having to pass through the mall’s interior.) Hand, the retail expert from Jones Lang LaSalle, maintains that Chinese developers are learning quickly and that the market has great potential. “The Chinese love shopping, they love brands, and they love international products, even though the average income is low,” he says. “New shoppers are born everyday. We won’t run out of them.” “It’s so boring here,” said Xia Qunyan, the shop assistant in Polo Meisdol, a leather-goods and clothing store whose logo contrives to emulate that of Ralph Lauren. “There’s no business.” Xia, a friendly woman in her early thirties, rolled her eyes when reminded that she works in the world’s biggest mall. “That’s what they told us to get us here,” she said. Rent for the shop, located in a theoretically high-traffic spot next to an escalator, was originally 28,000 yuan (Dh15,000) a month, but Xia says it’s never been paid. The company invested 230,000 yuan in renovations, she said, and since they’re one of only four small retailers left, the mall gives them free rent. On Friday, Xia passed the time chatting with a friend who’d dropped by with her baby. On Saturday, my translator and I found Xia alone, playing cards with herself. At her suggestion, we sat down and played three rounds of a game called Catch the Landlord. This section of the mall has four floors, and two levels above Xia’s shop is a loud arcade, Dino’s World, that blares techno music throughout the empty atrium. There’s also a huge Teletubbies playroom for kids, and a bridge leading off to the indoor section of Amazing World. A tour of the section’s 600 retail storefronts yields glimpses of what the South China Mall might have been; in some parts, there are even signs for three or four stores in a row, most of them south Chinese or Hong Kong chains with eccentric English names. You pass Kentex, Marino Orlandi, and Ebose, all empty. US Eell, Wen Chun, IP Zone, Weekend Workshop – empty. Balenno, Smitih’s [sic], Greenwood – empty. Carslan – gated. Henan Medicine – locked, full of pharmaceutical products, with an eviction notice for “breach of contract”. Triumph International – empty but with an angry notice from the mall: “According to records, the entity closed its business without first acquiring official permission from our company, thus constituting a breach of contract and directly affecting the image of the shopping center.” It’s odd to find a store with an actual person in it, like S-Square, a small, stylish clothing store with black-painted walls. Its 21-year-old shop assistant, Miss Chen, said business wasn’t so bad back when the mall first opened. Rent was then 10,000 yuan, but it’s no longer collected. “We used to get lots of tour groups,” she said. “Now it’s just student groups, and occasionally groups of factory workers, and they don’t buy anything.” She gets “one or two” customers a day, and passes the hours reading magazines and sending text messages to her friends. Miss Chen often sends texts to Miss Peng, also 21, who sits behind the cash register at Eyaya, an accessories shop that is just far enough around the corner to prevent the two ladies from chatting. “Our bosses say we could go into the corridor and yell down to each other,” Miss Peng said. “I usually just stare into space. Sometimes I get really sleepy and want to take a nap, but I get scared because at any time a customer could come in, and I might miss the only customer of the day.” Neither Peng nor Chen spends much time with Xia, over in Polo Meisdol. “There used to be a girl our age who worked there,” Peng said, a little sadly. “Her astrological sign was a dragon, and we used to hang out sometimes. But then she left.” People in real estate say that retail is the most difficult kind of property to develop. Even in highly affluent markets like the UAE, it can be risky if too many malls open up at once. “You hear simultaneously everyone launching the project that’s supposed to be the regional draw,” says Groves, the Hong Kong consultant, who has also worked on projects in the Emirates. With malls “so large they beggar belief” sprouting up all over the Middle East, Groves says, “one or more of the projects could have trouble.” The situation is even more complicated in China, where per capita income is about a fifteenth of the UAE’s. Much is expected of China in the next decade. Its economy continues to experience double-digit growth, and its factories now assemble most of the toys, shoes and microchips in the world. The country expects to quadruple its year 2000 per-capita income by 2020. China is rising, and before long – the conventional thinking goes – there will be a gigantic Chinese consumer class, four or five hundred millions of prosperous, educated people looking to stroll through malls and buy lots of stuff they don’t need. (At present, fewer than 10 per cent of China’s population of 1.3 billion have enough discretionary income to count as “middle-class”.) About 500 new malls have been built in China over the last five years, estimates Kevin Jiang, a researcher at the Mall China Information Center. All of them are waiting for the arrival of this coming mega-middle class, as are the rest of China’s countless “visionary” development projects. These include a from-scratch “eco-city” for 500,000 residents north of Shanghai, a compound of a hundred luxury villas in the Ordos desert of Inner Mongolia and a thousand-acre theme-park replica of the old imperial Summer Palace, which was destroyed by British and French troops in the nineteenth century. The cowboy developers of China, like the bored employees of the South China Mall, are still waiting. Some day – and they hope it’s soon – this new middle class will finally show up to fill the empty spaces. The malls will overflow, the stuff will sell, and the country will take its rightful place among the world’s great consumer powers. But until then, Xia Qunyan remains sitting on a stool in front of her shop, shuffling her playing cards and wondering how to pass the time. Michael Donohue lives in Beijing. He won a 2007 National Magazine Award for his essay Russell and Mary.