Functional housing in China

The monotony of standardized housing found in some socialist countries does not dominate a Chinese city, yet the floor plans vary little: two bedrooms, a balcony, an entry, a toilet room, and a tiny kitchen.

The facades of the rectangular units, however, are pleasantly, if subtly, different. It is disappointing to find so little in the way of traditional style and beauty in the designs. The blocks are modern and utilitarian - flat-topped, Western-appearing living units.

I. M. Pei, the American architect, has reportedly stressed the desirability of incorporating Chinese themes in the work he has been doing in China.

Although ''two-bedroom'' apartments seem to predominate, three and even four rooms are ''available.''

Cultural differences, however, modify the meaning of this sentence. ''Bedroom'' usually means room - there are no additional areas for living or dining. Entryways are rather large, 7 by 8 feet, and can, and often do, serve as a sitting or eating area.

Hacked up by five doors and a window, however, their usefulness is limited. As a result, the two main rooms are indeed bedrooms, dominated by single, or more likely double, beds canopied with mosquito netting.

Here it is, though, that visitors are entertained.

''Available'' does not mean that vacancies exist for individuals to seek out and rent. Despite the increase in apartments, innumerable young marrieds, waiting for space, share a room in a dormitory at their work place. Although provided with communal kitchen and bathing facilities, some do cook for themselves, awkwardly in the hallways.

Finally, it should be noted that the larger units are for management, not just for larger families. Today one is penalized for having more than one child; a lowered housing priority is one of the penalties.

Older, single-family cottages and some of the earliest apartments may lack water or indoor toilet facilities. More recent ones have Asian squat toilets, refuse from which may be piped directly into the country where it is stored and aged for ultimate use as fertilizer.

In addition to the toilet with laid-on cold water, this tiled room has a floor drain so that bathing can be done at home in large wooden or plastic tubs. Water must be heated in the kitchen. For those without bathing space, the bathhouse is nearby. There for 3 cents (US) one can enjoy a gang shower or for 15 cents a private cubicle.

Hand washing or sponge bathing is done in an enameled basin set at waist level on a metal frame handy to the kitchen drain.

The European ''geyser'' that heats a tubful of water on demand is readily available in British Hong Kong, but has not been encountered in central China's stores. Electric ones would be very expensive; gas here comes in tanks. Adaptation of the geyser to these circumstances - or solar heated water - would be a boon, according to local housewives.

Although lacking the convenience of a hot-water tap, the Chinese for centuries have drunk boiled water, which today they store in insulated jugs.

Each adult has at least 21/2-gallon bottles filled and handy for use for tea, cooking, or quick hand washing. Those with no kitchens buy boiled water or hot water for drinking and washing.

Chinese kitchens are small. A deep laundry-type sink is usually the only appurtenance. Cooking is done on either a propane-fired two-burner frame stove or on a low, free-standing 6-7-inch round coal- or brush-fired brazier large enough to nest the wok, or both.

Rooms inevitably have central overhead fixtures.

''How primitive,'' marveled one young man at a candlelit Thanksgiving dinner, ''we have fluorescent lights,'' and so they do. A single outlet, run off the central fixture, may be the only connection in a 10-by-15-foot room. One oddity, for Americans - the electrical switches are reversed and OFF is up.

Two factors may account for this limited wiring. One is the paucity of eletrical gadgetry. However, as with the milk bottle, the tendency to use batteries in cassette players, radios, and razors may be both cause and effect. The other factor is the solid concrete construction of most housing.

Balconies can be found in almost every recently built apartment. Some have been enclosed for extra space. Many are laden with potted plants, trees, and vines. All are festooned daily with colorful laundry. Most become storage space for spare bed frames, chairs, stools, and basins or tubs, while firewood covers some or dangles in bundles under the railing.

Chinese apartments are like concrete boxes with 13- to 14-foot ceilings.

Generally, there are no built-ins of any kind, no kitchen cupboards, no closets, although recesses may exist over stairs or doorways. As a result, beds, chests, and wardrobes crowd the walls. There are exceptions (perhaps even more common in the major cities). Closets were reported by one resident to the amazement of her 25 colleagues. Like partially completed American tract houses, finances may dictate these fringe items.

Considering the crunch on agricultural land that sprawling urban areas have brought, it is unlikely that Chinese families will ever have much more room.

Refining what is available is the challenge of the present: Inexpensive convertible furnishings, stackables or storage walls, and lofts to utilize empty spaces already ventilated by existing upper casements and transoms, are awaiting development or popularization.

Meanwhile, the masses are grateful for niches of their own.

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