The Pearl River Delta, the smoggy heart of China’s economic miracle, sprawls inland from Hong Kong: a tangle of factories, highways, and concrete. In the middle of it all, a few miles outside Dongguan, lies the New South China Mall.
When it opened in 2005, it was the largest shopping center in the world. Publications such as Newsweek even called it one of the “new wonders of the world”. However, once it opened, the shops - and the shoppers - never came. The mall was the brainchild of billionaire developer Alex Hu, known as China’s instant-noodle king, who wanted to put his home town on the map. His mall was to be like no other featuring a replica Arc de Triomphe to welcome shoppers, a Venetian canal snaking for two kilometers through the complex, and a gigantic indoor roller-coaster looping above the walkways. In addition to the amusing flourishes, there was also space for some 2,350 shops. But what Hu hadn’t considered was the location. Despite his best intentions of developing his home town, his monster mall was built on a former farm, miles from the center of Dongguan, with almost no public transport links. Retailers took one look at the isolated complex and stayed away. To this day, other than a few fast food chains, the gigantic complex is almost entirely deserted.
Now, with vacancy rates still running at 99%, the mall is an eerie ghost-city. Empty storefronts stretch into the distance, cordoned-off escalators lie dormant, and lonely cleaners still polish the glass and chrome, yet no-one is there to see it. It is all the more disconcerting because of the booming industrial landscape that surrounds it. The New South China Mall is indeed one of the few places, in this part of the world, where one can reliably escape the crowds that throng the cities, subways, streets and shops, in every direction.