Another Day, Another Mall

December 27, 2015

I don’t want anyone to come away from my blog thinking all I do in China is walk around malls and sit in Starbucks drinking coffee, but if I didn’t spend any time doing this, I’d be missing out on a big part of what’s making modern China tick.  These luxury malls and the shoppers who frequent stores purveying these premium brands (yes, Starbucks is a premium brand here when the average drink costs RMB30 or a bit less than US$5) are the future of this country, especially when the leadership is hellbent on reorienting the economy away from manufacturing and infrastructure investment towards domestic consumption.  It’s places like the IFS and today’s mall, Taikoo Li (太古里), that represent the way going forward if China is to ever make that transition.

So yes, I am sitting here at a Starbucks in Taikoo Li, which was built by the Hong Kong developer, Swire Properties.  A good friend of mine in Hong Kong who lives in Taikoo Shing, a family-oriented neighborhood on Hong Kong Island, told me that anything with the Swire name is going to be a quality property and this mall is no exception.  Built around an ancient temple, Daci Temple,  where you can still partake in a traditional tea ceremony, Daci Temple (大慈寺), Taikoo Li is filled with your usual luxury shops including Gucci, Burberry, Max Mara, and Cartier, as well as the Chengdu flagship stores for Apple (which with its two stores in Chengdu has more here than in Shenzhen) and Muji and the first stores in China for brands like Victoria’s Secret and Hollister.  It’s quite the complex laid out as if it was a warren of traditional Chengdu alleys, similar to Xintiandi in Shanghai or even Sanlitun in Beijing, which is another Swire property.  And the place is hopping with people eating, drinking, taking pictures, and even doing some shopping.

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One of the main squares in Taikoo Li

The Christmas decorations are still out in full force and effect, but so are the after Christmas sales with some stores offering discounts up to 40 or 50% off.

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Entrance to Taikoo Li as coming from Chunxi Lu (春熙路) Metro stop

I blogged recently about the “real” China and malls like this one are the new “real” China.  What’s neat about Chengdu is that you can walk from your hotel to the Metro station in Tianfu Square and pass by little hole-in-the-wall or “fly” restaurants (苍蝇馆), wet markets, and people playing mahjong in the streets, so not all of the old “real” China is lost.  It’s perhaps this blending of old and new that Chengdu seems to still do so well, whereas a city like Shenzhen which did not exist 40 years ago is all new and will continue to be that way going forward.  I don’t know if Chengdu will be able to survive the onslaught of modernization and the power of the new “real” China, but at the moment it seems to have found some sort of equilibrium, however tenuous.

Having now been here for a few days, I still really like the city.  It’s hard for me to put my finger on it exactly, but this trip is my first time to the interior of China.  When you think of Chengdu, and Sichuan province in general, it’s the last extremely developed area of the country before heading off into the wilds of western Sichuan and Tibet.  Chengdu feels less like a frontier city and more like an experiment in modernizing the interior.  It’s no secret that the government has spent considerable time and money spreading growth from the eastern coast to the interior and Chengdu is something of a showcase city, much like Shenzhen was when it became China’s first Special Economic Zone.  Chengdu has not received so formal a designation, but walking around the city and taking it all in, it’s hard not to feel that there is something special about this place and it’s not just all the panda advertising.

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Panda ad outside of my hotel

Nor is it all of the amazingly spicy food that I have been eating, which I will write about another time.  Perhaps it’s what China could be, though without the pollution that has rendered today a rather smoggy day (though nothing like Beijing) or the fact that signs are still posted on the street reminding people not to smoke on buses and in the subway reminding parents not to let their kids go to the bathroom on the train. Chengdu, like most of China, is moving quickly to catch up to the rest of the world in terms of development, but it feels a little more comfortable taking it’s time doing so and making sure it’s being done the “Chengdu way”.

Of course I wonder how many Gucci or Louis Vuitton stores a city really needs and who actually fills all of these new office towers going up, including the top floors of the Evergrande Huazhi Office Tower, which sit there all lit up and empty at night.

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The vacant and well-lit floors of the Evergrande Tower on the left

Those are questions for another day, but one that China unfortunately will have to reckon with as it continues working through it’s breakneck growth and reorientation to a consumption-driven economy.  These malls and buildings are part of the infrastructure and property investment that has driven growth in many cities around the country and if towers like Evergrande remain empty, one has to wonder what the means for future development and growth in these cities.

On that note, I leave you to get back to the hotel and get ready for a night of sampling Chengdu’s many street snacks.

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It’s Father’s Day back in the States and I already called to wish my dad a happy Father’s Day, but sadly I cannot be there with him to celebrate the day.  So I can do the second best thing and heed his wishes by posting some pictures of Linyi to give a sense of how sprawling this city is.

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Blue Sky in Linyi

That’s the view facing east from the bridge on Tongda Road (通达路) heading back from the gym last Friday.  The right side of the picture is the southern part of Linyi and heading in the direction of most of the commercial activity in the city.  The left side is north of the river and the new part of the city where the only real tenant is the city government and lots of new apartments.

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This view is facing west towards the university and where my hotel is.  As you can see, there are some cranes in the sky and lots of open space.  The university and bus station are the main anchors in this direction, but a lot of ground has been broken for new housing and in a few years there should also be some commercial development to support the population in this part of the city.  Right now though there is nothing to really talk to from the hotel except for the bus station across the street.

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This hole in the ground is on the north side of People’s Square (人民广成) and is part of a new shopping center that is called Osca.  I tried to make out the meaning of the name from the Chinese, but was unable to initially.  Right now there is not much in the way of development except for Linyi’s first Subway and a new Korean restaurant, but the mall is supposed to be the home of other foreign retailers from Hong Kong and further afield.  Of course there will also be a residential component to this development.  I guess this would be considered prime real estate in Linyi because People’s Square really is the center of town and on the weekends is filled with people. It’s also where you can find the city’s Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Watsons, the soon-to-be-coming Tesco, and maybe the city’s first Starbucks (this last one is still wishful thinking at this point).  I think of People’s Square as downtown because there are also lots of office towers in the area.

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And the Osca mystery is solved – the complex is named after the Oscars, the awards ceremony in the States.  A bit random, but no more random than a local residential development named Chianti Mansion, like the wine.  Though I did not know the Oscars were such a part of the local culture.  But the Chinese word is Aosika (奥斯卡), so it’s not that far off in its Romanized form.  One other thing that I have been thinking about lately are the artist’s renderings of all of the new construction taking place.  That image above is the completed version of the previous picture.  The artist’s renderings always look so opulent and full of life with grand visions of wealth, happiness, and prosperity.  I know these renderings are supposed to be somewhat aspirational, but the Chinese renderings are off the charts in their optimism for the future.  All of the housing developments look absolutely amazing, to the point where I am staring at the dirt field in front of me and wondering how the developers plan to go from nothing to the most amazing and buzzy mixed-use development complex ever.  I saw a lot of this on the bus ride to Qufu in towns much smaller than Linyi, including Feixian, Sishui, and Pingyi.

So those are some recent pictures of Linyi.  I wish I had taken a picture of dinner tonight while we’re on the subject of pictures.  Lu and I went for Sichuan hot pot (火锅) and it was amazing.  I have not had good hot pot since I left GZ many years ago.  This time we went to Little Swan instead of Little Sheep, our GZ go-to.  Little Swan (小天鹅) is a Chongqing-based chain.  Yes, Chongqing is the same city where Bo Xilai, the disgraced party official was mayor.  This meal was perfection – spicy broth cooking a variety of meat and vegetables. as well as noodles and rice cakes.  I don’t think a picture would have done it justice.  I came back to the hotel and looked up the name of the chain and of course Sequoia Capital, a U.S. private equity firm has taken a stake in the company.  I guess the good news is that perhaps it’s only a matter of time until we get one in New York.  There is already a Little Sheep (小肥羊) in Flushing, Queens, so why not a Little Swan somewhere in Manhattan?

On that note, I leave you all to gear up for week two of class.  Happy Father’s Day, dad.  Until next time . . .

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