Notes from the Middle Kingdom: Heated Seats, Housing & Hutongs

Words: James Kramer
Friday 13 April 2018
reading time: min, words

Our guy James keeps us up to date with all things housing now that he's back in Notts...


It’s been 9 months since moving back from Beijing to the UK, and within this short time, I’ve sublet, couch-surfed and squatted in what could have been called a quaint little cottage by the sea if it wasn’t for all the dirty needles scattered by the roadside. Now, in April however, I am finally within a studio flat to call my own (not quite as poetic as V. Woolf), albeit for only three months, when I’ll be off again. Adding to this is that my room is situated within the centre of a very active, if not organised, construction site. The smell of caulk and concrete dust does not smell like victory much at all, I can tell you.

As a means of getting by, I’ve looked after fish, cat-sat and then dog-sat, for when it comes to animal guardianship I’m a firm believer in applying the “old woman who swallowed a fly” proviso to my extensive but woefully catastrophic CV. I’ve taken on the kindness of strangers, covered windows with free copies of The Metro and snuck out of a dorm bathroom, sublet to me by Chinese students, which in no way made me feel aged and defeated, or wouldn’t have if I wasn’t repeatedly mistaken for someone’s ethnically confusing father.

Back in Beijing, I lived in an area called Erlizhuang (二里庄) which roughly translates as “Second interior village”, a name that successfully manages to conjure up idyllic rural aspirations with the totalitarianism of Chinese urban planning. In theory, from our sixth story walk up (re many uneven steps) I should have been able to see the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium. But what I mostly paid attention to was the continual 24 hour demolition of a shanty town on the other side of the sluice canal that ran below my window, with the occasional trickle of water running through it, the colour of which I can only identify as…questionable. The area opposite had been unsafe, with mud roads and domiciles/restaurants built less out of Lego and more by the mad ad hoc lunacy of taking Kerplunk as the basis of your structural foundations. Layers upon layers of disastrously unsafe walkways and annexes kept it visually interesting; having to risk icicle rich steel banisters in the Beijing winter just to make it outside to the unlit public toilet would have smeared my romanticised vision of squalid living.

Erlizhuang itself was fairly unremarkable. A series of old Beijing buildings in more or less soviet style, there was a small market selling everything a boy could want from fresh tofu to questionable alcohol, and enough greenery that in the summer (if you got lucky with the pollution), it could verge on the definition of being called pretty. I stopped fairly early on however, telling people exactly where I lived, for every time I’d mention the name, people would give me the same exact reply: “Oh, the place with the run down red light district.”

At first I’d argue that they were mistaken, but upon walking the dog around the central strip, I found that they were in fact correct. It was not exciting, nor mysterious. And given the reports I’d read of human kidnapping & trafficking from Mongolia, and the village girls’ promise that drinking medicinal teas could protect them from HIV, it made me slightly ashamed to be living there, even if I was wholly ignorant. I could only hope that due to my little furry companion (the dog), I looked more like a bemused local and less like an international sex pest.

Most of the other expats in Beijing lived in trendier areas of the city, think Hockley but with a serious dose of DIY insanity and more seedy taverns than you can shake an unfocused finger at. Here, they’d opt for the more expensive choice of living in a converted Hutong. Hutongs (胡同) are the old style housing of Beijing, the kind you imagine if your stereotype of China is rooted two hundred years ago (and let’s be honest, most of ours is). The façade stays the same, all curving roof tiles, rounded doors and paper lanterns. The insides are then converted to have all the mod-cons a young expat would require. These come with drinkable water from a cooler, windows that actually shut, electronic radiators rather than a coal fire, you know, the usual. Think of these buildings as kind of Yuppie Tardis’, with the outside still locked in 1963 whereas the inside appears pristine and only slightly dilapidated.

Actually, this might not be a bad business model for some areas of Nottingham to pick up on. Take an area to mock up, like the old Narrow Marsh and then fill the home fronts with wifi and heated floors and charge an inordinate amount for the “cultural experience.” In fact, I should take this idea to those with capital to invest. Is Dragon’s Den still a thing here? I can’t just go and shout about it on Speakers’ Corner to wealthy looking persons. I mean I will, but I shouldn’t.        

For my own living space, there was nothing new about the interior at all. When the plumbing exploded, we simply cut off the piece of broken pipe and stood closer to the door when showering. Not that the shower worked anyway, all of the hot water for the flat came from a single, volatile boiler above the kitchen sink. The Noisy Cricket of heating appliances. Then through a single pipe, the water had to make its way horizontally across the bathroom, meaning first the toilet, then the sink and finally it was free to piss dribble out from the shower head. Suffice to say, the sink and shower were never warm, but in the most cockroach infested domicile I’ve ever encountered, we did have one fiery and luxurious heated toilet.

Construction issues in China can be terrifying. Earthquake-ready the buildings are not, and the average lifespan of a building remains under 50 years. Buildings regularly begin to crumble before they’ve been completed and often seriously dangerous faults persist. Upon requesting a plug socket for his electric razor, a friend’s landlord installed one directly underneath the showerhead. When informed that this might be slightly prickly, he resolved the situation by covering it with a good six layers of duct tape. Buildings fall over and structures subside, but there is also an incredible work ethic that puts the dear old UK to shame.

As mentioned, I’m still living in what is very definitely a building site which means, on the plus side, I don’t need an alarm clock as I’m usually awoken by an unexpected house guest, given the lack of working lock on the front door and its amiable shelter from the rain. But man or beast sleeping next to me, construction lingers. They’ve been delayed for over four months now. In Beijing, construction is a 24 hour occupation. Everybody who’s been to China has stories about watching hotels and shopping centres appearing seemingly overnight, being built in a couple of weeks flat. Not to say that these will be safe, or reliable, or contain walls that aren’t empty save for cardboard and tinder (sticks) but goddamn is it incredible to watch.

Accommodation may not be cheaper in Beijing, but resources are. I’ve yet to see my first UK electricity bill in seven years (re all the squatting) but am dreading the day, having become so used to being able to pay it from out of the spare change and lint in my pocket. I’ll miss the ramshackle nature of it all too, of being able to flag down a gas powered tricycle and load way too much on top of it to move house, myself sitting perched above like some lording Beverly Hillbilly. I won’t, however, miss having to constantly re-register at the police station every time I move, nor the constant lingering threat of neighbours reporting me. Not because I’d done anything (particularly) wrong, but on the off chance that they’d get lucky and the police would find something (if you report on an expat and they’re arrested, there’s a sizable cash reward for said good citizen. Similarly, there’s no penalty if the foreigner comes up clean, so what’s to lose?). So I’ll leave by saying this; it would be nice to actually be living in someplace slightly more permanent than a haircut before my first year of being back comes damply to a close.

Then again, the transitory nature of renting seems true for most of my peers who’ve stayed in Notts. Many still seem to be fighting with rogue landlords with questionable intentions (the midlands recently came first in a national survey of illegal/sub-par landlords, so there’s another notch to our sexy old belt of shame). However, my Nottingham friends do not have to worry that one day there’ll come a knock at their door, asking to 抄水表,  (chāo shuǐbiǎo), i.e. “to check the water meter.” This was the code used a few years ago by Beijing officials to gain access to your domicile. True too for many of them, my Nottinghamites will never have the experience, nay the majesty, of a scolding hot bathroom throne, with an audience of loyal subjects (prior mentioned roaches) all observing with nodding antenna, as you hold court. Or they could do, once that new property venture idea of mine kicks off. Buy now and get a free flat cap, pipe and anti-Europe sentiment thrown in for free (the last one might be less of a throwback, sadly), ta-ra.   


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