'Ghost city' problem feeds bizarre side industry in China: foreigner rentals

Overzealous construction in China has left the country with so-called "ghost cities" and other empty  developments clinging to the outskirts of major cities.

To lure potential buyers to these often remote sites, developers are employing a unique solution: They hire foreigners as bait -- foreigners who pose as models, celebrities, professors, athletes, singers, and occasionally even engineers of the property they're tangentially hawking.

A ghost city in China. Click photo for a slideshow.
A ghost city in China. Click photo for a slideshow.

"Once you put a foreigner out there, everything changes," says a representative of Exotic Flavour Talent Agency, a company that hires out foreigners. "It is no longer some remote building built by an unknown developer. It becomes an international city of the future."

Copenhagen-based filmmaker David Borenstein filmed the New York Times Op-Doc you see here, capturing an interaction between the rep and a developer looking to rent out foreigners.

"Now it is true that the price of white people is expensive, but it makes the place feel classier," the rep tells the developer. "And if you truly can't squeeze out the funds but still want to project an international atmosphere, I suggest using black people. They have a very open personality, yet are quite cheap."

How cheap?

About $160, she answers.

The concept is strange, even to the people who are hired. They are often recruited at bars around town and employed essentially as actors.

"In China, you can be anything without any knowledge or education, if you're from the West," says one such hire -- who, the emcee of his event notes, is very handsome.

Everything is fake, of course. Sometimes the foreigners "perform" -- walk down a runway in a fashion show, for example -- but often they just attend events and add that certain "North American look," as the emcee calls it.

"We just show up to give them a white face," the actor adds.

This song-and-dance is all meant to bump the value of the real estate. It's essentially a facelift to the properties—a cosmetic thing, the company rep says.

"The real value of a house or any product doesn't really matter," she says. "As long as there is a good image, people will be willing to buy it. For the time being, the image has become the reality."

Click here or on a photo for a slideshow of China's "ghost cities":

Click for a slideshow.
Click for a slideshow.

The New York Times Op-Doc here is drawn from David Borenstein's feature documentary "Chinese Dreamland." To learn more about the Times' Op-Docs, click here, and for information on submitting your own, click here.