playgrounds for consumption

In 2009, Sam Green and Carrie Lozano made the short documentary Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall about the South China Mall in Wanjiang, Dongguan. On November 1 and 2, 2013, I visited said mall. This post serves as a partial update. It also a brief response to the ideas of “too big to fail” and “acceptable capitalism” that haunt so many apologies for contemporary neoliberalism. 

So what did I see?

Half the mall has been closed down and the other half occupied by the amusement park, small shops, restaurants, hotels, and a nightclub. During the day, students and families milled about the large plaza area, but I only noticed young couples and friends taking rides. Indeed, there were so few people taking rides, it was possible to have a private ride as soon as one arrived at the entrance to the ride. At night, many more people arrived to eat dinner at the chain restaurants that lined a section of the mall. Over all, I had the sense of absent or negligent management; doors to the roof were left open, it was possible to slip into abandoned rooms, and construction sites were accessible, inspiring my neon romance.

In the debris and scattered offerings, as well as architectural mishmash it was still possible to discern traces of Dongguan’s notorious past as the capital of China’s sex industry in the aftermath of last year’s through crackdown. The predilection for ornately generic (but expensive) hotels and Egyptian themed facades had me thinking about how the sex industry depends upon exoticism and fantasy, and the neon nightclubs promoted sexualized fun and games. According to some of the shop owners who had been there for at least four or five years, New South China Mall had thrived as a sex mall, with a range of services (including the amusement park rides, shops and restaurants) that benefitted from the numbers of men who frequented the mall. Part of the revamping has been shifting the target consumer audience from johns to children, after all, as one of my friend’s commented, “Children’s money is the easiest to earn.”

Of note, the Hake Company (哈克 is a subsidiary of Overseas Chinese Town Enterprises) had recently opened a My Rules World (麦鲁小城) in the mall. My Rules is a role playing amusement park for young children, who dress up in uniforms and play at being bakers, firefighters, and journalists to name a few roles available. My Rules also collaborates with the Chinese postal service and police force to offer children official uniforms and authentic experiences. Each session runs for approximately half an hour and entails completing a task — making sushi, delivering money to and from a bank, or treating a patient, for example. In contrast to the rest of the New South China Mall, access to different areas within My Rules World was strictly regulated. Indeed, parents and guardians were not even allowed I to the stations, but had to watch from outside.

The layout of My Rules replicated an idealized small town street, with benches, lamps and open windows. In addition to its small scale, My Rules also created a sense of social completeness through its selection of jobs and pay schedule. All jobs involved learning a skill and participation in any activity earned the young role-player the same wage as would any other activity, including making sushi and being a dentist. Ironically,most of the parents paying for their children to experience working class jobs hope for “better” prospects for their offspring than blue-collar work or service. However, in the context on My Rules choice and interest is primary.  (That said, pushing papers around a desk would no doubt bore the children as much as it bores current clerics and not actually entice young consumers to spend their time and money playing bank teller or receptionist. )

So, a fundamental contradiction beats at the heart of My Rules; small town equality where everyone participates in small business and the price of an entry ticket, which can only be purchased by folks who earn upper managent saleries at companies like state-owned Hake, OCT Enterprises.

Today, I am wondering what it means for us as a global society, when it’s all too easy to shift from selling sexual to childhood fantasies. At New South China, the question is merely one of marketing and mobilizing resources to stimulate and naturalize childhood consumption rather than sexual consumption — rebranding but not reforming, if you will. Moreover, the New South China Mall renovation demonstrates how deeply the neoliberal assumption that human beings are exclusively defined through economic relations and motivations shapes everyday lives. In this sense, it is not unexpected that the My Rules rest area looks like a night club. And yet. My Rules World works as entertainment precisely because it eschews these economic relations and motivations in favor of economic equality and fun, helpful jobs on Main Street.

Impressions of My Rules World, below.

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