China's New Appeal

China's New Appeal

Tony Law Inside the South China Mall. Tony Law
Tony Law Inside the South China Mall.
Tony Law
Supersized golf resorts! Indoor ski slopes! A mini Mount Rushmore! As China's population climbs its way to the middle class, its taste for leisure is getting bigger. Howard W. French takes it all in.

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.

That Hainan and the neighboring province of Guangdong have been the scene of some of China's most feverish development—especially in the realm of leisure—is no accident. In 1992, the twin Guangdong cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan were selected by the late leader Deng Xiaoping as testing grounds for what would become China's hugely successful economic reforms. Before that, both towns had been little more than fishing villages, but the southern breeze blowing in from Hong Kong did just what Deng Xiaoping said it would: it bore the seeds of capitalism that sparked China's growth. The country went on to become the world's factory, and this previously undeveloped corridor quickly became China's industrial heartland.

Amid all the haste to develop, however, someone somehow forgot all about free time. "When the economic reforms first started, most people didn't even have their own cameras," recalls Xia Lin, an official at another of Guangdong province's biggest attractions, Shenzhen's Windows of the World. The park where he works was conceived at a time when few Chinese were allowed to travel overseas and fewer still could afford to do so as tourists, even with government authorization. Windows of the World's re-creations of international landmarks have been built on a scale to please a pharaoh, with a nearly life-sized copy of the Eiffel Tower, a mini Mount Rushmore, pyramids that look exactly like the real ones at Giza, and a slavish replication of Manhattan, complete with a large Statue of Liberty floating in a pond that stands in for New York harbor. Though the Chinese now are quickly joining the ranks of the world's overseas tourists, the park's owners insist that this has not hurt business, which continues to grow even 12 years after opening day. The concept may seem quaint to the occasional Western visitor who has already been to Epcot Center, but China has seemingly inexhaustible reserves of people in transit from poverty to the consumer class—economists estimate that by 2020, 40 percent of the country's population will fall into that category. For many of them, places like this—affordable and passably exotic—fill the leisure bill perfectly.

As if to prove the park's point, a gaggle of 10-year-old boys from neighboring Fujian province, their mothers in tow, pause in front of an ersatz Westminster Abbey and whip out their camera-equipped cell phones. "We may not have the chance to travel all over the world, but we can experience the grandeur of the scenic spots from different countries right here," Zhang Yuhong, the earnest mother of one of the boys, says.

Shenzhen's sister city, Dongguan, has seen an even steeper climb in leisure pursuits. Initially it was just a vast cluster of sweatshops that had not only forsaken recreation but had also neglected to build a downtown. Newfound industrial wealth is changing that, starting with the impressive towers of the new central city. With its population of migrant workers, and investors from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere, Dongguan has chosen the Hong Kong model, equating recreation with shopping.

"Dongguan had no leisure spaces, so our mall has become the biggest place for relaxation," says Gong Hong Bin, a manager at Dongguan's recently opened South China Mall, a mind-bogglingly large hybrid of traditional shopping center and amusement park, with offerings that cater specifically to small children—perhaps to allow mothers to concentrate on shopping. "Now we're receiving fifty thousand visitors a day," Bin says. The mall is reported to be the biggest in the world: aside from dozens of boutiques and a handful of department stores, the complex has rocket-ship, roller-coaster, and space-needle rides as well as a gargantuan Teletubbies World, where young kids frolic. For men who tire of standing by while their wives spend and their children play, there are special waiting rooms equipped with televisions. Not surprisingly, given that it draws a large number of visitors from neighboring Asian countries, one of the mall's biggest attractions is its advance check-in facility for nearby Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, which is served by regular shuttles.

Of course, the Chinese have always loved living large—just take one look at the vast courtyard of the Forbidden City or the endless meander of the Great Wall. But even the most august emperor could never have predicted the scale on which leisure is being created here today. Back at Mission Hills, the gates at every access point are manned by uniformed guards who check people's passes and salute crisply before lifting the barricade. Inside this self-sufficient world, buses ferry smiling passengers dressed in pastel polo shirts and visor-billed caps between the Annika (Sorenstam) and the Duval (as in David) courses. The links were built simultaneously; they soar and swoon over rolling hills that sit adjacent to a small national forest. Each is bathed in floodlights after sunset, expanding golfers' tee-off options at night. As if to entice visitors to try them both, an all-female force of caddies in red and yellow outfits and white caps line up at a ramp. They look like passengers waiting for taxis on a busy day at LaGuardia, only they all wear pleasant smiles.

Mission Hills Golf Club

Shenzhen, Guangdong; 86-755/2802-0888; www.missionhills

Qiaobo Ice & Snow

World Beijing; 86-10/6941-1999;

Sanya Marriott Resort & Spa

Sanya, Hainan; 86-898/8856-8888;

Windows of the World

Shenzhen, Guangdong; 86-755/660-8000.

South China Mall

Dongguan, Guangdong; 86-076/9218-7888;

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