When I arrived in China six years ago, I was a recent graduate fresh out of college with no idea how to rent an apartment in a foreign country and a stipend much too small to cover a studio apartment in Shanghai.
So I did what any foreigner in that situation should do: I rented a room in an illegal co-rental apartment (hezu) with eight flatmates. What I learned from that experience is that living in a hezu is a great way to make Chinese friends and become accustomed to life in China.
After I found an internship in 2012, the first thing I did was to get a list together of apartments from the website 58Tongcheng, a sort of Craigslist-esque website for which professional real estate listings are a main feature (“a magical website,” according to its commercials). Quickly I learned that the listings have almost no relation to the apartments an agent will show clients.
I called to express interest in a promising apartment listed on the 27th floor of a building a few subway stops away from downtown. The agent told me to meet outside Lujiabang subway station and took me to the 23rd floor of a tower with European-esque colonnades and design ornaments. The apartment was new, he said, and I could tell, because there were still wood planks lying against the wall, and tape and paint on the floor and walls. It wasn’t the place in the listing.
Nonetheless, I liked what I saw. It had five bedrooms, a common room, a refrigerator, and a spectacular view from the glass-enclosed balcony. I quickly decided I wanted to live there. There was only one problem: I was a foreigner. Only Chinese could live there, the landlord said.
I felt the sting of discrimination. Why couldn’t foreigners live with Chinese? I knew some foreigners in China could be loud and obnoxious, but I wasn’t that kind of foreigner. Why’d they show it to me in the first place if I couldn’t live there?
I told the landlord, “Wo hui shuo zhongwen” (“I can speak Chinese”), and I appreciate Chinese culture, so I should be able to get along with the others.
“That’s not the problem,” Landlord said. It’s just that the apartment, you see, was not technically a legal living arrangement. After all, Landlord had taken what was licensed as a single-family apartment and turned it into a flophouse. She had put up makeshift walls and rewired the electricity. Even the kitchen was a bedroom.
“Only ‘family’ can live there,” she said, referring to an apparently loophole. Why couldn’t I be “family”? “Aren’t I your nephew? Don’t you have a ‘sister’ who married a foreigner and had children?” I asked.
The landlord was charmed and eventually let me stay. A Chinese friend negotiated to cut the price by 200 yuan a month. I moved in a few days after signing the contract and was disappointed to see that the balcony had disappeared. There was a wall in front of it. The landlord had created yet another new bedroom!
Besides me, 8 other people were living in the hezu, a word that means co-rented apartment. They were male and female, old and young. I was the only foreigner. Four of my flatmates were recent college graduates like me who had moved to Shanghai for work. Among them were three women, two of whom worked as models, and one man who worked first as a real estate agent and later as an event host. Next door to me was a young couple and their infant baby, and, in the smallest room, was an old man, who collected the rent.
The day I moved in was July 4, America’s Independence Day. In order to celebrate, I offered my flatmates American whisky. “I brought this from America, it’s one of my country’s biggest brands,” I said, as I unveiled the Jim Beam. We clanked cups together, gan bei-ed, and then went to a dinner of hot pot. To celebrate a country that aspires to be a melting pot, I felt whisky and hot pot was an ideal meal.
Before long, conflicts began. The root of the conflicts stemmed not from my being a foreigner but rather from all of us being outsiders—foreign to Shanghai. Some Shanghainese who had moved to Shanghai a decade or two ago don’t like recent arrivals, especially those from neighboring Anhui, a less prosperous inland province where a few of the models were from, whom they view as “uncultured” “peasants.”
The man living on the floor below us was one such person. Despite us following Landlord’s request not to be too loud, the man below quickly went to war with us.
He would knock the women’s clothes off the drying poles when it was hanging to outside the windows. He came to our apartment one day and got into a fistfight with the husband living next door to me. One night in winter, we heard a loud crack. The next morning, we discovered the crazy man had smashed the bathroom window from below. Showering was very cold for the next month until Landlord finally had it fixed.
Worse than the December cold was the scorching summer heat. With 8 people in the place and the temperature hitting 40 degrees C (104 degrees F) a few times, we had air conditioning cranking to the max all summer long. Often the power would go out. After all of us called Landlord to complain, she would eventually come late the next day, sometimes two days later, to fix it.
Within the hezu, however, we were getting along and making friends. I became good friends with the model, “Small A”, and the real estate agent, “Small W”. We all had dreams. Being young workers in Shanghai, we were intoxicated by the bright lights of the big city. We went to a nightclub one night and drank Qingdaos while standing at the bar and marveling at the spectacle of champaign being served with sparklers to tables with bottle service.
Most nights, however, it was shao kao barbecue. Small W told me he was gay. He couldn’t tell his parents or almost anyone else, he said, but he trusted me because, “Foreigners are more open.” Now he’s married to a woman. Small A told me how tough it is to stand on your feet all day at expos for video games, wine, cars, and washing machines while keeping up a constant smile and cute demeanor towards strange men who ogle you. We all complained about Landlord and how she didn’t treat us well enough.
But then one day we arrived at the apartment and there was a notice on the door from the police telling us to leave by the end of the week. Our illegal apartment had finally been uncovered and sanctioned. When I called Landlord, she told me not to worry. She was there quickly and had a curtain put over Small A’s door and left some boxes scattered haphazardly in the common room. When the police came back, she told them that we had moved out.
I did move out for good halfway through my lease. I had found a new job, which offered its own housing on site in a much nicer apartment with just two flatmates in Lujiazui, the posh financial district. In the ensuing six years, I lived in many different apartments in different cities, most of which were vastly more comfortably than that 9-person co-rental.
But none of them had the same charm and excitement. Living with 8 Chinese flatmates from different provinces who shared common goals and faced common challenges. Even Landlord ultimately stood up for us.
A few years late, I was reminiscing about those times with Small A, and I asked her if she knew why the man downstairs came to our apartment to fight. You didn’t know? she said. It was because Landlord left a used tampon on his door after he started bothering us.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.