My House

I’m on my sixth crib in China.  The first place I lived in was located on the corner of two of the busiest streets in Beijing and had no curtains, so in summer I would be awake by 4am; if the sun didn’t get me, the roar of the trucks hammering into the city certainly would.  I was shown a quieter place, but a large section of the ceiling had come down – I’m not talking about a little piece of plaster here, I really mean a large chunk of concrete, it was at least a foot long and about 8 inches thick.  Glancing around the place it seemed the previous owners had left in a bit of a hurry; it looked like the place had been hit by a rocket grenade.

I opted for structural integrity over peace and quiet and I came to regret that decision on the very first day when I walked into the complex and found a large crowd gathered around the entrance to the building next door.  I spoke no Chinese back then so I had no idea what was going on, but from the hysterical wailing of two women I could tell it wasn’t good.  And then they stumbled out with a body wrapped in a blood soaked sheet.   Later on, we were looking for a new place to live and the lady who lived downstairs told us what had happened.  Hubby had slit his wife’s throat and then jumped out the window from the fifth floor.  “the apartment is still for rent and very cheap” she offered.  Fuck.

That winter we moved outside the city limits to the country, every night a moonlit ride past open fields.  Perfect.  And six weeks later I got offered a job in Wuhan and found myself back in a shitty apartment next to a main highway.  This time there were three roads that enclosed the building although, to be fair, only two of them were main roads.  The third was a small back alley full of street vendors who would argue loudly and sometimes get into fights with the customers at two in the morning.

This time there were no murder-suicides, but the building shifted one night because they were constructing a 28 story high rise directly opposite.  There was a rumble and a large crack appeared up the wall and along the ceiling, and a row of floor tiles popped up from the pressure.

We found a place in a new high rise overlooking a small lake and on clear days could watch the sun going down from the balcony, reddened by the pollution into a fiery ball.  It was quiet when we moved, but within a week they opened the road that ran across the lake and it became the latest thorough on which to be seen driving.  Also, the humidity from the lake made the place unbearable in the summer and we had to use a mosquito net because of the swarms that would come up from the water.

I don’t know what we were thinking when we moved to pad number five.  Three main roads and a railway line that ran out from the main station in Wuhan, one of the busiest in the country; trains would rumble past every 10 minutes throughout the night.  The only plus was there were no mosquitoes to worry about, my theory was the pollution killed them off.

My other theory is that any of these Asia correspondents who rattle on about the China markets have never really stepped out of their five star hotels beyond the conference hall. Or if they did, it was only to attend the post conference piss up.  In 2006, I read there were 140,000 vacant apartments in Wuhan and that was before they really started getting off on throwing up poorly constructed high rise apartment blocks.  The place we lived in by the lake was 28 stories and was at about 10% occupancy.  The apartments had all been bought but no one was living in them; they had been purchased as an investment.  But the problem is that in the one year we were living there and suffering the extremities of winter and summer, four more high rises went up next to ours and from the bedroom window I could see at least 15 more.   The area is now a rat’s maze of empty high rises.

We had already decided to move out when the landlord number four announced he would be putting up the rent by 20% for the new contract, something about inflation.  Landlady number five tried the same gig too, although she wanted 25%, giving us some additional bullshit about having “several interested parties”.   If she hadn’t pulled that stunt we might have stayed, even allowing for the noise, the place was convenient – although the fact she was 4’10” and had modeled the place accordingly was an additional downside (I’m 6’2”).

If there were 140,000 apartments for rent in 2006, there must be 300,000 by now, and since we know the city a lot better now, this time it wasn’t difficult finding a decent place; a huge apartment in an old style building on a university campus.  Well back from the road so the only sounds are the dawn chorus and the occasional nutter yakking on a mobile phone.  The place is surrounded by trees and a breeze runs through the place to keep it cool in the summer.

The landlady seemed taken aback when we announced we wouldn’t be renewing the contract, offering to reduce the rent, that is, the rent with the 25% increase added on – her greed still got the better of her.  We’ve been in the new pad for 8 months now, I just checked online and she is still trying to rent out the place.   Good luck with that.


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