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Ordos Museum, New Ordos.


Newly completed Central Business District, New Ordos.

Haunting of a Global Future
by Meisen Wong

In Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (2008), she describes haunting as a protrusive presence of an absence. The ghost or the spectre is that which haunts, and “ghostly matters” are thereby manifestations of the absent, the missing, and the content which demands close examination. What exactly haunts Chinese ghost cities then? In my dissertation, ghost cities are defined as new cities which are built to host at least a million residents but have remained under-uti¬lized and under-populated after years of completion. There are currently twelve large-scale ghost cities in China, mostly located in the northeastern region. Additionally, a number of residential ghost towns are found littered around the country, most notably, Little Germany or Anting New Town in the suburbs of Shanghai.

Located southwest to Beijing in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Kangbashi New District - also known as New Ordos – has received extensive media coverage from both national and foreign media outlets. It is arguably China’s most (in)famous ghost city. Conceived by the local government in 2004 and with most of the proposed development completed by 2009, the city is intended as a mixed-used city for administrative, commercial, cultural and resi¬dential functions. It is expected to house at least a million residents. Local officials have celebrated the completion of New Ordos as a city of the future, specifically a future where the city is integrated into the global economy. To fulfil this globalist aspiration, the city is equipped with urban infrastructure one would normally associate with ‘global cities’. A performance hall, two stadium arenas, an international convention and exhibition hall, an international rac¬ing circuit, hotels claiming international facilities, large-scale shopping malls, a museum which is a feature architectural showpiece by world-renowned architect Ma Yansong, and a newly completed central business district which lays just adjunct to the main boundaries of the new city; all of which can be found within New Ordos. However, since the city’s completion, the population count of registered residents is merely 60,000, and most public spaces and buildings are largely under-utilized. While me¬dia accounts do exaggerate the absence of residents in the city, uninhabited apartments blocks are still easily found in the city.

A park attendant planting grass in the main square.

Relating to the literature on ‘global’, ‘worlding’ and ‘ordinary’ cities, the dissertation investigates the disciplining effects of the ‘global city’ model in the production of new cities and their residents. Through a study on those who have to experience the sus¬pension of a global future, we can then illuminate the disciplining effects as opposed to the taken-for-grantedness of ‘global futures’ in global cities. My research is also focused on the lives of residents in this ghost city – an existence mostly invisibilised in the popular discourse of ghost cities. Most of my research subjects in New Ordos consume the ‘desirability’ of living in a global city as a sign and measure of their own modern subjectivities. It is this ideological consensus to the promised global future that highlights the absence of it which haunts their everyday existence residing in the city. How then, do residents (re)construct their temporal trajectories, especially their futures? As the city experiences arrested development, what are the economic strate¬gies residents engage in to mediate their own precarious futures?

Between May 2013 and July 2014, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork for a total duration of four months. This was divided between two summers where I had lived in New Ordos. I employ mixed-research methods that include in-depth interviews with a representative sample of residents in the city, participant observation, photography, and walking around the city.

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Having graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with her Bachelors and Masters degree, Wong’s academic background is in Sociology and Cultural Studies. Working mainly in the qualitative research tradition, her research interests include popular culture, consumption studies, political economy and sociology of everyday life. She is currently pursuing her doctoral degree at the Sociology Department in TU, in conjunction with the IGK program and funded by the DFG. Her supervisory board constitutes Professor Sybille Frank (Sociology, Technical University), Professor Bettina Gransow (East Asian Seminar, China Studies, Freie University) and Professor Robert Beauregard (Graduate School of Architecture, Urban Planning and Preservation, Columbia University).