WORLD NOVEMBER 6, 2013
The slogan of the New Century Global Center, the recently completed largest building in the world by floor space, sounds at first like a Chinglish-y misfire: “The One of Everything.” But as I spent a day wandering around the structure, located in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, the catchphrase started to take on a kind of brilliance. It captures the building’s comprehensiveness: It really does have one of everything, from a shopping mall to an Intercontinental Hotel to a 14-screen IMAX theater to a water park to a fake church to a McDoniqloGAPbucks to an ice skating rink—everything, that is, except restraint. The building also is the one of everything; of everything, it is the one. It’s the biggest/gaudiest, the bravest/most brazen, depending on your point of view. Maybe that’s why it’s called the Global Center, as in, the center of the globe. The slogan also nods to the pop-Buddhist concept that everything in the universe is one, with a commercial twist. The Global Center doesn’t distinguish between East and West, high and low, rich and poor, tasteful and tasteless. There is only the one … of everything.
I wanted to swallow it whole. I therefore set aside a full day to experience as much of the Global Center as I could, to browse its wares, to float in its waters, to ride its escalators and skate its rinks, to get to know each of its 1,700,000 square meters—a maximalist approach to a maximalist structure. The Center invites absurd size comparisons: News reports tell us it could fit 20 Sydney Opera Houses, four Vaticans, or three Pentagons. The Center is also, along with a raft of business conventions and a railway line to Poland, part of Chengdu’s bid for top-tier city status. (It’s China’s seventh-largest city by population, and lacks the name recognition of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.) Still, I wanted to know: Why? Building the largest free-standing structure in the world is impressive, but not quite as inspiring as building the tallest. It’s like setting the world record for fastest 100-meter power walk. Then again, of course the largest building in the world is now Chinese; it’s strange that it wasn’t before. What, if anything, does this latest entry into the eyesore arms race say about Chengdu—and about China?
Coming out of the Jincheng Square subway station—all exits lead to the Center—I suddenly felt small. I had to crane my head to look from one corner of the 500-meter-long building to the other. It’s like the Grand Canyon: beyond a certain point it just flattens into a postcard. The architecture is unusual. According to a promotional DVD I got at the Global Center office headquarters, the building’s undulating roof is inspired by the flight path of seagulls, in keeping with its overall aquatic theme. My visual association was the boss from Dilbert.
I stopped the first person I saw, a man in a leather jacket. “Why is it so big?” I asked. He laughed, “How should I know? Chinese corruption maybe?” I wasn’t expecting to hear this answer so quickly. It’s true, the boss of the company that built the Center has mysteriously disappeared, apparently as part of an anti-corruption sweep. A wrinkly man wearing a white Nike hat and a traditional kung fu shirt named Zheng De Shan had a more charitable take: “It’s symbolic of Chengdu,” he said. “Beijing has its Great Hall of the People, Chengdu has this.” What does it symbolize? “Products, consumption, development.” He also said it shows that Chengdu “loves peace and opposes war.”
Before the building opened at 10 a.m., vendors were selling breakfast outside. Employees came by to munch on steamed dumplings and sip green tea before going to work their jobs selling crepes, waffles, and coffee inside. The only place open before ten was the supermarket, so I wandered around for a bit, admiring the wide selection of items, from dried octopus to skin cream (in fact they were adjacent) and snacking on free samples—a Western import I can get behind. One employee even agreed to cook me up a free river crab. “We would like to bring you a comfortable and satisfying shopping journey,” a voice announced in English over military music. So far, so good.
I went upstairs. The entire southeast corner of the building is occupied by Lotte, a Japanese-Korean department store, which means the space looks as if it were curated by a 10-year-old girl. She’s in her 20s, actually, and her name is Chen Han. I found her standing amid a garden of fake topiaries with plastic animal heads, Greek statues wearing brightly colored t-shirts, and a neon rainbow chameleon, all of which she and her design team assembled. “Chengdu is a happy place, it’s a place people enjoy, so we wanted to give customers a fun experience,” she told me. The topiaries represent the city’s natural scenery, she said, and the chameleon showcases its colorfulness. (Not sure about the Greek statues.) Nearby, visitors took photos in front of giant murals, including a shark bursting out of the wall and a blond girl sticking out a giant bare foot. Elsewhere the walls were painted with scenes from various European capitals made three-dimensional with props. A girl posed making a call in a red London phone booth while her friend snapped a photo. Another wall featured a life-size panoramic shot of a street café in an anonymous European city. Looking closer, I noticed that most of the patrons in the picture appeared to be bored, overweight tourists—not an attractive bunch, but emblematic of the well-fed decadence to which many Chinese consumers aspire.
The Global Center is actually not one building but four: the mall, the hotel, the water park in the middle, and more than 20 floors of office space surrounding it. Through a network of staircases, I found my way up to the roof, where I ran into a man in a suit walking alone. He seemed determined to not make eye contact, but since we were the only two people on many thousands of square meters of rooftop, I said hello. It turned out he worked for Maotai, the high-end brand of baijiu liquor, which had moved into the office building last month. (All of the building’s hundreds of offices have been leased, though only about half of the occupants have moved in, according to a representative for the Global Center.) The man, named Luo, was just taking in the scenery, which on that day was a wasteland of trash and construction equipment below. I asked if he’d brought a flask. He had not, so we went down to his office for a toast. There were small mounds of tea leaves around the office to combat the new-building smell. The baijiu left me feeling warmly toward the Global Center, as if the building itself—or its media team—had arranged it. For all I know, they did.
After that, I needed food. There were plenty of options—Western, Sichuan, Korean, Thai—but the choice was easy: the Paradise Island Water Park all-you-can-eat buffet. When I first arrived, I wasn’t sure where to pay, so I just started loading up my plate. After a minute I saw a woman in a yellow polo shirt standing nearby, peering at me out of the corner of her eye and speaking into a walkie-talkie. I caught the phrase cengfan, which means “to freeload for a meal.” It didn’t seem like she or anyone planned to confront me, so I went over and paid her the requested 68 yuan (about $10.) The beef stir fry was the closest thing to American Chinese food I’ve had in China. I washed it down with a glass of hot orange juice.
They say not to go swimming after eating, but one doesn’t swim at the Paradise Island Water Park so much as drift. I discovered this after forking over 180 yuan ($30) for a ticket, buying a swim suit with a golden dragon on it, and padding out to the giant sand-less artificial beach, where a lifeguard handed me a life jacket. “It’s OK, I can swim,” I told her. She wasn’t asking. I put it on, wincing at the cold clammy fabric. Between the life vest, the five lifeguards, the maximum depth of 1.6 meters, and the near-complete lack of other swimmers, I felt extremely safe.
Peaceful, too—by China standards at least. I paddled around on my back, looking up at the gray sky through the room’s domed glass ceiling. Soothing music played while above me the world’s largest indoor LCD screen displayed computer animated utopias, first a Caribbean beach, then an Avatar-like mountain river scene. I found a group of 20-somethings horsing around and racing from one end of the pool to the other. None of them could swim, but this wasn’t a bad substitute. Sichuan is landlocked, one of them explained, so they don’t have many beach-going opportunities. Their only complaint was the steep ticket price. A young couple sitting in the restaurant area said they were unimpressed—then again, they’re going to Malaysia in December. They might come back here with their one-year-old when she gets older, though. “For kids, everything is fresh,” said the husband, Pu Yang.
The day was waning, so I raced through the rest of the water park: The water slide of horrors that begins in free fall, the sort-of-hot tubs, the mock Turkish bathhouse complete with blue tiles and marble archways. I also sat in the dry-heat sauna, which a sign promised can, among other benefits, “whiten the skin.” It occurred to me that this is also a symptom of extreme dehydration.
It was probably unfair to get dinner at a Western restaurant, but I wanted to see how the Global Center’s international cuisine held up. A place called Esso drew me in with its plush seating, Alice in Wonderland décor, and leather-bound books along the walls, plus three copies of Trainspotting. I kept my order simple: a garden salad and spaghetti with bacon and mushroom sauce. It wasn’t my most traumatic eating experience in China—that would be the bagel with lox I once ordered at a Howard Johnson’s in Shanghai, which instead of cream cheese had whipped cream—but between the mouth-scaldingly hot sauce and the human hair in the salad, it wasn’t untraumatizing.
I saved the skating rink for last. Skating isn’t especially popular in China—when Beijing’s lakes freeze over, most people just walk around on the ice—and even less so in relatively balmy Sichuan. For many visitors, it was their first time lacing up. I watched Simon He, 32, stumble and eat ice before puttering over to the railing for a breather. An engineer for Volkswagen, he was there on a double date with his wife and two friends. Chengdu is growing, he said, but it still doesn’t have any famous landmarks, like Beijing’s Tiananmen Square or Shanghai’s Shimao Plaza.
This was a refrain among the visitors I spoke to: The Global Center will become Chengdu’s claim to fame, a symbol of its cultural and economic power. What’s ironic is that there’s nothing especially Chengdu-like about the Center itself. (Sorry, animal-head topiary lady.) In fact, the Center is everything that Chengdu is not: ostentatious, brimming with expensive international brands, aquatic-themed, home to a fake beach and a skating rink. If anything, it reads as an attempt by Chengdu to become more like everyone else. That’s understandable when it comes to economic development, but as far as cultural distinctiveness, it might as well be in Abu Dhabi.
For locals, the building’s non-Chengdu-ness seems to be part of the allure. A mother named Sun brought her 9-year-old daughter to the rink because, she said, “Chengdu doesn’t have many places for kids to play.” As absurd as the water park seems to regular beachgoers, many Chengdu residents have never set foot on sand. If the Global Center redeems itself, it’s by not being just a symbol. By making it the biggest building ever, as opposed to the tallest, its creators clearly intended visitors to not just behold it, but to explore it. You go see the Burj Khalifa in Dubai; the Global Center, you experience. As I was leaving the rink, I saw Simon skating slowly along, holding the railing for support, laughing as his wife shouted encouragement from the sidelines. He looked like he was having the time of his life.
Christopher Beam is a staff writer at The New Republic.