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The biggest mall in the world is empty: the South China Mall

Petar Djajkovski

Although New South China Mall is the biggest mall in the world, it stands almost entirely vacant. It is the shopping center with the largest gross leasable area and comes second regarding the total area.

The leader in this category is the Dubai Mall, which has a zoo, hotel, and theme park. South China Mall opened in 2005 and since then has stood largely vacant, with only a handful of merchants and shops ever leasing a store or two. A few years after the opening day it was quite clear to the investors that they had built a dead mall.

 

The New South China Mall official logo.

The New South China Mall official logo.

However, South China Mall was also built as a theme park in a way. On an area of 892,000 square meters (9,600,000 sq ft) there is 660,000 square meters (7,100,000 sq ft) of leasable space, which could accommodate over 2,300 stores. It was built on former farmlands in the Wanjiang District in the city of Dongguan. Dongguan is located in the southern coastal region of China and is a very important industrial port city and part of the Pearl River Delta megacity, which has more than 44.78 million inhabitants spread over nine different municipalities across an area of 17,573 square kilometers (6,785 sq mi), as of the 2010 census.

SPAR Hypermarket at New South China Mall – Author: David290 – Public Domain

SPAR Hypermarket at New South China Mall – Author: David290 – Public Domain

The South China Super Mall project was started and led by Hu Guirong (Alex Hu), a billionaire who made his money in the instant noodle industry. Officially, South China Mall was owned by Dongguan Sanyuan Yinghui Investment & Development, a company that belongs to Hu Guirong. However, later control of the interest in the mall was sold to the Founder Group, a division of Peking University.

One of 2000+ empty retail spaces in New South China Mall, January 2009 – Author: Swoolverton – CC BY 3.0

One of 2000+ empty retail spaces in New South China Mall, January 2009 – Author: Swoolverton – CC BY 3.0

From the start, just a couple of months after it opened, the mall suffered severely from a lack of occupants. The main reason was its location. Malls’ targets are affluent areas and communities with surplus income, which is not the case with Dongguan.

Although the city is large, the majority of its residents are poorly paid migrant laborers. This is not the ideal demographic for any big shopping mall, least of all the biggest in the world.

New South China Mall, Dongguan – Author: macchi – CC by 2.0

New South China Mall, Dongguan – Author: macchi – CC by 2.0

Most of the mall remained empty in the years to follow with less than one percent of the retail place being leased by 2008. The only areas that were occupied were those near the entrance, and the only tenants were several Western food chains. The parking space was re-structured and is now used as a kart racing track. By 2009 it became very clear that the final stages of the mall’s construction made no sense, so the planned Shangri-La Hotel project was never started.

Empty walkways in the mall, February 2010 – Author: Milowent – Public Domain

Empty walkways in the mall, February 2010 – Author: Milowent – Public Domain

Inside the mall there are seven different zones all designed uniquely to feature an original theme. The themes come from all around the world: Paris, Venice, Rome, Amsterdam, Egypt, California and the Caribbean Islands. The Venice-themed “zone” features 2.1 kilometers (1.3 miles) of canal networks with gondolas and a replica of Venice’s St. Mark’s bell tower.

New South China Mall, Dongguan – Author: macchi – CC by 2.0

New South China Mall, Dongguan – Author: macchi – CC by 2.0

The Paris-themed part of the mall includes a 25-meter-high (82 feet high) replica of the Arc de Triomphe and streets with cobblestone. Egypt features several scale replica pyramids and a replica of the Great Sphinx of Giza. The islands of the Caribbean contain massive pools of water with sandy beaches and wooden pirate ships.

New South China Mall, Dongguan – Author: macchi – CC by 2.0

New South China Mall, Dongguan – Author: macchi – CC by 2.0

In 2015, a report from CNN said that the mall had begun to attract more shops as permanent tenants. Extensive renovations and remodeling were underway to change things up and make the mall more attractive to both tenants and visitors.

New South China Mall looking over the Caribbean theme park – Author: macchi – CC by 2.0

New South China Mall looking over the Caribbean theme park – Author: macchi – CC by 2.0

However, the report found that large portions of it still remain vacant. A short film about the South China Mall called “Utopia Part 3: the World’s Largest Shopping Mall” was shot by filmmaker Sam GreenIt was shown first at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and later broadcast in a documentary series called POV on PBS’s network.