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Living in a Bubble: The Chinese Housing Market

As a young girl from Shanghai, Fan Fan used to dream: she would meet a handsome, kind man, he would lavish romantic gifts on her, their families would approve, and after a blissful wedding they would move into a large penthouse apartment that her doting husband had bought for her. Like I said…that was her […]

05·17·2010

Living in a Bubble: The Chinese Housing Market

As a young girl from Shanghai, Fan Fan used to dream: she would meet a handsome, kind man, he would lavish romantic gifts on her, their families would approve, and after a blissful wedding they would move into a large penthouse apartment that her doting husband had bought for her. Like I said…that was her […]

05·17·2010

As a young girl from Shanghai, Fan Fan used to dream: she would meet a handsome, kind man, he would lavish romantic gifts on her, their families would approve, and after a blissful wedding they would move into a large penthouse apartment that her doting husband had bought for her. Like I said…that was her dream.

As a pretty woman in Shanghai, it wasn’t that she was short of suitors. “A lot of boys liked me,” she quietly giggled, “but most of them were stupid. I guess I just care more about love than money.”

She finally found a man she loves, but with his salary, he could never afford an apartment in Shanghai. She admitted, in a serious tone, “He might not even have money to buy me a ring… But I can accept a ‘naked marriage.’ I think he is a good man.”

Don’t get too carried away. By “naked,” Fan Fan doesn’t mean they won’t wear clothes at their ceremony. It’s a Chinese expression (裸婚 luǒ hūn) that means getting married with no house, no car, no diamond ring and no proper wedding ceremony. With the insane housing prices in China today, it’s a growing trend that makes quite a bit of sense, especially for people like Fan Fan and her boyfriend. But my contacts in Shanghai tell me that most girls in the city aren’t going to get married without a place to call home… their home.

According to a survey from the popular web portal Sohu, 43 percent of Chinese approved of “naked marriages,” while a fairly balanced 47 percent didn’t. But when broken down by gender, the answers were more telling: 80 percent of men liked the idea, and 70 percent of females didn’t.

Mr. Ma, a student at Tianjin University, is a perfect example of that 80 percent. He’s busy: he’s pursuing a PhD, he teaches full time at a smaller school, and he didn’t even want to meet with me. “I should be in my lab doing my research,” he said with a laugh.

But he’s also romantic. “I want to get married, but it’s really hard to find the right girl… The first question most of the women ask is if I have my own apartment,” Ma said as he dropped his head. The problem isn’t the apartment; he has one. “I want a girl that loves me for who I am, not what I have!”

A popular Chinese saying summarizes what young suitors are likely to hear after they propose: “No house? Hit the road.” (没房子?那就滚蛋吧。méi fángzi? nà jiù gǔndàn ba.)

Ma couldn’t tell me why Chinese women are so against naked marriage, but Li Yinhe did. As China’s most famous sociologist and sexologist, she has a knack for looking at things in a different light. Her blog reads like that of a contemporary Confucius.

“Traditionally, because China was a patriarchal society, a wife left the protection of her family to live with her husband’s family. She was often not happy to live together with her husband’s mother.”
An ancient Chinese saying comes to mind: “It is not easy to make a wife and her mother-in-law get along.” (婆媳关系不好处。póxí guānxi bù hǎo chǔ.)

“Of course, times have changed,” Li continued. “Chinese women today demand that a man buy an apartment before they’re married, mainly at the coaxing of their own mothers. It’s a condition of modern marriage that guarantees an element of freedom for the wife from her husband’s family. But it also affects housing prices—before, everyone lived in the same house.”

Does this mean that pushy mother-in-laws are responsible for the raise in housing prices?

“I think there is a connection,”? Li said. It’s even less surprising that 70 percent of women wouldn’t accept a “naked marriage.” But mother-in-laws are not the only factor that is driving up China’s real estate prices.

Mr. Zhu jostled for his place in line, as a crowd of other Chinese men pushed and shoved to see whether the local apartment sales office had opened yet. The longer Zhu waited, the more anxious he got. But then his turn came and the wait in the bitter cold was worth it, as he filled out the paperwork to buy his second apartment. Across China, people are trying to get their hands on a second or third apartment.

There is a bit of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge joke about well-to-do Shanghai men who take on second homes.

“Do you have er fang?” one man asks a friend, wanting to know if he has a second home.

“Yes, I have er fang, but I have no er fang to live in it,” the friend says with a sly smile, while looking at the pretty waitress in the corner. “Hey—maybe she can make up the difference!”

In Chinese, er fang (二房 èrfáng) can mean both “house” and “concubine.” Leave it to a Shanghai businessman to want two of each!

Mr. Zhu, who is buying his second home today, is not a Shanghai bigwig; he is a modest businessman who runs a small language school. He’s taken out a large loan to pay for it. But, as if he’s unaware of the recent housing collapse in America, he has no worries that housing prices are getting a little too high.

“No… I’m pretty sure the price will go up,” he said confidently. “Anyway, I think it’s a safer investment than stocks.”
In the past few years, millions of Chinese have followed in the footsteps of Zhu, borrowing from banks to buy homes. China’s economic stimulus package made getting a loan easier than ever. Add in reduced down payments, and you can see why every Wang, Zhang and Liu wants to get a new home.

Whether it is a pushy mother-in-law, or the race to buy a second apartment, there are a lot of factors driving up the demand for housing in China. And with lagging supplies, and continued explosive construction, China could well be experiencing a property bubble.

China knows this. In fact, at the beginning of 2010 government officials decided to take a break from their obsession with ever growing graphs and to try to cool off the market. To do so, cities like Beijing have recently decided to reduce housing loans offered by banks and put an end to favorable policies for housing purchases. This was merely a tourniquet—it might not be the best fix, but at least it stops the blood.

Across China, young people are scraping together money and taking out loans to buy an apartment. Some will end up settling for a “naked marriage.” But others are willing to do just about anything to get that apartment, and in the process become what’s called a “house slave” (房奴 fángnú).

One of the most popular television dramas today, “Dwelling Narrowness,” places house slaves as its core plot element. Every new episode sets the country alight with conversations, blogs, and message board discussions about the shockingly realistic story of the two Guo sisters.

Guo Haiping, the elder sister, lives in an attic and eats instant noodles to save for her dream apartment. But the more she saves, the higher prices get. She in effect is paralyzed and enslaved by her own dream. Guo Haizao, the innocent younger sister, becomes the mistress to a wealthy city official, to finance her sister’s dream. Rife with melodrama and misery, this series has captured the country, and made “house slaves” a daily blog topic.

Economists have their formulas and charts, sure, but we can’t forget about the people behind the numbers. “Naked marriages,” mother-in-laws, “house slaves,” and popular TV shows all provide insight into how China is transforming, reacting and adapting to a rapidly transforming housing market.

  • house
  • fángzi 房子
  • to buy
  • mǎi
  • to rent
  • to move in
  • bān jìnqù搬进去
  • I want to rent an apartment.
  • wǒ xiǎng zū jiān fángzi。我想租间房子。
  • You only love me for my house!
  • yīnwèi wǒ yǒu fángzi nǐ cái ài wǒ!因为我有房子你才爱我!