Story

A Mirage of Luxury Built on Sand

Ruyi island, off Haikou city, was intended as a tourist destination, with theme parks and hotels. Its planned size is over 7 square kilometres and it is to be linked to the mainland through a 5.6 km bridge. In an inspection by the authorities in 2017, the project was found to have reclaimed 210,000 sqm of the sea without proper permits. The land reclamation there which started in 2015 has been stopped because of both the environmental inspection as well as the developer running short of funds. In July 2018, Kaisa, another developer has bought the whole Ruyi Island project from its original developer Zhonghong at 1.4 billion rmb. Florida-based landscape architecture company EDSA is listed as being involved in the project. The Dubai of China in recent years, China’s coastal provinces—which house most of the country’s population—have been reclaiming land at a rapid pace, artificially creating huge tracts of land where seas, mangrove and wetland once were. Among the fastest-urbanising countries in the world, China has no shortage of useable land, but land reclamation has become seen as a quick and cheap way to get “a blank slate” of land to build on. Reclaimed land usually costs between $310,000 and $670,000 per hectare. If you compare this cost to the average cost of purchasing land (especially for commercial/residential purposes) in a big city, it’s in some locations at least 10 times more expensive to buy land, than to reclaim. Since 2006, 13,000 hectares of land (32,123 acres) have been reclaimed on average each year, swallowing up beaches, islands and wetlands. Mangroves which protect the coast and migratory birds’ habitats have been wiped out.Alarmed by this and its impact on the marine ecosystem, China’s government in January and July last year (2018) slapped a ban on commercial land reclamation. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

Ruyi island, off Haikou city, was intended as a tourist destination, with theme parks and hotels. Its planned size is over 7 square kilometres and it is to be linked to the mainland through a 5.6 km bridge. In an inspection by the authorities in 2017, the project was found to have reclaimed 210,000 sqm of the sea without proper permits. The land reclamation there which started in 2015 has been stopped because of both the environmental inspection as well as the developer running short of funds. In July 2018, Kaisa, another developer has bought the whole Ruyi Island project from its original developer Zhonghong at 1.4 billion rmb. Florida-based landscape architecture company EDSA is listed as being involved in the project. The Dubai of China in recent years, China’s coastal provinces—which house most of the country’s population—have been reclaiming land at a rapid pace, artificially creating huge tracts of land where seas, mangrove and wetland once were. Among the fastest-urbanising countries in the world, China has no shortage of useable land, but land reclamation has become seen as a quick and cheap way to get “a blank slate” of land to build on. Reclaimed land usually costs between $310,000 and $670,000 per hectare. If you compare this cost to the average cost of purchasing land (especially for commercial/residential purposes) in a big city, it’s in some locations at least 10 times more expensive to buy land, than to reclaim. Since 2006, 13,000 hectares of land (32,123 acres) have been reclaimed on average each year, swallowing up beaches, islands and wetlands. Mangroves which protect the coast and migratory birds’ habitats have been wiped out. Alarmed by this and its impact on the marine ecosystem, China’s government in January and July last year (2018) slapped a ban on commercial land reclamation. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

View the full experience on the Magnum Photos website

They emerge out of nowhere. Culturally, aesthetically, geologically, ecologically, architecturally. They possess no foundation and little fundament. Some of them stand unfinished, defeated by the whim of a politician or the tremor of global financial markets. For artificial islands don’t stand for anything but the perspective of quick economic profits and the mirage of luxury living.

Could it be that humanity’s pyrrhic relation to its natural resources is best summed up in that one phrase of “land reclamation”? The process describes the creation of new lands from water. Filled with large quantities of matter —cement, gravels and above all, sand— oceans, riverbeds, wetlands and lakes are “reclaimed” to become terra firma. Land that you can walk on, drive on, build on. And most importantly, land that you can sell. Land reclamation is the privatisation of the power a sovereign state has over its physical territory. From the top of a crane bearing the logo of a real estate company, it can now be expanded and its borders redrawn. It’s Christopher Columbus in a hard hat, driving home in the evening once the job is done.

Marketed as the “Dubai of China”, the “Ocean Flower Island” off the coast of Hainan province in China’s far south, is one of several massive land reclamation projects in the country. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

Marketed as the “Dubai of China”, the “Ocean Flower Island” off the coast of Hainan province in China’s far south, is one of several massive land reclamation projects in the country. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

With photography, Sim Chi Yin’s ongoing project “Shifting Sands” asks three fundamental questions. Who is “reclaiming” that land? From whom? And for whom? The Singapore-born photographer started her research on sand as commodity in 2017 and first looked at her home country’s addiction to land reclamation, and therefore to sand. The city-state has increased its surface area by 23 per cent since 1963 and according to the United Nations, Singapore —a country of 5 million inhabitants with a surface area the size of New York City— was in 2017 the world’s largest importer of sand.

The commodification of sand, a natural resource available in limited quantity, illustrates a near-caricatural relationship between the planet’s wealthiest and poorest communities. Those who sell it and those who buy. The exploitation of sand —legal and illegal— has generated social tensions and political unrest, it has nurtured corruption and also led to the rise of violent “sand mafias” in Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Indonesiabut also Italy, Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal. The ecological consequences of draining entire regions out of their sand reserves, then injecting that same sand mixed with gravel and rocks in other ecosystems has led to catastrophes on both sides.

A heap of pipes probably used for dredging sand lie on a parcel of reclaimed land at the planned site of a new airport in the southern city of Xiamen. | The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

A heap of pipes probably used for dredging sand lie on a parcel of reclaimed land at the planned site of a new airport in the southern city of Xiamen. | The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

A heap of pipes probably used for dredging sand lie on a parcel of reclaimed land at the planned site of a new airport in the southern city of Xiamen. | The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

A heap of pipes probably used for dredging sand lie on a parcel of reclaimed land at the planned site of a new airport in the southern city of Xiamen. The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

"Alarmed by this Space Race of a new kind, the Chinese government cracked down on privately developed land reclamation projects in 2018." 
—Justinien Tribillon

In the background, layers of black bags of sand form a cofferdam—an enclosure built within a body of water to allow the enclosed area to be pumped out—on the fringe of a parcel of reclaimed land intended for the planned second airport in Xiamen, southern China. The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

In the background, layers of black bags of sand form a cofferdam—an enclosure built within a body of water to allow the enclosed area to be pumped out—on the fringe of a parcel of reclaimed land intended for the planned second airport in Xiamen, southern China. The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

This new series of photographs shot by Sim in 2018 brings another dimension to her photographic research. She has transitioned from an “infrastructural” gaze to an architectural and aesthetic critique of land reclamation. Often shot from the ground or from a boat, her previous pictures of Singapore and Vietnam, taken in 2017, captured fenced-off stockpiles of sand, sailing barges, and caissons of concrete dispersed in the sea. It also showed the communities’ livelihoods destroyed by this commerce, their homes and local economies shattered by erosion. Together, these pictures illustrated the complex ramifications of sands exploitation across space, from one side of the Gulf of Thailand to the other.

In this new series, Sim takes us on an architectural bird’s eye view-exploration of the “Dubais of China”, concentrated in the island province of Hainan. Designed as tourist destinations or luxury havens, with theme parks and hotels, they are some of China’s numerous ongoing private land reclamation projects. Many of these projects involve international or Western companies – from architectural firms to landscape design companies, and even theme park providers.

A piece of artificial land shimmers in the sun, as seen from traditional fishing boats on a real coast on Dadeng island in Xiamen, southern China. | The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China,  2018.

A piece of artificial land shimmers in the sun, as seen from traditional fishing boats on a real coast on Dadeng island in Xiamen, southern China. | The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China,  2018.

In the background, layers of black bags of sand form a cofferdam—an enclosure built within a body of water to allow the enclosed area to be pumped out—on the fringe of a parcel of reclaimed land intended for the planned second airport in Xiamen, southern China. The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

In the background, layers of black bags of sand form a cofferdam—an enclosure built within a body of water to allow the enclosed area to be pumped out—on the fringe of a parcel of reclaimed land intended for the planned second airport in Xiamen, southern China. The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

A netting originally intended to prevent dust from being blown off lies on parcels of reclaimed land for a new, planned airport in the southern city of Xiamen.The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan. When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

A netting originally intended to prevent dust from being blown off lies on parcels of reclaimed land for a new, planned airport in the southern city of Xiamen.The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan. When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

The necessity of “reclaiming” land might not appear so urgent for one of the biggest countries in the world: indeed it isn’t. Such developments are in large part business opportunities.

Chinese news reports claim reclaimed land costs roughly $310,000 to $670,000 (USD) per hectare. If you compare this cost to the average cost of purchasing land, especially for commercial/residential purposes, in a big city, it’s in some locations at least 10 times more expensive to buy land than it is to reclaim. And under a political regime where urban land is formally owned by the state, the capacity for capitalistic economic stakeholders to “reclaim” land from the sea has to be both transgressive and terribly exciting. Such projects are also – at times – the result of a developmentalist view – one of creating ready-made land afresh, rather than existing clearing existing lands.

Alarmed by this Space Race of a new kind, the Chinese government cracked down on privately developed land reclamation projects in 2018, officially concerned by such projects’ ecological impacts.

"There is also a sense of irony in this new series of images for “Shifting Sands”. With her shots taken from the sky, Sim appeals to the aesthetics and spatial fictions that real estate developers and their customers cherish,"Justinien Tribillon.

Marketed as the “Dubai of China”, the “Ocean Flower Island” off the coast of Hainan province in China’s far south, is one of several massive land reclamation projects in the country which has raised eyebrows and led to China’s strongest crackdown ever against land reclamation in the country this year. Beijing has called for a halt to all unapproved commercial land reclamation projects across the country for environmental impact assessment.Set in the impoverished, industrial city of Danzhou, “Ocean Flower Island” is being sold as a site for sea-front apartments and for tourism. The “Ocean Flower Island” comprises three artificial islands in the sea measuring 7.83 square kilometers, which is 1.4 times the size of Palm Jumeirah, the man-made island in Dubai. Among the foreign companies listed as involved in the Ocean Flower project are Hilton hotels, LAVA, an architecture practice with offices in Sydney, Stuttgart and Berlin, Chicago-based Saltan Architects, ThemeParX, a global theme park consultancy. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

Marketed as the “Dubai of China”, the “Ocean Flower Island” off the coast of Hainan province in China’s far south, is one of several massive land reclamation projects in the country which has raised eyebrows and led to China’s strongest crackdown ever against land reclamation in the country this year. Beijing has called for a halt to all unapproved commercial land reclamation projects across the country for environmental impact assessment.Set in the impoverished, industrial city of Danzhou, “Ocean Flower Island” is being sold as a site for sea-front apartments and for tourism. The “Ocean Flower Island” comprises three artificial islands in the sea measuring 7.83 square kilometers, which is 1.4 times the size of Palm Jumeirah, the man-made island in Dubai. Among the foreign companies listed as involved in the Ocean Flower project are Hilton hotels, LAVA, an architecture practice with offices in Sydney, Stuttgart and Berlin, Chicago-based Saltan Architects, ThemeParX, a global theme park consultancy. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

"There is also a sense of irony in this new series of images for 'Shifting Sands.' With her shots taken from the sky, Sim appeals to the aesthetics and spatial fictions that real estate developers and their customers cherish."
—Justinien Tribillon

In recent years, China’s coastal provinces—which house most of the country’s population—have been reclaiming land at a rapid pace, artificially creating huge tracts of land where seas, mangrove and wetland once were. Among the fastest-urbanising countries in the world, China has no shortage of useable land, but land reclamation has become seen as a quick and cheap way to get “a blank slate” of land to build on. Reclaimed land usually costs between $310,000 and $670,000 per hectare. If you compare this cost to the average cost of purchasing land (especially for commercial/residential purpose) in a big city, it’s in some locations at least 10 times more expensive to buy land, than to reclaim. Since 2006, 13,000 hectares of land (32,123 acres) have been reclaimed on average each year, swallowing up beaches, islands and wetlands. Mangroves which protect the coast and migratory birds’ habitats have been wiped out. Alarmed by this and its impact on the marine ecosystem, China’s government in January and July last year (2018) slapped a ban on commercial land reclamation. Public infrastructure and national defense projects can continue, but many projects by private developers—several proven to be illegal or not officially approved before commencing—have been suspended, pending investigation or ecological rehabilitation. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

In recent years, China’s coastal provinces—which house most of the country’s population—have been reclaiming land at a rapid pace, artificially creating huge tracts of land where seas, mangrove and wetland once were. Among the fastest-urbanising countries in the world, China has no shortage of useable land, but land reclamation has become seen as a quick and cheap way to get “a blank slate” of land to build on. Reclaimed land usually costs between $310,000 and $670,000 per hectare. If you compare this cost to the average cost of purchasing land (especially for commercial/residential purpose) in a big city, it’s in some locations at least 10 times more expensive to buy land, than to reclaim. Since 2006, 13,000 hectares of land (32,123 acres) have been reclaimed on average each year, swallowing up beaches, islands and wetlands. Mangroves which protect the coast and migratory birds’ habitats have been wiped out. Alarmed by this and its impact on the marine ecosystem, China’s government in January and July last year (2018) slapped a ban on commercial land reclamation. Public infrastructure and national defense projects can continue, but many projects by private developers—several proven to be illegal or not officially approved before commencing—have been suspended, pending investigation or ecological rehabilitation. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018. 

Close-up above the the artificial “Ocean Flower Island” being constructed off the coast of Hainan province.Marketed as the “Dubai of China”, the “Ocean Flower Island” off the coast of Hainan province in China’s far south, is one of several massive land reclamation projects in the country which has raised eyebrows and led to China’s strongest crackdown ever against land reclamation in the country this year. Beijing has called for a halt to all unapproved commercial land reclamation projects across the country for environmental impact assessment.Set in the impoverished, industrial city of Danzhou, “Ocean Flower Island” is being sold as a site for sea-front apartments and for tourism. The “Ocean Flower Island” comprises three artificial islands in the sea measuring 7.83 square kilometers, which is 1.4 times the size of Palm Jumeirah, the man-made island in Dubai. Among the foreign companies listed as involved in the Ocean Flower project are Hilton hotels, Chicago-based Saltan Architects, ThemeParX, a global theme park consultancy. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

Close-up above the the artificial “Ocean Flower Island” being constructed off the coast of Hainan province. Marketed as the “Dubai of China”, the “Ocean Flower Island” off the coast of Hainan province in China’s far south, is one of several massive land reclamation projects in the country which has raised eyebrows and led to China’s strongest crackdown ever against land reclamation in the country this year. Beijing has called for a halt to all unapproved commercial land reclamation projects across the country for environmental impact assessment.Set in the impoverished, industrial city of Danzhou, “Ocean Flower Island” is being sold as a site for sea-front apartments and for tourism. The “Ocean Flower Island” comprises three artificial islands in the sea measuring 7.83 square kilometers, which is 1.4 times the size of Palm Jumeirah, the man-made island in Dubai. Among the foreign companies listed as involved in the Ocean Flower project are Hilton hotels, Chicago-based Saltan Architects, ThemeParX, a global theme park consultancy. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

A view from on Phoenix island, Sanya, Hainan. Phoenix Island, on the resort city of Sanya, was the Hainan island’s first flagship land reclamation mega project, attracting internationally renowned architects. Reclaimed between 2002 and 2003, and opened for business in 2015, the artificial island in Sanya Bay has luxury apartments, hotels and a cruise centre — all a short distance from the centre of the city. A second phase of reclamation was undertaken in 2014 — seen here as the empty, sandy plot — bringing the total size of the island to 0.84 square kilometers. But this was found to have led to the erosion of over 2km of Sanya Bay’s coast. Following an environmental inspection in late 2017, the government has slapped a suspension on further construction as the project was found to have impacted coastal erosion and the ecosystem, and caused sedimentation at the mouth of the Sanya River. Companies involved in this project include New York-based Balmori Associates, which does landscape and urban design, and the brand-name Chinese architect Ma Yansong's firm MAD. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

Reclaimed between 2002 and 2003, and opened for business in 2015, the artificial island in Sanya Bay has luxury apartments, hotels and a cruise centre—all a short distance from the centre of the city. A second phase of reclamation was undertaken in 2014—seen here as the empty, sandy plot—bringing the total size of the island to 0.84 square kilometers. But this was found to have led to the erosion of over 2km of Sanya Bay’s coast. Following an environmental inspection in late 2017, the government has slapped a suspension on further construction as the project was found to have impacted coastal erosion and the ecosystem, and caused sedimentation at the mouth of the Sanya River. Companies involved in this project include New York-based Balmori Associates, which does landscape and urban design, and the brand-name Chinese architect Ma Yansong's firm MAD. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018. 

There is also a sense of irony in this new series of images for “Shifting Sands”. With her shots taken from the sky, Sim appeals to the aesthetics and spatial fictions that real estate developers and their customers cherish. We are reminded of promotional videos and architectural renderings like those analyzed by Keller Easterling in the book Extrastatecraft: the camera zooms in from outer space on cities that only exist in their financial backers’ imagination, as a low-pitched male voice explains how this city-to-be in the middle of the desert will be directly connected to the planet’s key financial hubs. But Sim Chi Yin is a photographer, not a render artist. The pictures she shares are of unfinished projects, crescent moon and sun-shaped islands left incomplete. Like a game of SimCity on pause.

Two islands in the shape of the sun and a crescent moon have been artificially made off Hainan’s east coast, in the Sun and Moon Bay (Riyuewan), a surfing destination 25 km south of Wanning city. The two man-made islands make up about 1 square kilometre, and are planned as a tourism site with a theme park, international conference venues, shopping malls, yacht club and luxury hotels.The land reclamation on the main island—that resembles a round sun—was completed in 2014 and beach erosion was found soon after. The erosion poses a threat to a forest of Vatica Mangachapoi which grows on sandy beaches in Hainan. The endangered plant is protected in China as it has already suffered over cutting for its valuable wood.In addition, the reclamation project will destroy 50,000 sqm coral reef. Chinese press reports say the project started without carrying out a thorough environmental impact assessment. When these photographs were made in October 2018, construction appeared to still be going on. Italy-based design and architecture firm Metro Studio is listed as being involved in this project. Imagey by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

Two islands in the shape of the sun and a crescent moon have been artificially made off Hainan’s east coast, in the Sun and Moon Bay (Riyuewan), a surfing destination 25 km south of Wanning city. The two man-made islands make up about 1 square kilometre, and are planned as a tourism site with a theme park, international conference venues, shopping malls, yacht club and luxury hotels.The land reclamation on the main island—that resembles a round sun—was completed in 2014 and beach erosion was found soon after. The erosion poses a threat to a forest of Vatica Mangachapoi which grows on sandy beaches in Hainan. The endangered plant is protected in China as it has already suffered over cutting for its valuable wood.In addition, the reclamation project will destroy 50,000 sqm coral reef. Chinese press reports say the project started without carrying out a thorough environmental impact assessment. When these photographs were made in October 2018, construction appeared to still be going on. Italy-based design and architecture firm Metro Studio is listed as being involved in this project. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

Two islands in the shape of the sun and a crescent moon have been artificially made off Hainan’s east coast, in the Sun and Moon Bay (Riyuewan), a surfing destination 25 km south of Wanning city. The two man-made islands make up about 1 square kilometre, and are planned as a tourism site with a theme park, international conference venues, shopping malls, yacht club and luxury hotels.The land reclamation on the main island — that resembles a round sun — was completed in 2014 and beach erosion was found soon after. The erosion poses a threat to a forest of Vatica mangachapoi which grows on sandy beaches in Hainan. The endangered plant is protected in China as it has already suffered over cutting for its valuable wood.In addition, the reclamation project will destroy 50,000 sqm coral reef. Chinese press reports say the project started without carrying out a thorough environmental impact assessment.?When these photographs were made in October 2018, construction appeared to still be going on. Italy-based design and architecture firm Metro Studio is listed as being involved in this project. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

Two islands in the shape of the sun and a crescent moon have been artificially made off Hainan’s east coast, in the Sun and Moon Bay (Riyuewan), a surfing destination 25 km south of Wanning city.The two man-made islands make up about 1 square kilometre, and are planned as a tourism site with a theme park, international conference venues, shopping malls, yacht club and luxury hotels.The land reclamation on the main island—that resembles a round sun—was completed in 2014 and beach erosion was found soon after. The erosion poses a threat to a forest of Vatica Mangachapoi which grows on sandy beaches in Hainan. The endangered plant is protected in China as it has already suffered over cutting for its valuable wood.In addition, the reclamation project will destroy 50,000 sqm coral reef. Chinese press reports say the project started without carrying out a thorough environmental impact assessment. When these photographs were made in October 2018, construction appeared to still be going on. Italy-based design and architecture firm Metro Studio is listed as being involved in this project. Image by Sim Chin Yin. China, 2018.

Her shots of the Phoenix Island best illustrate the foolishness of these projects’ relationship to economic development and the exploitation of natural resources. The luxury flats developed on a “reclaimed” island stand proudly in the foreground. Their soulless and placeless design likely inspired by the sails of ships on the sea, like virtually all luxury resorts built by the sea or rivers built in the last fifteen years, from Dubai to London, Singapore to Miami. In the background sits empty the second phase of the Island’s extension. It was temporarily halted by the Chinese authorities when it became clear it had created a 2-km erosion of the Sanya bay.

A view from on Phoenix island, Sanya, Hainan. Phoenix Island, on the resort city of Sanya, was the Hainan island’s first flagship land reclamation mega project, attracting internationally renowned architects. Reclaimed between 2002 and 2003, and opened for business in 2015, the artificial island in Sanya Bay has luxury apartments, hotels and a cruise centre—all a short distance from the centre of the city. A second phase of reclamation was undertaken in 2014—seen here as the empty, sandy plot—bringing the total size of the island to 0.84 square kilometers. But this was found to have led to the erosion of over 2km of Sanya Bay’s coast. Following an environmental inspection in late 2017, the government has slapped a suspension on further construction as the project was found to have impacted coastal erosion and the ecosystem, and caused sedimentation at the mouth of the Sanya River. Companies involved in this project include New York-based Balmori Associates, which does landscape and urban design, and the brand-name Chinese architect Ma Yansong's firm MAD. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

A view from on Phoenix island, Sanya, Hainan. Phoenix Island, on the resort city of Sanya, was the Hainan island’s first flagship land reclamation mega project, attracting internationally renowned architects. Reclaimed between 2002 and 2003, and opened for business in 2015, the artificial island in Sanya Bay has luxury apartments, hotels and a cruise centre—all a short distance from the centre of the city. A second phase of reclamation was undertaken in 2014—seen here as the empty, sandy plot—bringing the total size of the island to 0.84 square kilometers. But this was found to have led to the erosion of over 2km of Sanya Bay’s coast. Following an environmental inspection in late 2017, the government has slapped a suspension on further construction as the project was found to have impacted coastal erosion and the ecosystem, and caused sedimentation at the mouth of the Sanya River. Companies involved in this project include New York-based Balmori Associates, which does landscape and urban design, and the brand-name Chinese architect Ma Yansong's firm MAD. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

"The social, economic, and political issues generated by the commercial exploitation of sands remain little known and relatively underreported in the media."
—Justinien Tribillon.

Two islands in the shape of the sun and a crescent moon have been artificially made off Hainan’s east coast, in the Sun and Moon Bay (Riyuewan), a surfing destination 25 km south of Wanning city. The two man-made islands make up about 1 square kilometre, and are planned as a tourism site with a theme park, international conference venues, shopping malls, yacht club and luxury hotels.The land reclamation on the main island—that resembles a round sun—was completed in 2014 and beach erosion was found soon after. The erosion poses a threat to a forest of Vatica Mangachapoi which grows on sandy beaches in Hainan. The endangered plant is protected in China as it has already suffered over cutting for its valuable wood.In addition, the reclamation project will destroy 50,000 sqm coral reef. Chinese press reports say the project started without carrying out a thorough environmental impact assessment. When these photographs were made in October 2018, construction appeared to still be going on. Italy-based design and architecture firm Metro Studio is listed as being involved in this project. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

Two islands in the shape of the sun and a crescent moon have been artificially made off Hainan’s east coast, in the Sun and Moon Bay (Riyuewan), a surfing destination 25 km south of Wanning city. The two man-made islands make up about 1 square kilometre, and are planned as a tourism site with a theme park, international conference venues, shopping malls, yacht club and luxury hotels.The land reclamation on the main island—that resembles a round sun—was completed in 2014 and beach erosion was found soon after. The erosion poses a threat to a forest of Vatica Mangachapoi which grows on sandy beaches in Hainan. The endangered plant is protected in China as it has already suffered over cutting for its valuable wood.In addition, the reclamation project will destroy 50,000 sqm coral reef. Chinese press reports say the project started without carrying out a thorough environmental impact assessment. When these photographs were made in October 2018, construction appeared to still be going on. Italy-based design and architecture firm Metro Studio is listed as being involved in this project. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

A view from on Phoenix island, Sanya, Hainan. Phoenix Island, on the resort city of Sanya, was the Hainan island’s first flagship land reclamation mega project, attracting internationally renowned architects. Reclaimed between 2002 and 2003, and opened for business in 2015, the artificial island in Sanya Bay has luxury apartments, hotels and a cruise centre—all a short distance from the centre of the city. A second phase of reclamation was undertaken in 2014—seen here as the empty, sandy plot—bringing the total size of the island to 0.84 square kilometers. But this was found to have led to the erosion of over 2km of Sanya Bay’s coast. Following an environmental inspection in late 2017, the government has slapped a suspension on further construction as the project was found to have impacted coastal erosion and the ecosystem, and caused sedimentation at the mouth of the Sanya River. Companies involved in this project include New York-based Balmori Associates, which does landscape and urban design, and the brand-name Chinese architect Ma Yansong's firm MAD. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

A view from on Phoenix island, Sanya, Hainan. Phoenix Island, on the resort city of Sanya, was the Hainan island’s first flagship land reclamation mega project, attracting internationally renowned architects. Reclaimed between 2002 and 2003, and opened for business in 2015, the artificial island in Sanya Bay has luxury apartments, hotels and a cruise centre—all a short distance from the centre of the city. A second phase of reclamation was undertaken in 2014—seen here as the empty, sandy plot—bringing the total size of the island to 0.84 square kilometers. But this was found to have led to the erosion of over 2km of Sanya Bay’s coast. Following an environmental inspection in late 2017, the government has slapped a suspension on further construction as the project was found to have impacted coastal erosion and the ecosystem, and caused sedimentation at the mouth of the Sanya River. Companies involved in this project include New York-based Balmori Associates, which does landscape and urban design, and the brand-name Chinese architect Ma Yansong's firm MAD. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018. 

From a technique employed in specific situations of extreme pressure on land availability, saved almost exclusively for major infrastructure projects —such as a new airport or a container port in a densely populated city— “reclamation” projects have become a vehicle for quick profit: a simplistic approach to architecture, urban development and territorial agency. Sand-fuelled greed.

The social, economic, and political issues generated by the commercial exploitation of sands remain little known and relatively underreported in the media. Yet, their ramifications are typical of our era where complex issues are simplified for immediate gains whilst their consequences are overlooked —until the ground beneath our feed literally disappears from erosion. From Vietnam to Singapore, China to Taiwan, Sim Chi Yin explores the many facets of these shifting sands. She offers multiple points of view, locations, and techniques in order to capture the complexity of what is at stake, right here and right now.

 

Additional reporting by Cong Yan.

Ruyi island, off Haikou city, was intended as a tourist destination, with theme parks and hotels. Its planned size is over 7 square kilometres and it is to be linked to the mainland through a 5.6 km bridge. In an inspection by the authorities in 2017, the project was found to have reclaimed 210,000 sqm of the sea without proper permits. The land reclamation there which started in 2015 has been stopped because of both the environmental inspection as well as the developer running short of funds. In July 2018, Kaisa, another developer, has bought the whole Ruyi Island project from its original developer Zhonghong at 1.4 billion rmb. Florida-based landscape architecture company EDSA is listed as being involved in the project. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

Ruyi island, off Haikou city, was intended as a tourist destination, with theme parks and hotels. Its planned size is over 7 square kilometres and it is to be linked to the mainland through a 5.6 km bridge. In an inspection by the authorities in 2017, the project was found to have reclaimed 210,000 sqm of the sea without proper permits. The land reclamation there which started in 2015 has been stopped because of both the environmental inspection as well as the developer running short of funds. In July 2018, Kaisa, another developer, has bought the whole Ruyi Island project from its original developer Zhonghong at 1.4 billion rmb. Florida-based landscape architecture company EDSA is listed as being involved in the project. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

At a showroom for the "Ocean Flower Island" property development. The Dubais of China |Marketed as the “Dubai of China”, the “Ocean Flower Island” off the coast of Hainan province in China’s far south, is one of several massive land reclamation projects in the country which has raised eyebrows and led to China’s strongest crackdown ever against land reclamation in the country this year. Beijing has called for a halt to all unapproved commercial land reclamation projects across the country for environmental impact assessment.Set in the impoverished, industrial city of Danzhou, “Ocean Flower Island” is being sold as a site for sea-front apartments and for tourism. The “Ocean Flower Island” comprises three artificial islands in the sea measuring 7.83 square kilometers, which is 1.4 times the size of Palm Jumeirah, the man-made island in Dubai. Among the foreign companies listed as involved in the Ocean Flower project are Hilton hotels, Chicago-based Saltan Architects, ThemeParX, a global theme park consultancy. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

At a showroom for the "Ocean Flower Island" property development. The Dubais of China |Marketed as the “Dubai of China”, the “Ocean Flower Island” off the coast of Hainan province in China’s far south, is one of several massive land reclamation projects in the country which has raised eyebrows and led to China’s strongest crackdown ever against land reclamation in the country this year. Beijing has called for a halt to all unapproved commercial land reclamation projects across the country for environmental impact assessment.Set in the impoverished, industrial city of Danzhou, “Ocean Flower Island” is being sold as a site for sea-front apartments and for tourism. The “Ocean Flower Island” comprises three artificial islands in the sea measuring 7.83 square kilometers, which is 1.4 times the size of Palm Jumeirah, the man-made island in Dubai. Among the foreign companies listed as involved in the Ocean Flower project are Hilton hotels, Chicago-based Saltan Architects, ThemeParX, a global theme park consultancy. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

A cofferdam—an enclosure built within a body of water to allow the enclosed area to be pumped out—on the fringe of a parcel of reclaimed land intended for the planned second airport in Xiamen, southern China. The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.

A cofferdam—an enclosure built within a body of water to allow the enclosed area to be pumped out—on the fringe of a parcel of reclaimed land intended for the planned second airport in Xiamen, southern China. The prosperous southern coastal city of Xiamen started in 2016 to reclaim land in preparation to build a controversial second airport on Dadeng Island, a 13 square kilometer island on the border of Xiamen and Kinmen island which belongs to Taiwan.When the airport is completed on reclaimed land, the size of Dadeng island will have doubled.The plans are that by 2025, the airport will have two runways, and be able to serve 45 million passengers per year. Right now, highways and subways connecting Xiamen and Dadeng Island are under construction. Although it’s widely reported that the airport is scheduled to be operational by 2020, there is at present no evidence that the central government and the military have given the final approval to the construction of the airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2018.