A Room of Ones' Own Is a Distant Dream

In Shanghai, government policy results in acutely overcrowded, dilapidated housing

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

TWO-THIRDS of the homes and apartments in central Shanghai lack toilets and baths; 40 percent are in ``poor condition,'' official figures show. Blocked pipes, leaky roofs, and cracked floors are common. Thousands of apartments are in ``dangerous'' disrepair, the local press says.

Meanwhile, Shanghai's population growth has far outpaced government funds for constructing new housing, causing chronic shortages. Many residents wait years for accommodation.

What Shanghainese complain about most bitterly is the rampant corruption among bureaucrats who allocate housing. Officials snap up the spacious homes for themselves and their offspring, even in excess of what they can use. More than 10,000 new apartments in Shanghai have been unoccupied for up to four years due to ``injustices in allocation,'' the official Xin Min Evening News reported last month.

Jammed into such close quarters that ``there is no place to stick in a pin,'' as a local saying goes, Shanghainese say their decisions on marriage, jobs, and even childbirth hinge on housing. The Wang family's dilemma is typical: For the past 15 years, Wang Li, her husband, and two sons have lived in a ``pigeon coop'' - a 9 ft. by 12 ft. loft on the second floor of a rundown house half a century old.

``We don't have [political] power, we don't have money, so we can't hope for a good place to live,'' says Mrs. Wang, a retired factory worker. The family's monthly income is $127.

``For a good house, you have to be a bigwig or pay thousands of yuan in bribe money - otherwise, forget it,'' she says, asking that her real name be withheld.

The Wangs' room has one window opening onto a noisy intersection. A bamboo ladder leads to a cupboard-like tier above the parents' bed, where the sons sleep in cool weather. When summer makes the bunk unbearable, the young men sleep as they have since boyhood, shoulder-to-shoulder on a straw mat on the worn, wooden floor.

In a dark hallway beyond the door, Mrs. Wang cooks on a single-burner stove fueled with coal briquets. A wicker basket and cooking utensils hang from the ceiling.

For bathing, the Wangs heat water drawn from a tap at the sidewalk entryway and fill a wooden tub barely big enough for a man to sit in. In lieu of a distant public toilet, they use a wooden matong, or night stool, which Wang empties each morning into a public vat down the block.

Family members have no privacy, lacking even one of the folding cloth screens used to partition rooms in many Shanghai homes.

Like many residents, Wang's bachelor sons complain that scant housing limits their marriage prospects.

``Eighty percent of the problem of getting married is housing,'' says the 25-year-old son, sipping a soda pop. The printing-factory worker faces at least a five-year wait until his employer assigns him a room.

``A girlfriend won't go through [marriage registration] until she really believes you'll get an apartment,'' he says. The catch-22 is that married couples enjoy priority in housing allocations. A recent survey in the official China Women's News showed that 40 percent of Shanghai couples who ``married in haste'' did so for rooming.

Some couples fail to obtain housing even after waiting several years. As a recourse, their employers rent them private rooms on Sundays. Shanghainese jokingly call the practice ``meeting on a bridge formed by magpies,'' after a legend about a goddess and her husband who live at opposite ends of the Milky Way.

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