How the World’s Biggest Mall Became a Chinese ‘Ghost Town’

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Michael Lassman / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Children sit near a water display at New South China Mall, in Dongguan, China, on April 11, 2007

Dongguan, China, is a factory town with an estimated population of 10 million, many of whom are migrant workers from other parts of the country. But even a community that large, it seems, is unable to support a 5 million-sq.-ft. shopping center.

More than twice the size of the U.S.’s Mall of America, New South China Mall in Guangdong province is easily recognized as the world’s largest mall. Opened in 2005, the behemoth property was expected to attract an upwards of 100,000 visitors a day, CNN reports, and it has space for 2,350 tenants. It boasts an indoor amusement park with a roller coaster, an IMAX theater and a Teletubbies Edutainment Center for children. Initially called the South China New Mall, the property was relaunched in 2007 as the New South China Mall, Living City, in hopes of attracting customers.

Unfortunately, the mall is anything but living: eight years after it first opened, most of its storefronts remain unoccupied, a desolate monument to Chinese real estate ambitions and the stimulus credit boom that followed the financial crisis. It also sits on the outskirts of town, making it difficult to access, according to the BBC.

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Victor Teo, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, told CNN that the mall project is indicative of a greater trend in China. “To me, many of these projects are a result of easy access to capital and a combination of wishful thinking and speculative behavior rather than rational business decisions,” he said.

As Teo notes, ghost towns are increasingly common in China. Some speculate the nation’s housing bubble has been on the brink of bursting for years. As the BBC reports, unfinished development projects like amusement parks, apartment complexes and even entire cities are stalled throughout the country. Take, for example, the city of Chenggong, created in Yunnan province to alleviate a housing shortage in the nearby provincial capital of Kunming. Italian journalist Matteo Damiani photographed the abandoned area and described a vacant city center and an entirely empty luxury villa complex. The failure to attract more residents has landed this area the reputation as one of the largest ghost cities in Asia.

Meanwhile, back in Dongguan, mall officials are taking another stab at reviving the mammoth shopping center. Ye Jining, the head of New South China Mall’s investment unit, told CNN that the mall has a 20% occupancy rate, though he declined to comment when challenged on the statistic. He also said they aimed to increase occupancy to 80% by the end of 2013 — a big challenge for the world’s biggest ghost mall.

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