It is said that China houses two-thirds of the world’s construction cranes. It’s not hard to see this, even when living in a medium-tier city like Huizhou. Everywhere you look, the towering yellow steel overhangs bamboo-scaffold high-rise apartments, stylish office buildings, and designer brand shopping malls. The development here is staggering and overwhelming; so much that you can’t help but wonder where all the money and resources come from.
But one thing that baffles me is when these buildings are finished, what clientage will buy and keep these projects from becoming white elephants? The biggest and eeriest example is the New South China Mall in Dongguan, a city of 10 million in Guangdong province, which opened in 2005. It’s the largest mall in the world at two times the size of Minnesota’s Mall of America, complete with 659,612 square-meters of space, a 25 m replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a 2.1 km canal with gondolas, a replica of Venice’s St. Mark’s Bell Tower, and a 553 m indoor/outdoor roller coaster. As grand and impressive as it is, 99% of its leaseable space remains unoccupied, save for only the entrance that has a few western fast-food joints and the massive parking garage, which, for lack of customer vehicles, has now been turned into a go-kart track.
Here in Huizhou there are at least five new 5-star hotels being built at the moment, yet the original and first 5-star, The Kande International, on average only has about a 35% occupancy rate. Walk through the big double doors and it’s fully staffed; hoards of employees dressed to hilt in formal attire poised and ready for customers. They seem to be bored and just going through the motions as if their only job was just to look the part. When a customer walks in they jump at the chance to deliver their service, seemingly overjoyed that something is actually happening.
Another example is a 9-story shopping plaza, Rainbow, located in the heart of downtown Huizhou. It houses all the expensive (real) designer brands such as Nike, Levis, Gucci, etc… among others. It’s strange walking through the shops because even though they, like the Kande, are fully (even overly) staffed, you’d be lucky to spot a customer actually buying something, let alone even browsing. They’re more like commercial museums or simulations of capitalism, where anyone can have a gander and only dream that one day they could actually purchase even the cheapest thing available.
I went there a couple of days ago with my girlfriend just to kill some time. We strolled through each floor and sometimes something would catch my eye and I would step in and take a look. Everytime I was immediately surrounded by at least a couple of the store’s employees practically breathing down my neck and following me around asking what I’m looking for or if I’d like to try it on. Like the Kande, they seem starved to try out their customer service skills. Even with my monthly income, which is considered upper-class here, I know I would be a fool to actually buy an item (especially when I can find a near-perfect copy for a fraction of the cost).
We were hungry so we went up to the food court on the 9th floor for dinner. When we reached the top of the escalator and entered, most of the tables were full. I thought, “Oh, so this is where everybody’s at.” But on a closer look, I was wrong. At every table sat groups of uniformed employees eating their Tupperware dinners they brought from home. Out of the four spaces for restaurants, only two of them were in service and yet no one was eating their food. The cooks and staff stood waiting at each window like a stiff toll-booth employee, only the traffic here had never come. We walked over to a Korean restaurant on the far end of the dining area. All ten long tables were completely empty except for one, where two waitresses were sitting and stitching away on an embroidery quilt. The three cooks gathered around a computer watching one of them play a shooting game. As we walked in, they immediately stood to attention, smiled and welcomed us to their empty establishment.
At this point, I was laughing in disbelief. What the hell is going on here? I felt like I was in a surreal post-apocolyptic dream where the whole world had been destroyed and for some reason, this mall had been spared and its inhabitants oblivious to the catastrophe around them. I slowly ate my kimchi and soup while staring out the window at all the yellow cranes in the distance jutting up through the skyline.
I had goosebumps as I looked at my girlfriend and half-jokingly, half-terrfyingly said, “This is the future.”