Mid last year i spent 3 months in Beijing on an Asialink Writer’s Residency. One of the major outcomes was this essay about China’s expectations of exponential growth and what it might mean for Australia.
Nestled between the third and fourth ring roads in the unfashionable west of Beijing, the Golden Resources Shopping Mall is part monument and part reality check to the growing emergence of China as an economic superpower. At about a thousand vendors and half a million square metres, ‘The Great Mall of China’ was the largest mall in the world until China built an even bigger one further south in Guangzhou. Yet even by the incessant scale of Beijing, Golden Resources seems plenty big enough.
You wouldn’t call it suburban—Beijing is an eternal and seemingly endless city—but out here is a long way from where most Westerners go. It’s a different world to the Singaporesque new centre of Chaoyang where most expats reside; the charmingly rebuilt hutongs in the city centre that are a magnet for expat hipsters; the once-gleaming, now dust-drenched Olympic venues; the knowing irony of the 798 contemporary art district; or the ancient palaces and modern monuments to Mao around the Forbidden City where large numbers of local and international tourists flock.
Out here even the nearest underground station is a few kilometres away. If you walk here through the miasma of the Beijing summer, the air leaves a gentle tingling (or is it burning?) sensation with each breath. As the massive building emerges from the smog it evokes a mass of references, such as the steroid-fed bastard child of Melbourne’s Chadstone, the Big Pineapple and the design aesthetic of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. I had seen it described as art deco, but if that’s occasionally evident in the details it’s lost beneath layers of kitsch, dust and aggressive consumerism. It’s only seven years old but nothing new ages well here. Beijing is at its best with the recent and the ancient. From inside you can’t tell whether the opaque corrugated fibreglass roof is intentionally frosted or was once transparent before the constant sandblasting by the dust storms.
In a country of monumental communo-capitalist mega projects, Golden Resources has become conspicuous—in the West at least—as an early and particularly epic failure. Wikipedia suggests as few as twenty to thirty people per hour actually visit here. On this particular Tuesday it seems slightly more active than that but it is easy to imagine that many of the stores could go through a full day without paying customers. The cleaners, the shop assistants, the information desk attendants, the three staff watching over a children’s play area with no children playing in it, or the hosts of the game show with elaborate staging and dozen participants but almost no audience easily outnumber the shoppers.
Inside it is bewildering and overwhelming. It is large and at once strangely familiar and uniquely Chinese. ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ plays on the muzak. The constant assault of pseudo Western brands and generic international retail design makes it impossible to distinguish between the Chinese labels, the knock offs and the real ones. Do Jeep sell children’s clothes back home? Trendiano? TR/BECA? Plory? Are these real brand names or has someone just gone crazy with a map and a faulty version of Google Translate? Louis Tocool? I-baby? Everywhere cartoon characters sell unrelated products. There is a Snoopy shop here, while Garfield has a clothes store and a bakery. Disney logos are slapped on an impossible range of goods and services from furniture to English lessons. In a country notorious for rampant piracy it’s hard to tell whether it’s a brand consultant’s horizontal integration fantasy or an IP lawyer’s nightmare. In the West, shopping centre placement is a carefully considered pseudo-science of demographics, transportation and assessment of competition. By contrast, the rationale behind building this mall here is difficult to discern—it seems too big and in the wrong spot. Yet somehow, despite early predictions of its imminent demise, Golden Resources has remained open for the best part of a decade. It is mostly tenanted. At first it’s difficult to understand how.
Wikipedia suggests that several of the foreign brands are subsidising their presence here as a loss leader to break into the Chinese market. Perhaps once that was true, but it seems unlikely now given the abundance of faux Western brands and the many genuine new flagship offerings and designer stores appearing downtown. Is it simply that the costs of labour and materials are so low that the overheads are affordable here? Is it hubris that won’t let the world’s biggest mall fail? Is it a capitalist creation or a folly of the state? Is Golden Resources a socialised loss in a sea of private profit, or is it a capitalist liability? As country after country is forced to confront bad loans and poor risk assessment, we might well ask: who’s left holding the mortgage to an underutilised, oversized shopping complex? After three months in China, my lingering fear is that the whole Chinese miracle looks better on paper than it does in the Beijing summer dust.
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