The real estate bubble made an urban paradise into a ghost city – and Meixi Lake City does not stand alone
China wanted to create a grand urban paradise. An independent reporter and photographer from Tampere experienced the futuristic fantasy that turned into a barren bundle of buildings. Can it be called a city if no one calls it home?
You better not litter, you mustn’t make a sound. Electronic screens let you know how to behave in the subway. The carriages are indeed tidy and quiet.
It is evident from the scarcity of people sitting on the carriage that the subway is an unorthodox way of transport to the residents of central China. There is ample space compared to the beehives of Beijing.
The voice on the loudspeakers speaks English in addition to Mandarin Chinese. The locals do not.
The brand new subway line starts in Changsha, a metropolis approximately ten kilometres away. There are roughly seven million people living in Changsha, so in Chinese terms it is a small midsize provincial centre. I suspect very few people in Finland have ever heard of it.
According to Google Maps, there is a teeny river and a couple of roads on the other end of the subway line. The map lies.
Upon emerging from the subway the typical traffic nightmare and the suffocating blanket of smoke are nowhere to be seen. The absence of noise pollution feels absurd. Serene is not one of the common adjectives used to describe a buzzing urban centre.
There is a reservoir of nearly 100 acres of clear water surrounded by a forest of towers to greet you. The enormous city encompasses over 64 million square feet and the morning light glistens on the hundreds of sky scrapers and tower blocks.
The city is called Meixi Lake City. The sight of it makes a Northern boy’s jaw drop.
The gorgeous cluster of sky scrapers has appeared in the middle of nowhere. And with what speed. Only four years ago the same place was covered in acres of thicket, ponds and plantations of rice.
It all changed when the government decided to build a dam. That created the lake and the banks were filled with cranes and thousands of construction workers with their sleeves rolled up.
Plenty of money and political resolve. There is no shortage of either when the communist party says so. That makes China the champion of rapid construction.
The increase of middle class people and fast urbanisation in China demand new satellite cities. Otherwise the central metropolises providing millions of jobs are literally clogged with people, cars and office buildings.
There is a vast amount of unused space in the countryside, enough to build new cities. This has been noted and approximately ten new urban centres are built in China every year. Migration from the countryside to the metropolises is the fastest in the world.
The traffic light obstinately keeps flashing green even though there is no one to cross the street. The shiny new rubbish bins are emptied rarely as they hardly serve their purpose. There are some cars parked along the street that probably belong to the construction workers finishing the last touches of the project.
With each step along the neat sidewalk towards the centre of the city feels increasingly like a look into the future. Not only because of the futuristic architecture but also because the best times of this city are impending.
Someday there will be middleclass workers, students from wealthier families, business men, families with children and well-off pensioners living behind those numerous windows.
It is easy to picture the streets full of life: the people walking around, the scents, the cafes, shops and beaches. Elderly people playing mah-jong in the park as depicted in the project illustrations.
That time is not now, at least not yet. Overwhelming majority of the sky scraper windows lack curtains or any other signs of life. The streets and squares are in impeccable state yet disturbingly quiet because there is no one to fill them.
It feels eerie. Sort of like Hämeenkatu street at 5am on a summer morning or Särkänniemi amusement park on a freezing winter day.
There are no people here, but even less for them to do. The empty commercial spaces on the lowest floors of the buildings are bleak. There are cracks on some of the glass and parts of adhesive tape stick out signalling that they have been unoccupied for a while now.
There are plans to change this. Signs reading ‘Luis Vvitton’, ‘Starbacks coffee’, ‘Book store’, ‘Restaurant’, ‘Supermarket’ written in plain font advertise over the prospective shop windows. The dream of a Western lifestyle shines through the misspelled words. The Chinese dream, perhaps.
An old man pushing a trolley saunters past. The environment screams to serve as a backdrop for music videos.
Meixi Lake City was a planned as a jewel of China’s modern urban construction. With its vast park areas and wide bicycle lanes, Meixi Lane City was supposed to become a pleasant eco-city of the future, a utopian oasis compared to China’s other polluted metropolises. The most beautiful and the most functional.
Meixi has been named one of the largest urban construction planning experiments likely due to its size and execution style. Not slowly, brick by brick, but expanding up and out, everything rising as one grand structure from the ground. Most of it is complete, but a few hundred workers still loiter.
So, when are the people coming?
The buildings on the shores of the lake are planned to house a crowd equivalent to the whole population of Tampere. However, there is only enough people to equal about a third of Lempäälä’s population living there, scattered around the enormous space. The probabilities for neighbourhood disturbance are close to zero.
The fate of the city was sealed by the greedy Chinese investors. They could also be called clever businessmen. Nevertheless, the result was a real estate bubble.
Meixi is doomed a ghost town without ever having had a life to speak of.
Finding willing buyers is not the problem, rather it’s their excess. The demand for city housing has caused a disproportioned rise in housing prices all around China.
The investors are prepared to scavenge for properties at obscene prices because their value will more than likely keep on rising. The wheel keeps on spinning the prices, tightening the noose.
Those, who can actually afford the offensively prices standardised houses, will think twice about moving there. Why settle in a city without any services?
The services cannot come without customers.
This situation resembles that of a withering little village in Finland. Only the surrounding scenery is different.
Several busses pass with a handful of people inside. A construction worker hangs a display board on the commercial building window, maybe someday you can buy smartphones there.
There are loudspeakers hidden inside fake rocks and hung on the trees emitting soft elevator music and produced bird chirps round-the-clock.
The colourful Ferris wheel does not budge. Hundreds of city bikes, neatly lined up side by side but unridden and covered in dust. The appropriate sounds, like idle chatter, clicking heels and the traffic, are missing.
The vastness of personal space almost makes me homesick.
As crazy as it sounds, this sleepy concrete oasis is not unique. There are plenty of ghost cities in China.
China’s hundreds of city expansions and twin cities have all been constructed like Meixi. In a blink of an eye.
The most famous one is Kangbashi, a new area in the city of Ordos in Mongolia, which is known as the largest ghost city.
Years after the completion of the concrete maze, only two percent of its houses are inhabited and the grandiose public buildings echo with silence. Since then, there has been little growth.
Then there is Yujiapu, 200 kilometres from Beijing, which is a replica of Manhattan albeit larger and lacking the crowds.
Also nearby is a ghost city called Tianducheng, copying the empire style of Parisian architecture complete with their own Eiffel Tower.
The little London in Shangai is also uninhabited.
One can walk the sleepy streets of Meixi across the city without spotting any signs of life apart from a few fellow walkers. The locals act Finnish, avoiding eye contact with strangers.
An esplanade surrounding the reservoir is flanked by greenery. Along the way there are observation towers, clear streams and footbridges that smell of wood.
The sun is setting. There are people from Changsha having a picnic in the park next to the Meixi Lake reservoir or exploring the new city on bikes. Still, the total amount of people does not even match that in Sorsapuisto park on a warm summer evening.
People create the atmosphere. I wonder if they are more essential to the the city more than the buildings. Is it really those statues by the Hämeensilta bridge or is it the loud chatter in the smoking nook in the corner pub?
The subway howls as is starts pulling away from the station – as if from a city that does not exist.