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    The Mall at the Center of the Universe

    The Wanjiali International Mall wants to be everything to everyone. Can it succeed?
    Aug 21, 2023#urban China

    The first thing visitors to Changsha’s Wanjiali International Mall tend to notice is its size. The 28-story complex, which comprises both a mall and a hotel, claims to have 199 elevators spread across a surface area of 426,000 square meters, greater than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

    The second thing most people remark on is how out of place it seems. A giant box-like structure, the mall looms over its surroundings — a neat, if not particularly attractive metaphor for the outsize ambitions of its builder, Changsha-born entrepreneur Huang Zhiming.

    The presence of such a mammoth building, not in Beijing or Shanghai, but in a provincial capital in central China best known for its reality TV industry, proved a magnet for criticism in a country all-too-familiar with vanity construction projects. Some disapproved of its gargantuan proportions and tacky, traditional culture-themed decor, while others saw it as a metaphor for the country’s financial disparities. As for Huang, he’s called it “a fantasy land for successful men from central China.”

    Given the hype, I was slightly disappointed to find that the layout of the ground floor is much like that of any other mall in China. It was only after visiting Huang’s “Cultural Panorama” on the 11th floor that I began to understand what he was talking about. Consisting of a waxwork museum, statues of Chinese emperors, local cultural exhibitions, and a gallery filled with decorative murals, Huang told me that he’d conceived of the space so that, “In addition to providing consumers with material enjoyment, the mall would contribute to their cultivation as well as the teaching of traditional culture.”

    The mall’s rooftop builds on this muddled theme with helipads surrounded by massive golden statues of religious figures, including Pangu, the creator of the universe; Nüwa, a goddess who patched the sky and created people; the Buddha; the Moon Goddess Chang’e; and the medieval monks who traveled West to obtain Buddhist scriptures from India.

    In truth, the “traditional culture” Huang mentioned is more an amalgamation of his own interests and beliefs than a coherent set of ideas. Its one unifying principle seems to be Huang’s own greatness — not for nothing did he reportedly include himself in the mall’s murals of great people from China’s past and present. Fusing his personal success, historical mythology, and contemporary Chinese development into a single narrative, he claims the mall is built on the exact place where Pangu separated earth from sky, and, therefore, where sacred celestial and terrestrial energies converge.

    This ostentatious aesthetic and unapologetic merger of materialism and spirituality is common among Chinese entrepreneurs of Huang’s generation. Born in 1962, Huang was the sixth of seven children. Growing up, he helped support his family by selling bunches of green onions for less than a penny apiece. After graduating from high school, he briefly had a job at a state-owned print factory before “diving into the sea” of private entrepreneurship in the early reform years.

    After a few false starts, Huang began his ascent selling animal feed, grain, cooking oil, and drinking water. But it was real estate that made his fortune. In 1995, in the process of building a new headquarters for his company, Huang realized the massive potential of China’s then-nascent real estate industry. Selling land had become a major source of revenue for local administrations, and the country’s urbanization seemed to promise an unending stream of customers for building materials and furniture. In 2002, Huang built the 20,000-square-meter Wanjiali Furnitures Materials Plaza in Changsha. He quickly expanded the business with new locations and eventually the Wanjiali International Mall, one of the biggest standalone malls in Asia.

    As the mall’s fame spread from Changsha to the rest of the country, it became a symbol of the real estate sector’s excess. On social media, users mocked its expensive decorations and startling dimensions, while members of the architectural community denounced the building’s extreme tackiness. “It’s just a bigger version of when some hick businessman opens a bathhouse on the city limits and imposes his bad taste on the rest of the population,” an architect acquaintance of mine told me.

    The critics have a point. Statues of the Buddha stand opposite equally gaudy copies of famous works like the Venus de Milo. The sheer size of the building and its opulent gold adornments weigh down on visitors. But many of the criticisms of the mall were aimed not at the building itself, but at what it represented. Wanjiali was born from the idolization of power and money, and it would not have existed were it not for the rapid development of the real estate market from the 1990s to the 2010s. That development, in addition to facilitating urbanization, also created financial risks and deepened the divide between rich and poor. 

    The recent struggles of China’s real estate industry have humbled some of its larger-than-life figures, but Huang has remained steadfast. After the influential vloggers Shi Xiangpu — better known as Schlieffen — and Liao Xinzhong posted comments critical of his mall, Huang invited them to meet with him in Changsha. He even adopted Schlieffen’s sardonic commentary on Wanjiali as “the center of the universe” as an unofficial motto of sorts: plastering it on a rooftop sign and changing his social media handle to “Spokesperson for the Center of the Universe.” After I wrote about the mall in 2019, Huang reached out personally to explain his vision. At a time when entrepreneurs are treading softly, Huang’s talkativeness reveals a rare degree of self-confidence.

    And in fairness, Wanjiali is not as out of place in Changsha as it might seem at first. In central China, there’s still a big market for Huang’s pastiche of religion, mythology, and commerce. The nearby countryside is dotted with flashy faux-classical dwellings all vying for attention. As the growth of the economy slows down and faith in social mobility dwindles, more and more ordinary people have grown weary of the kind of refined yet unwelcoming buildings found in the country’s most developed cities. Wanjiali’s landing pad and gilt statues offer an accessible fantasy of opulence and material success.

    Wanjiali’s massive structure isn’t purely for private businesses and consumerism, either. Huang has turned it into a public space for people not typically welcomed by high-end malls, including the country’s much-maligned square dancers. And in addition to the rarely used helipads, the roof is also home to exercise equipment like that found in public parks across China.

    A Beijing-based architect I know once likened Wanjiali to a hot pot — not necessarily haute cuisine, but lively, and there’s always something for everybody. It’s still difficult for me to think of Wanjiali’s aesthetic as anything other than vulgar, but I’ve learned to appreciate the modern myth-making it encapsulates. If Huang’s vision was of a single building where every visitor could find something they idolize, it’s fair to say he succeeded: Wanjiali is a commercial Mecca, blending Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, folk beliefs, money worship, and ambition. Love it or hate it, it’s left a mark.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Cai Yineng.

    (Header image: A view of the Wanjiali International Mall in Changsha, Hunan province, 2020. Courtesy of You Xudong)