China is building some peculiar places. The South China Mall, in Donguan, Guangdong province is proof of this. Part ‘Mall of America’, part ‘Disneyland’, the South China Mall is currently the worlds largest self contained shopping center with 6.5 million square feet of floor space, and five districts; Amsterdam, Venice, Singapore, Paris and a Californian Beach town.
Despite its size, the Mall is at times silent and void of people. Occasionally a consumer or two will appear. I’ll catch a glimpse of them; they’ll catch a glimpse of me. Our eyes will meet, then part in embarrassment or confusion, as if we were mutually trespassing on a semi-sacred shrine. The reason for this is there are no shops, except for a small department store, a KFC and a small theme park in the ‘town square’.
So a shopping mall without shops! What is left? Well lots of space, and wandering lost souls with money, and yet nothing to buy. What an empty experience this must be for a consumer; money to spend, but nowhere to spend it. Bar the furnishings and highway accessories of America’s car culture, the South China Mall has to be the grossest misallocation of resources and investment I have ever seen. Walking to the mall from the neighboring bus station the visitor is greeted with billboard after billboard advertising what the creators of the complex imagined the place to look like and function as, branded as the ‘new lifestyle city’, a playground for a new Chinese elite that simply do not exist in a city of poor factory workers.
Despite it’s trite and shameless recreation of European architecture, the Mall is strangely alluring. Everything here is adorned with gaudy ornamentation, like a temple. The South China Mall is a gaudy ornament on a garish object shining green and blue in space.
Within a year people will be able to buy property within the gates of the mall.
A privatized city. The first in history. Run by one corporation. Owned by one man, who can decide who he wants in his city, and who he doesn’t want. Maybe this is a glimpse of the future. The autonomous corporate model is taken one step further to inhabit every corner of an individual’s life. It has been suggested that when global warming causes the sea levels to rise, the rich will be able to escape the drowning world by buying a place on one of the proposed floating ‘corporate’ cities. Now most of these designs for ‘cruising cities’ have been designed by American men with a libertarian streak, that desire to built floating cities like the Freedom Ship and New Utopia that are free from taxes and government intervention, and have in no way expressed concern for the poor who will be affected by global warming most. They view Global Warming as inevitable, as consumption is their lifestyle. Even when the world is drowning they want their way of life to prevail in a place without the annoyance of poverty or disease.
I can imagine the mall becoming a zoo or a hang out spot for evangelicals, or both. An evangelical zoo, in which the exhibits are hopeless, white, fat, middle aged blokes in cages, preaching about the return of Jesus and the evils of MTV. Clans of Chinese tourists munching on hotdogs while pointing; ‘Interesting creatures aren’t they!’.
The South China Mall represents a real anti-Mecca for China, a place that pins up the falsehoods and half-truths of the European ideal that China so desperately wants. Dongguan and its neighboring cities produce commodities for the Western world. A Western world that is represented here at the Mall. A Mall that is essentially a theme park of shopping, rendering the West as a sanitized, airbrushed, privatized shopping mall in itself.