China’s fleeting spaces

Today was the fourth time our refrigerator has broken down in the ten months we have been here. When I told Billy that it had broken, neither of us showed an ounce of surprise. On top of that, the panel beneath our sink is slowly withering away due to a water leakage from our sink. Our air conditioning system has lost its cooling and our bathtub constantly leaks when we take a shower. The kitchen doors have been falling off their hinges. Oh and we have had an electrician come to our house several times to fix our lighting.

But, if you look at our apartment, both exterior and interior, I’m assuming that most people would think it’s a pretty nice apartment. The entire complex consists of four buildings, all of which have thirty-two floors and more than a dozen elevators. The complex itself can be seen from very far away because of its size. One time I was describing my apartment to a taxi driver in Chinese and as soon as i said, “ The one with the green Chinese characters.” He said, “Oh i know that one.”

We were thrilled when we got our apartment in Beijing. But over the next few months, the problems started to settle in. By the time April rolled around, it was like we consistently had a pesky little friend staying with us.

And let me clarify, it’s not like we have ignored the problems. We probably had six or seven visits from electricians over the course of our stay. Each time they come in very quickly and fix the problem and then a month or two later, it breaks again. I know i’m not the only one who has been having these problems. My other co-workers have repeatedly told me that they have problems with their apartments. They too have had electricians quickly come in, fix the problem and leave. Only to leave them with a broken sink one month later.

So what is the underlying problem in our Beijing apartments? Why do I repeatedly hear stories of people’s “nice” apartments slowly falling apart?

When my parents visited China, they hired a great guide for their stay in Beijing. His major was in fact Chinese architecture so what more knowledgeable person to ask a question about my crumbling apartment. He didn’t even have to think for a second before he said, “ Your apartment was built-in the early 90’s. It will probably be torn down in a few years.” My jaw fell open. “ So wait, my apartment complex has a 20 year shelf life?”. This couldn’t be. He then said, “ Many apartment buildings in China are built very poorly, even if they seemingly are nice.”

I am no expert on property foundation but I know that very large apartment complexes are built to last more than 20 years. I went on and did a little research and found a very interesting tidbit about the construction industry in China.

“Chinese researchers have suggested that many buildings could reach the end of their lifespan in as little as 20 years. The average lifespan of a Chinese building is 35 years, according to property consultancy Cushman & Wakefield. That’s abysmal compared to the average 74 year life span of US buildings and 132 year lifespan of buildings in the UK.At the end of the day, [if] construction companies and developers can get away with current practices, they tend to do that,” she said. “I would say a combination of high demand, low compliance tests [and] legislation that is lagging behind.” – China economic Review

So I found my answer. That’s why my apartment is slowly following apart.

But why?

It isn’t just my apartment, to be honest. In my time in China, I have witnessed this mentality of, “Fix it quick. Let it break. Fix it quick. Let it break.” It’s a mentality of impermanence.

Our bikes constantly break down and we constantly get them fixed. I had one expat friend who began seeing a bike repair man once every single week. Our printers have broken down more than a dozen times in our office. Each time it is efficiently fixed. And each time it slowly breaks down again. This can even be applied to restaurants and shops. I  see restaurants Beijing built just as quickly as they are Beijing renovated and turned into something else. Restaurants turn into massage parlors, massage parlors turn into pet stores in the blink of an eye.

I’m currently reading a book titled “ Country Driving.” It’s by Peter Hessler and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in wrapping their heads around today’s China. In parts of his book he essentially says that because China is constantly changing, many people are only concerned with the quick fix the quick buck. They aren’t sure if  He says that “ It’s the nature of a country that is in transition. something is always being abandoned while something else is always being built.”

So what does this idea of impermanence mean for China’s future?

If you take a train over a long distance in China, you are probably bound to see rows upon rows of mega apartment complexes being built. It almost looked like a combination of a post apocalyptic/ futuristic situation. It was almost eerie to see so many empty apartment buildings with no site of being inhabited.  You will see more construction cranes in your time in China, than in any other country in the world. This is actually a fact. But are these buildings being built to last? Will those buildings succumb to the same problems as my building in 20 years?