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China's New Appeal

Tony Law Inside the South China Mall.

Photo: Tony Law

Even from afar one cannot help but admire the hills, draped as they are in luminous green. Their color is not derived from the foliage of a lush forest, which would be surprising enough in this heavily industrialized swath of southern Guangdong, China, but rather from a finely manicured lawn. A 538,000-square-foot clubhouse brushes up against an enormous lake, which reflects the weeping willows and pine trees that surround it. With its sprawling hotel complex, clusters of luxury residences, and the outlying islands of jade, this calm and flawlessly ordered place could easily be mistaken for some high-end gated community in Palm Springs.

But the Shenzhen development is not your garden-variety planned estate—however exclusive, minutely detailed, and hermetically self-enclosed it seems. If you made it through the gates and onto one of the countless buses that navigate the roads like an army of ants, you'd find yourself in the world's largest golf club, a celebrated place of pilgrimage for fanatics of the game from Asia and beyond. Welcome to Mission Hills.

China has been pumped up by a quarter-century of unprecedented economic growth, and we have come to expect its superlatives, starting with that most famous one of all: the population of 1.3 billion, 19 percent of whom are in the rapidly growing middle class. But beyond the gigantic cities, the huge trade surpluses, and the sticker-shock real estate prices, which rival New York City's, China is also becoming a land of leisure—and is doing so on a grand scale. In this early, anything-goes moment in the invention of down time (including travel, sports, and shopping), being first, best, and biggest is the indisputable business imperative.

In Mission Hills, a country that recently had no golf to speak of has built itself a veritable principality of golf courses—all of them created in the last 10 or so years and all (needless to say) world-class. "For the chairman, it is really important that we be number one in whatever we do," says Winky Wong, a Mission Hills spokesperson, who ticks off the club's supremacies, which begin with golf but include everything from Asia's largest tennis center to the biggest Swedish-built playground in Asia. The complex averages 1,500 rounds of golf on weekdays and 2,500 on weekends, which is more than anywhere else in the world, Wong says. Stretching over an area twice the size of Manhattan, Mission Hills has 10 18-hole courses, each one designed by a leading golfing figure, from Ernie Els to Vijay Singh. Luxury $2 million villas are strung along the fringes of the Jack Nicklaus course; they average 7,000 square feet each (saunas, mah-jongg rooms, and big blue swimming pools optional). Banners emblazoned with the Guinness World Record declaration fly over every approach road. Mission Hills is the definition of grand, and it never wants you to forget it.

And where would the world's biggest golf complex be without shopping malls, theme parks, and indoor ski resorts to share its hyperbolic status?All of these things, distinctly bourgeois manifestations in a China whose economy is communist in name only, are as new to the country as the sport of  Tiger Woods. Take the indoor Qiaobo Ice & Snow World, one of 15 ski resorts in the Beijing area and the first indoor one. It steals a page from Japan, which brought indoor skiing to Asia in 1993. The resort offers two slopes: an amateur run of 650 feet and an advanced one that stretches for 1,000. It's open year-round, a bragging right the resort emphasized by debuting in August.

Also jumping on the jumbo bandwagon is Hainan, the so-called Chinese Hawaii. Once one of the poorest and sleepiest of China's provinces, Hainan, which sits off the southern shore of Guangdong, has gone in one decade from a rice paddy–and–water buffalo economy to a booming tourist market fueled by, yes, golf, beach resorts, and glittering shopping centers. "This is the only tropical island in China, and it's becoming a place for leisure and company gatherings," says Annie Shum, director of marketing at the Sanya Marriott Resort & Spa. "You can have an outdoor barbecue and romance under the stars, or you can come here to launch your car model." The region is being remade with an immaculate slickness that smacks more of computer simulation than of the slapdash construction from which many earlier developments in China suffered.

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