Photographs Of The "Surreal, Uncanny" Emptiness Of China's Ghost Cities

When one week ago we presented the latest Chinese ghost city being built on the edge of Nanning, immediately thousands of readers flocked to observe its sterile, pointless, yet very curious existence. The reason, perhaps, is that there is something oddly morbid, grotesque and yet fascinating about the clinical emptiness of China's relentless attempts to artificially boost its GDP by creating "larger than life" Lego sets meant for human existence, yet which remain devoid of virtually any civilization.

That is what drew Chicago photographer Kai Caemmerer to them.

Take the Kangbashi District of Ordos, China is a marvel of urban planning, 137-square miles of shining towers, futuristic architecture and pristine parks carved out of the grassland of Inner Mongolia. It is a thoroughly modern city, but for one thing: No one lives there. Kai Caemmerer visited Kangbashi and two other cities for his ongoing series Unborn Cities. According to Wired, the photos capture the eerie sensation of standing on a silent street surrounded by empty skyscrapers and public spaces devoid of life. "These cities felt slightly surreal and almost uncanny," Caemmerer says, "which I think is a product of both the newness of these places and the relative lack of people within them."

It is well-known that China has built hundreds of new cities over the last three decades as it reshapes itself into an urbanized nation with a plan to move 250 million rural inhabitants—more than six times the population of California—into cities by 2026. The newly minted cities help showcase the political accomplishments of local government officials, who reason that real estate and urban development is a safe, high-return investment that can help fuel economic growth.

The problem is that this attempt at recreating SimCity in the real world never works: most people don’t want to live somewhere that feels dead, and these new cities sometimes lack the jobs and commerce needed to support those who would live there. In Kangbashi, the government used some administrative tricks to address this, relocating bureaucratic buildings and schools, then trying to convince people in surrounding villages to move in. It had minor success. Today, a city designed for at least 500,000 has around 100,000 inhabitants.

Others are less lucky.

It was their designation as "modern ghost towns" that initially drew Caemmerer to them. Fascinated, he decided to visit China and see them himself. He spent almost three months exploring three cities during two trips last spring and fall. He was not disappointed.

As Wired writes, his first stop was the Yujiapu Financial District in the Binhai New Area, just outside Tainjin. Construction on the 1.5-square mile replica of Manhattan—complete with a Rockefeller center and twin towers—started in 2008 and will cost an estimated $30.4 billion. The immensity astonished Caemmerer. “There was a sense of vastness that surprised me,” he says.

From there he traveled south to Meixi Lake City. The development covers 4.3 square miles, encircles a man-made lake and is designed to one day house more than 180,000 people. The lake is lined with tidy paths and benches, and soft music emanates from speakers at all hours. Caemmerer saw many skyscrapers under construction, their skeletons wrapped in green scrim. Real estate agents scurried about, busily selling apartments in buildings soon to be completed. “I felt like I was walking into the future,” he says.

He wanted his photographs to reflect that. He’d wander the cities in the dim and eerie light before sunrise and after sunset, taking long exposures with his 4×5 film camera. In the final images, the buildings are so enormous that the edges of the photograph can’t contain them. They rise as strange concrete specters, displaced in time and lacking any sense of history. For now, the fate of most of them remains unknown. “I find that the images make me ponder the future,” Caemmerer says. “which, to me, is interesting because photographs are so commonly read as fragments of moments past.”

Here are some the photos he took which make up his "Unborn Cities" collection.

Near Yujiapu Financial District, Binhai New Area, Tianjin

A design rendering at a construction zone near Meixi Lake Development, Chengsha

Yujiapu Financial District, Binhai Nre Rea, Tianjin

Near Kangbashi New Area, Ordos, Inner Mongolia

LCD screens on a building glow near Kangbashi New Area, Ordos, Inner Mongolia

A portion of Yujiapu Financial District's skyline in the hazy light of day. The district is part of Binhai New Area, Tianjin

Construction continues on a pavilion outside of Ordos, Inner-Mongolia

Uncompleted residential buildings in the Meixi Lake Development, near Changsha

An abstract sculpture frames a construction project near Meixi Lake Development, Changsha, Hunan province

Palm trees surround a construction area near Yujiapu Financial District, Binhai New Area, Tianjin


Office buildings glow in the early morning darkness of the Yujiapu Financial District, Binhai New Area, Tianjin

A residential high-rise nears completion near Meixi Lake Development, Changsha

Residential buildings in the Meixi Lake Development, near Changsha

Ordos 100 is a construction project curated by Al Weiwei and architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron near Ordos, Inner-Mongolia

Construction near Changsha, Hunan province