Beijing has the legendary Underground city. It's a stunningly large network of civil air defense tunnels, all hand dug in the sixties and seventies during the peak of the regime's paranoia over nuclear conflict with the USSR. Guangzhou has a kind of underground city, too.
Cities all over the world have tunnel cities in the city center. Lots of places in Asia have them; Beijing, Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei. In China even mid-sized cities like Tianjin, Xian and Qingdao have a few. Bits of the Beijing Underground have been converted to use by small factories, but today it remains mostly forgotten by locals. In Guangzhou, the underground tunnels are newer, and rise out of a different motive than in Beijing: shopping. In Guangzhou, most underground malls are from one of two sources: Property development by the Guangzhou Metro corporation, or private developers.
The first time I came to Guangzhou, the underground malls intrigued me more than anything. They seemed to everywhere branch off from subway stations. Some are obviously struggling, but most are teeming with people walking slowly, making it difficult to go anywhere fast. It raised so many questions in my mind. How do people even know this is here? Do they enjoy being here in places devoid of natural light and ventilation? They seemed to defy every bit of logic about retail commerce I'd ever accepted as truth.
At GongYuanQian Station, one of 2 major transfer stations in the metro system, is a large 3-level mall called Comic City. The mall is mecca for shops that sell small cute items like fashion handbags and Japanese comic merchandise. It also harbors the only underground Starbucks in Guangzhou. Unlike most other underground malls, which are linear and follow the street, Comic City is rectangular, and sits under the edge of People's Park. Its exit atrium go up into the park, allowing some sunlight down into the mall. The mall is well connected to every level of the station, you can even enter directly from the subway platform. It's clear why connectivity to the metro is so good; the mall was developed by the Metro Corporation itself. Taking a cue from the Hong Kong MTR, the Guangzhou Metro has established a major revenue stream from property development inside and attached to their system. As public and private is often blurred in China anyway, the result is seen as good for the metro system. The Metro itself benefits from the increased value of the property near their stations, and perhaps it gives them the incentive to expand their property empire by expanding their system through the city. Guangzhou Metro expansion is breathtakingly aggressive; there are 5 lines now, with 4 to open this year alone, and a plan for more than 20 total by the end of this decade.
A short above ground walk from the Guangzhou Train Station lurks a very different mall. "Guangzhou's First Tunnel" is a wholesale garment market that caters both to locals, and to African and Middle Eastern exporters. You're more likely to hear Edo or Farsi than English here. The mall is shaped like a large cross under 4 street blocks, it's 2 floors deep, and each wing follows the slope of the street above which is a bit disorienting. The mall is so big that there are actually 3 branches of a coffee chain called "One Dollar Coffee", which shamelessly appropriates Starbucks logo and store design. The mall was developed by a private developer who actually specializes in underground malls around China. It's not actually connected to the subway tunnels, rather there are numerous stairwells from the sidewalk. Curiously, each entrance has a large vault-type door open but standing at the ready. This and some of the other Guangzhou underground malls may share something in common with the Beijing underground. Then, civilians were assigned to dig tunnels. Today, It's believed that the China government gives subsidies to underground mall builders who make their malls up to the standard air defense shelters, if they agree to give them up in the event they're needed.
The successful malls seem to provide a shortcut to somewhere else, the struggling ones go nowhere interesting. Guangzhou's underground malls rely primarily on foot traffic and impulse purchases. Most don't really function as a destination, but as a path to somewhere that provides diversions along the way. Some of the malls even double as pedestrian tunnels under dangerous street crossings. They are easily walkable, not always true of this city's paving block sidewalks, which are uneven and eternally under reconstruction. Above most of the tunnels are commercial areas, but they don't seem depopulated by the mall. In most cases, the sidewalks are still so congested that it's faster to take the underground mall. The land cost for underground malls is low, but the construction and operating costs are higher than for traditional malls. But in a city like Guangzhou, already bursting at the seams and still growing, its just another direction to expand. Sometimes it's easy to forget where you are, until an inevitable whiff of mildew hits you and you remember, you're in one of Guangzhou's underground shopping malls.
Visitor's Guide to Guangzhou's Underground Malls:
- Comic City- Line 1 and 2, Gongyuanqian Station.
- Kingsway- Gongyuanqian Station, exit D. Features snack stalls and Asian brand stores. Ends near Beijing Lu pedestrian street.
- Guangzhou's First Tunnel- Line 2, Guangzhou Train Station, exit D4.
- Festival Walk- Line 1 and 3, TiyuXiLu Station. Features small boutiques and Asian brand stores. Ends near the Guangzhou Book Center. Notice the vault doors at the entrances.
- PoPark- Line 1 and 3, Guangzhou East Train Station, exit G. Features the Japanese supermarket JUSCO and high end foreign brand stores.
- KangWang Commercial Plaza- Line 1, Chen Clan Academy Station, exit C. Features a McDonald's and budget fashion merchandise, very popular with students.
- Update Mall- Line 1, Martyr's Park Station, connects to China Plaza Mall basement. Features a McDonald's and Asian brand stores.
- Diwang Plaza- Martyr's Park Station
- Jiangnan Sunday- Line 2, Jiangnanxi Station. Features Hong Kong fast-food chain Cafe De Coral, and independent fashion boutiques.
- Tianhe Xin Di- TiyuXiLu Station. Depressing and mostly empty.
- New large underground malls are under construction, under Zhujiang New
Town and Tiyu Sport Center. There is a closed mall at Fangcun Station.