EMPTINESS ALL AROUND AT THE WORLD'S LARGEST MALL

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The world’s largest mall has Venetian canals, a Teletubbies amusement park and 892.000 square meters of space. What it has not: shoppers. Or shops.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis

in Dongguan, China (2010)

Shen Zhuo (47) is cleaning like there’s no tomorrow. She doesn’t miss a single pole of the fence on mall’s the third floor.

“If people come here, it has to look perfectly clean,” says Shen.

If.

 

A big if. For now, Shen is surrounded by empty spaces. The escalator going up to the third floor isn’t working. Neither is any of the others in the mall. All the stores on the third are empty. Same thing on the second floor. And the first. But Shen keeps cleaning. “Because over the weekend, there is always a some visitors coming here.”

This is the New South China Mall, the largest shopping center in the world. It measures 892,000 square meters. That’s over 2.5 times the size of Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow Airport.

The mall was build on farmland at a cost estimated around USD 1.3 billion. It opened in 2005 in Dongguan, a city just north of Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

Dongguan is home to ten million people, none of whom seem to find their way to the mall.

Covered up escalators at the New South China Mall in Dongguan, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

Before its opening, the plan was for 70 thousand daily visitors. Reality is only a handful of people roam around the gigantic complex.

The plan accounted for two thousand stores. Reality is there’s only twenty and some change. All the other units are empty shells with bare, concrete walls and loose hanging wires. The glass doors don’t even have locks: why bother?

A cleaner at work in the empty New South China Mall in Dongguan, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

One of the few shops that’s open is towel store Heivron. Ma Lin (24) works behind the counter. She is still unsure why her employer decided to open a branch at this mall. “We’ve been open for two months now. Only on public holidays and in the weekends there’s a few people around. That’s it.”

Just outside of the store runs the 2.1 kilometers long canal, on which visitors can float in a Venetian gondola. The buildings flanking the canal are copies of world famous monuments.

Venetian canal flanked by historic Amsterdam canal houses in the empty New South China Mall in Dongguan, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

There’s a stretch that mirrors the famous canal houses of Amsterdam, right next to a real life copy of St. Mark’s tower of Venice. The palace of an Egyptian pharaoh is neighboring the Arc de Triomphe of Paris.

It’s all futile. The grandest copies haven’t attracted business or people to the New South China Mall.

On the fourth floor of one of the mall’s wings, things are starting to get absurd, quite frankly. This is the location of the very first officially licensed Teletubbies Amusement Park on the planet.

It’s complete with nerve wrecking, repeating Teletubbies music and the brightest colors in the universe. Staff is dressed up and ready to go.

The only thing lacking: even a single interested person.

Entrance to the world’s first Teletubbies amusement park in the empty New South China Mall in Dongguan, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

The New South China Mall is the brainchild of local businessman and billionaire Hu Guirong. He thought if he would build a mall just grandiose enough, people would come.

There’s no denying the grandiosity of the mall. But people aren’t interested in doing the long drag from the city’s residential areas, just to ride a rollercoaster in an empty shopping centre. (Yes, of course there’s a roller coaster.)

Two years after the mall’s opening, Hu disappeared. The government took ownership, but even the civil servants haven’t figured out how to draw people to the mall.

Huang Jincheng, the man currently in charge, remains optimistic. He compares the mall to an airplane that’s gearing up on the runway, ready to take off. He’s convinced the mall will ‘soar to great heights’ in two years time.

Over the past five years, China has built around five hundred new shopping centers. They all want to seduce the fast growing middle class to come and spend. Many malls are doing alright.

It makes the failure of the extravagant New South China Mall all the more painful. Guards roam the halls with nothing to guard. Cleaners clean, although there’s no one spreading dirt around. The mall’s haunted mansion is fully operational, but there’s no one around for the eerily crying wolfs to scare.

Construction worker at the New South China Mall in Dongguan, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

‘Magical!’ reads one of the yellowed banners in one of the many empty passages. ‘Flourishing!’ reads another. They couldn’t be further from the truth.

There’s only one banner in the entire mall that reflects reality. It hangs all the way down the glass tube of an elevator. In big, black characters it reads: ‘For Lease’.

There’s no one around to see it.