A Room of Ones' Own Is a Distant Dream
In Shanghai, government policy results in acutely overcrowded, dilapidated housing
ON most mornings, Zhou Shufang rises from her foldaway bed before 6 and creeps down the steep, creaking wooden staircase from her family's tiny, one-room abode to a communal kitchen. Tea kettles and pots of breakfast xi fan, or rice gruel, simmer on gas stoves, where Mrs. Zhou and members of six other families cook elbow-to-elbow for 28 mouths each day.Skip to next paragraph
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Zhou politely greets other residents who share what before the 1949 revolution was her father's opulent, three-story, brown- brick home in the old quarter of Shanghai.
``We try to cooperate,'' says Zhou, a dignified 70-year-old with neatly curled hair. With seven families manning one kitchen, two sinks, and a crude shower that runs from a cold outdoor tap, ``I guess we get along fairly well,'' she sighs.
For Zhou and the 12.8 million inhabitants of China's most populous city, a room of one's own is a distant dream.
Every day, Shanghai awakens to a cacophony of bicycle bells, snarled traffic, and bus attendants barking through megaphones as workers flood the city's meandering, tree-lined streets.
In back alleys cluttered with tables and stools, people eat, read, or gossip. Elderly women in loose-fitting pajamas scrub clothes on wooden washboards. Men in undershirts rolled up from the waist gamble at cards or mahjong.
Homes, sometimes called ``pigeon coops'' or ``honeycombs'' in Shanghai slang, offer little respite. Nearly a million people in the central city have ``living space'' of less than 6 ft. by 6 ft. each, according to official statistics. Of those, 130,000 have less than half that space - barely enough for a single bed.
Shanghai's housing shortage, one of the worst in China, is a direct result of the Communist Party's untenable policy of providing the country's 200 million city dwellers with rooming for a pittance, officials concede.
The cramped and decaying housing illustrates an enduring paradox of socialism: Welfare for all produces shared poverty, with comfortable homes the privilege of a corrupt few.
Eager to avert a crisis, Shanghai recently drafted major reforms that would scrap the system of state allocation and gradually ``commercialize'' housing - essentially by making people pay for it. [See accompanying story.]
But the city's low-paid factory workers, accustomed to state handouts, are likely to resist spending more.
``Why haven't we solved the housing problem? Because after Liberation [in 1949], we began distributing housing for pitifully low rents,'' says Wu Baozhang, deputy director of Shanghai's Housing Reform Office.
In the 1960s, Maoist officials preaching egalitarianism confiscated the residences of well-to-do families from Shanghai's capitalist era and carved them up for the proletariat.
Mrs. Zhou recalls radical Red Guards storming through the black-arched doorway of her father's old-style shikumen house, ransacking and looting. Servants left and workers' families moved in, leaving Zhou, her artist husband, and six children with one 9 ft. by 15 ft. room.
``The children slept on the floor,'' said Zhou, who was widowed shortly after the raid. ``I had to send two of them to stay with a relative. Otherwise, we wouldn't have survived.''
Decades later, Zhou still shares her room with her youngest son, his wife, and their five-month-old baby, whose rag diapers hang from the window on bamboo festoons.
Zhou and other Shanghainese today pay rent of about 85 cents a month, or less than 2 percent of a worker's average monthly wage. The paltry rents cannot cover the costs of maintaining and repairing old housing.