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Desperate Houseowners

December 16, 2009

I’ve come to learn that when something is banned in China, it’s probably well worth checking out.  That’s proven to be the case with a new hit TV series called woju 蜗居, which goes by the English name “Dwelling Narrowness”.  The series, which aired on Beijing and Shanghai TV, focuses on the difficulties facing average Chinese people in an environment of spiraling apartment prices and official corruption.  One blog calls it “without question one of the most influential television series to have aired in China,” and it must have touched some raw nerves, because it was yanked from the airwaves and ordered back to the edit room to be “recensored.”  If anything, its abrupt cancellation has generated even more interest among Chinese viewers, who can still download it illicitly online. 

The main story revolves around the two Guo sisters, who live in Shanghai.  The elder, Haiping, and her husband are graduates of Fudan University, and together live on a typical “local” combined salary of RMB 9,000 (US$1,300) per month.  In order to scrimp and save every penny, they rent an cheap one-room apartment and live apart from their young daughter, who is being raised by Haiping’s parents.  Frustrated by their earlier decision not to purchase an apartment when prices were far cheaper, they are obsessed with buying one as soon as possible, even though they can barely afford it.  They end up buying a place with a mortage of RMB 6,000 per month, 2/3 their income.

The younger sister, Haizao, is a pretty and naive girl who lives with her kind and loyal boyfriend, Xiao Bei.  She works for a somewhat slimey property developer who relies on her to help entertain important contacts, one of whom is Secretary Song, an official in the city government who passes along valuable advice and information.  Song is facing a bit of a midlife crisis, and is attracted to Haizao’s youth and innocence.  Pressed by her elder sister to provide some of the cash she needs to buy an apartment, Haizao grows closer to Secretary Song, eventually becoming his mistress.

An interesting side story concerns one of Haiping’s neighbors, who actually own their tiny apartment in an old part of town that has been condemned for redevelopment.  Unwilling to accept the meager compensation they are offered by local officials, they refuse to move, even as the authorities shut off their power and water to drive them out.  This subplot is based on a number of real-life incidents that have taken place in China, most notably a family in Chongqing that refused to vacate their home even though the authorities bulldozed the entire neighborhood around them.

So far I’ve only watched up to Episode 19 out of 35, so I can’t spoil the ending even if I wanted to.  But I do highly recommend it for anyone who wants to gain an insight into the social tensions and economic challenges facing China today (unfortunately I have not yet found a version that has English subtitles, but if I do I will post a link).  One of the things I really like is how none of the characters are outright villains or heroes.  They all have a believable mix of attractive and not-so-attractive traits, which makes them feel like people you might actually know.  All of them act from credibly human motives and find themselves in situations that definitely ring true to me in many ways.

In watching the show, there have been a few moments in particular that caught my attention and struck me as especially revealing:

  • The older sister, Haiping, considers several older (and more affordable) apartments, but is convinced that if the owner is selling, there must be something wrong with them.  Ultimately, she decides to buy a brand new apartment — a thought process that sheds some interesting light on why China’s real estate sector is so heavily lopsided in favor of new developments and has such a weak secondary market.
  • There’s a classic scene where a developer first opens the doors to pre-selling units in a project that has not yet been built, is still just a model.  A crowd of buyers rush in, willing to pay any price, and all the apartmetns are sold out in a matter of minutes — an image that perfectly captures the “gold rush” atmosphere of China’s current property market.
  • After returning home from the pre-sale session, an astounded Haiping asks her husband how apartments can be so unaffordable yet there still seems to be unlimited demand to buy them.  I’ve wondered the same thing myself.  What she doesn’t even mention is how most of these apartments will remain unoccupied long after they have been completed.
  • Later, Haiping complains to a coworker that, when she asked a developer whether they had a grocery store nearby, he said no, but they have a cigar bar!  I’ve often seen exactly the same phenomenon: developers ignoring basic needs and pitching excessively to the high-end of the market, in order to portray the impression of luxury and command a higher price.  Our own building (in Beijing) has had vacant retail space on the ground floor for over a year, and we hoped somebody might open a convenience store or dumpling shop, which would be ideal to serve the office commuters in the area.  Instead, they just opened a European wine store — prestigious, maybe, but I can’t imagine who in our part of town would actually buy anything there.  Much like the luxury-end mall down the street where nobody ever shops.
  • Secretary Song encourages a developer friend to participate in a scheme where fellow developers buy and sell properties from each other in order to boost transaction prices and generate “excitement” in the market.  He tells him, don’t worry, the price will never go down.  Hmmm.
  • Song never accepts bribes directly, and you wonder at first whether he just dispenses tips as a favor, or to help accomplish the government’s agenda.  But then you hear a phone conversation about Song’s relatives wondering what to do with the cash they collected.  This is exactly the way it’s done — and why anyone doing due diligence in China needs to make it a priority to check out the relatives and any cash flows involving them.
  • Insincere local officials tell residents how wonderful it is that the government is revitalizing the neighborhood, all the while conniving at how to remove them as quietly and cheaply as possible.
  • When Haiping is reunited with her daughter, the little girl barely recognizes her and clings to her grandmother.  I’ve frequently been astounded at how readily Chinese families — parents and children, husbands and wives — split up for extended periods of time to pursue educational or economic opportunities in different cities or even countries.  (This phenomenon might come as a surprise to those who have heard so much about the emphasis Chinese culture places on family).  From what I’ve seen, it usually causes a great deal of heartache and often ends very badly.

The other day, when I spoke at the American Chamber of Commerce, I mentioned Woju in the context of our discussion of the real estate sector, and whether a bubble exists or not.  Virtually all of the Chinese faces in the audience nodded, having either watched the show or heard of it.  Many of my students at Tsinghua have mentioned the show to me, and it evidently touched a nerve with them as well.  No wonder the series, with its unvarnished take on so many sensitive issues, made the authorities nervous.   All of which makes “Dwelling Narrowness” must-see TV.

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