On a recent research trip to China, I wandered through the Oasis Mall in suburban Shanghai. Like many Chinese shopping centers, this complex was filled with empty stores that reflected the end of China’s 30-year-long economic expansion. But there also were surprises.
Along a stretch of the mall’s interior walkway, a cluster of parents and grandparents sat on chairs. They were looking through a plate glass window, watching a dozen 5- to 7-year-old girls practice ballet steps. A space initially designed for retail had been turned into a dance studio.
From 1990 through 2020, large, shiny shopping malls embodied China’s spectacular economic growth. They sprouted in cities large and small to meet consumer demand from an emerging middle class that was keen to express its newfound affluence. These centers look familiar to American eyes, which isn’t surprising: U.S. architectural firms built 170 malls in China during this period.
Like their U.S. counterparts, many Chinese malls have fallen on hard times. But many Chinese malls are being reimagined by owners and users as palaces of experience — civic areas for communities to meet and interact, with new configurations of space.
As a longtime urban policy scholar, I was fascinated by the new uses. These experiments could become models for new uses of retail space in the United States, where the mall was invented.
Over the past 30 years, China’s malls have faced economic booms and slumps. For example, the New South China Mall in Dongguan — which is twice the size of Minnesota’s Mall of America, its largest U.S. counterpart — opened in 2005. But most of its 2,300 storefronts remained closed for over a decade as China fought off recession after the 2008 world financial crisis.
China weathered that downturn through aggressive economic stimulus policies, and within a decade it replaced the United States as the world’s top driver of economic growth. This expansion buoyed its retail sector, including shopping centers. By 2018, a renovated and modernized New South China Mall was near full occupancy.
Then COVID-19 struck in 2020. That and other forces have acted as drags on the economy, and online shopping is drawing consumers away from stores.
As a result, in China, as in the United States, what scholars once described as the “magic of the mall” has become an “allure of ruins.”
But the Chinese are making creative use of excess mall space. New users are filling nonretail areas, such as indoor walkways and atriums that now house café tables. Others have become children’s play spaces filled with giant inflatable figures. The Raffles City Mall in Shenzen has a rooftop pet playground, a stage, an art display area and a sun-shaded lawn.
During my trip to China, I saw small-scale entrepreneurs selling produce, street food and crafts in mall parking lots and around public entrances. The distinction between public and private spaces is being reconfigured as vendors set up stalls in areas that once were open space. Empty store spaces are also being repurposed. Some have been converted into electric vehicle showrooms, art museums and children’s play centers with dance studios, paddling pools, small skating rinks, gyms and yoga centers. Others have been redesigned as sites for art or cooking classes, or for electronic gaming and virtual reality experiences. The Dream Time Mall in Wuhan contains an indoor snow center that offers ski lessons, ice mazes and tubing. I see these experiments as a shift in the meaning of the mall. What began as a cathedral of retail consumerism is becoming a place where people can connect and enjoy collective experiences not available online.
Some U.S. malls are moving in this direction, but China is doing it on a much larger scale. Just as former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once asserted that his government was pursuing its own version of socialism, with “Chinese characteristics,” the U.S.-designed mall is being rewritten with Chinese characters.
John Rennie Short is professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He researched and reported this column for The Conversation, a nonprofit news service. Read the professor’s original and complete article on this subject here.