housing bubble in china, and elsewhere

“安得广厦千万间,大庇天下寒士俱欢颜”, not for the modern Chinese. The country is falling without values, but people just cannot care less.

People love owning properties and are crazy about owning costly properties such as houses. A tent, a shelter, an adobe, an apartment, a mansion, and a skyscraper…, from ancient tribes to modern societies, each of these structures provides human a shield that separates us from the outside, the hostile however natural environment. It satisfies human’s basic sense of protection and security against the unpredictable and the uncertainties. Never mind that this is an irony that unpredictability and uncertainty have been driving human development ever since human beings came to their existence in this planet.

OK. Enough for the philosophical blah blah… Let’s look at the Chinese housing saga. I had a few friends who had bought apartments at early 2000. Obviously now, these friends of mine are considered a lucky group that gained handsomely in personal finance, thanks to the Chinese housing bubble in the recently past years. We saw empty residence towers in big metropolitans such as Beijing and Shanghai. Now houses are merchandises, goods, means of investment, but not for sheltering ordinary people from the hostile surroundings. Instead, everyday people are under pressur to endure unprecedented physical, financial and mental stresses only to acquire a humble place to support their families. Young people struggle to buy houses and hand over with their parents’s hard-saved cash to the real estate developers. Personal and social values follow in a twisted manner that reflects the substantiated impact by the housing bubble. An ownership of an apartment is required by a Shanghai mom to her future son-in-law so that she can feel relieved for her daughter (for what?). The most common talks at lunch and dinner tables are about buying, selling, and pricing of houses (topic that is equivalently hot is the stock market, which is also busting a bubble this year). Housing slangs including “fang nu”, “wo ju”, “luo hun” are now part of the pop culture.

(Image Bloomberg. People who made down payments on homes at a China Vanke Co. development protest in Shanghai outside the Vanke Shanghai Center, standing opposite a row of security guards. Caption from Los Angeles Times, Dec. 13, 2011)

Years of zealous growth in housing values evangelicated people to pursue real estate ownership as nearly as a religious endeavor. Recent real estate price drop due to the Chinese government  intervention has angered many fresh buyers who believed the only way for housing price to go is up. This is an old bubble in America, but in China it is going through a whole other uncharted water. See a report from Los Angeles Times for a recent account.

A Metro Commuter

Shanghai has one of the world’s most comprehensive Metro and light rail systems, which is still under rapid expansion as the city undergoes unprecedented transition. Now, I take part in this like many other people who happen to live in this mega city.

A map of Shanghai Metro

I recently moved from my old apartment at the city center near Xujiahui to a new one in the southwest suburb (the University Town in Songjiang district), a rural area only a few years ago. It means that I officially started my life as one of the millions of Shanghai commuters who move by the Metro system on a daily basis from home to work, and back. My routine commute is Line 9, a route connecting Songjiang District to Pudong District, straight from the station near my apartment to the one close to my office. The entire ride takes 13 stops and about 45 minutes. Factor in the walking time that takes me travel between stations and home or work, everyday I spend two hours for a round trip commute.

My new apartment costs one third less in rent but is almost twice as big as my last one in downtown. For this exchange, I pay extra cost of subway fair (12RMB round trip) and spend extra time in transit. I can have regular readings or listennings to podcasts during my commute. I am now reading Peter Hessler’s books about his personal experience in china. I’ve finished his first book, River Town, a book about his teaching and life in Fuling, and now I moved on to his second book, Oracle Bones. I look forward to read his third book “country driving” after I finish this one (Update: I am in fact reading the third one now. I just learned that Ho Wei, Hessler in his Chinese name, was awarded the MacArthur fellowship, a prestigious prize that present to a person who has a marked capacity of self-direction. Congratulations! Ho Wei).

The greatest annoyance to me in the subway is that many morning commuters eat their take-out breakfasts during the ride or do some other trivia that might be more appropriate at a private setting. I can smell their food and hear their chewing sound. One time, I saw this tall and pretty girl who held and watched her cell phone in one hand and in the meantime ate her food held by the other. She was eating so loud that I could hear the clamping noise of her mouth from about 15 meters away in a crowded car. For herself, the whole act was under complete isolation and she was so relaxed as if the Metro is an extension to her living room. Today, I saw a man at his thirties loudly clipping his finger nails and let the clip-offs fall all over the floor in front of other commuters.

Every entrance of a metro station has a security check point, where you need to put your bag through a X-ray scanner for screening. I have a mixed feeling for such “heightened security measure”. I still consider China is an internally peaceful country with little terrorist threat, at least in the east coast region. It looks paranoid to have such equipments installed everywhere (I even saw metal detectors installed for bar entrances in Songjiang).

But given the importance and vulnerability of the Metro system, a concern of public safety seems in the meantime well justified, even though Shanghai Metro system has never been attacked ever since the transit system started its operation in 1995. All previous incidents were due to either technical fault or mismanagement. However, like many Chinese systems, there is no clear rule regulating what type of bags must be subject to the X-ray. Even if there exist such rules, they are not enforced systematically. One time I put my messenger bag onto the belt of a X-ray machine and the screener personnel just stared at me without even looking at the screen. “You don’t even look at what is in my bag.” I complained. He grinned and then looked embarrassed but still didn’t want to go back to his actual work and check what might be inside in my bag. Sometimes, in Songjiang University Town Station of Line 9 one guy instructs people to put their bags through the scanner and another guy who supposedly should inspect the screen could not care less or was just doing other things.

Write at the edge of 2009

2009 is here, officially!

Walking back home from my office, I spent the midnight passing. The street was silent, cold and empty. Soon firecrackers broke the chill from a distance. But it was a quiet and insensible new year eve. Look out! a young couple were holding a long kiss with each other across the street. Thank you! Even in this corner of the world, a holiday spirit prevails.

Maybe one day I will inevitably become old and a new year passing will mean nothing new any longer. Nonetheless, I will still miss the new year passing in the fairytale-like Montreal, in the classic-modern NYC and by the snow-topped Rocky Mountains. And I will miss this one and the young couple that lighted up a forgotten Shanghai street, a street that took me back home with a holiday spirit.

Howdy 2009!

Yueyang Road’s Abbey Road

Ok, It has been three months now, for me, in this strange city. It is busy, loud, remote and faceless. Walking down the street in the heart of Shanghai, I start missing that quiet little town nowhere in the snowy Rocky Mountains.
I sit right on the street in my office every day and night, witnessing all the impatient traffics passing through honking and polluting. I still feel myself a visitor who can not manage to fit in. My friend called it "A Sin City". Well, he never jumped into a subway cart, he never left this corner of the town, how could he know better anyway? He is just another scientist with critical opinions. It’s nothing but a first-place rejection. I know the Sin City that is right in the middle of Nevada desert, cash-driven and soulless. In spite of all its charms, it is fake. It’s not a city you call home, people are not real people, money is played in unrealistic games. With all its fantasies, it is heartless. You are a tourist, a gambler, a retiree, a college kid, a lover, a loser, …, you are rushing in and out of the Sin City. Maybe my friend has his point. It does resemble that Sin City of Nevada here in Shanghai. Neon lights can only shine in darkness. That goes the speechless skyline, a dandy tower standing by another, and so on. People call it trendy, futuristic, conceptual, cutting-edge, anti-past-postmodern, whatever.
Today we’ve watched in our neighborhood a bogus band playing Beatles in a restaurant named "Abbey Road", on Yueyang Road.