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Urban China: view from a Shanghai "snail house"

In Shanghai, home ownership is the ideal middle-class comfort - but it doesn't come cheap.

Longchang Apartments in Shanghai. (Justin Calderon/GlobalPost)

SHANGHAI, China — Though the winter chill has settled in, residents of the Longchang Apartments continue to live out in the open.

These apartments in Yangpu district are so tiny that few pieces of furniture fit inside besides a bed and a desk. Weather-worn couches and splintered kitchen cupboards are instead placed outside, along with other miscellaneous objects of daily life, making the ringed walkways of the six-story apartment block look like a giant yard sale.

Peering out from the fifth floor over the courtyard down below, Sanwei, a 10-year resident and mother of three, pointed toward a series of tall, sleek apartments in the distance. “We want to move into a home,” she said. “It’s very poor here.”

Her “snail home,” as it is called, consists of one, 200-square-foot room and a tiny cube of a washroom that she shares with her husband and children. Rent is about $12.50 a month.

For Sanwei, like so many in China, the ideal of middle-class comfort is easy to define: home ownership. But moving into a home of her own in Shanghai, the country's most expensive city, is a costly road paved with sacrifices.

Becoming a “mortgage slave,” a colloquial term in China for those who pay more than half their disposable income on home loans, is considered the only way get ahead in China’s expensive, material-driven urban centers.

This is especially true for men, who are seen as less suitable for marriage if they have no property.

Twenty-eight-year-old Jian Wei, a mechanic at Shanghai Port, made his choice after graduating college. Originally from Jiangsu province, he shared a tiny, dormitory-like apartment with a friend before taking out a loan worth more than $100,000 two years ago, which allowed him to buy an apartment in Pudong.

“Now I have my own house,” Wei said. “There is a lot more stress, but I’m independent.”

Of his $1,500 monthly salary, he usually pays half toward his monthly loan. At this rate he expects to shoulder the loan for at least 20 years, and that's only if interest doesn’t increase.

“It is not possible to pay more,” he said. Doing so would eliminate the few comforts he can now afford, like durable clothes and dining out in restaurants he knows are kept clean. In Shanghai especially, the disparity between cheap and expensive goods is immediately evident, and indulging in “luxuries” bears a relatively high price.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Chinese Hospital Association, the Beijing Health Protection Association and others, the stress placed upon “mortgage slaves” is becoming the country’s No. 1 “invisible killer,” often resulting in symptoms such as “depression, negative attitudes toward life and work, body aches and exhaustion, [and] feelings of loneliness and helplessness.”

It is the common perception in Shanghai that many of those struggling along in “snail homes” are “outsiders,” or people not native to the city. China’s registration system, known as the hukou, prevents migrants from sharing in the benefits of local health care and education. Buying a house is one way to obtain a local hukou, claiming a secure rung on China’s ever-urbanizing social ladder.

Sanwei and most of her neighbors at Longchang, however, are native to Shanghai, though that doesn't mean they are privy to all the luxuries that the city has to offer. Despite the life-long burden a home mortgage would incur upon a simple family like Sanwei’s, she views becoming a mortgage slave as more enticing than remaining in her “snail house.”

Michael Ding, a property agent in Shanghai, has worked in the residential real-estate market for the past 10 years. “Rent here increases faster than salary,” he said. It's a pace few manage to keep up with. “I know lots of people that rent two to three bedroom apartments in the outer ring area,” Ding said. “There, five to eight people live together.”

Along with the cost of housing, mortgages have begun to rise. International media has been quick to disseminate fear of a possible property bubble that could catalyze an economic crisis similar to the United States.

When asked about the mounting fears, Ding summed up his perspective clearly: “Chinese people like to gamble.” Though “banks require buyers to pay at least 30 percent cash down to buy property” — in an effort to avoid an all-too-familiar sub-prime mortgage meltdown — when it comes to property, Chinese are fond of speculation. “Old people around 80 years old, for example, my 90-year-old relatives, all say that by buying apartments you’ll never lose money.”

Author Zhangxin — widely known as Liuliu — first coined the term "snail houses," by using it as the title for her novel turned TV series back in 2007. Set in Shanghai, “Snail Houses” (sometimes translated to "Narrow Dwellings") resonated with many who identified with the emotions of longing expressed in the story.

But for some of those in China’s stiff bureaucracy, the melodrama’s dark narrative about the seduction of a young woman by a corrupt official was a little too realistic. The series was pulled three episodes short of its first season.

A flurry of netizens have pinned Longchang Apartments as the true “snail home," and residents have reported a recent influx of camera-strapped “sightseers.”

Once a police station in the early 1920s and 1930s, the former prison cells and offices now shelter low-income residents, many of whom wear coats indoors to save on heating bills — a typical Shanghainese money saver.

On a recent winter day, one of Sanwei's sons, bundled up beyond recognition, played outside while she and her neighbor stood and watched between a mildew-caked sink and a bulky wooden closet. Small foyers made out of cheap plastic that look like prefabricated outhouses pepper Longchang's outdoor walkways, making living space even harder to come by.

Although visibly gritty, not everyone is dissatisfied with his snail house.

Xu Guoping, an affable 53-year-old construction worker, said he likes the sense of community he has found in his sturdy, stone apartment. A Double Happiness cigarette flapping in his mouth, he said: “Everyone knows each other here. If you live in a big building, people aren’t so friendly. No one will chat with you. They’ll just go into the elevator and not say a word.”

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/china/101222/shanghai-real-estate-economy