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Life in the "Lilong": My Shanghai Lane House Adventure

Lilong life has charm. But, with an open eye and mind, one can plumb the scene for insights on the fundamental motivations of Chinese people, even the structure of Chinese society
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It's a truism that you can't know China unless you connect with the lifestyles of the people. A year ago, I put my money where my mouth is and bought a quintessentially Shanghai-style lane house in a traditional "lilong" (or "longtong") in the center of the city's old French Concession. For the uninitiated, "lilong" developments, perhaps the most distinctive facet of Shanghai's architectural heritage, are a fusion of Chinese courtyards and Western row houses, tall (three stories) and narrow (usually, four meters) residences, organized in a dense, grid-like pattern with east-west and north-south lanes. Most developments are tucked away from main thoroughfares, providing an intimate calm despite the urban hum just a few steps from one's abode. As Shanghai races towards 21st century modernity, many "lilong" have been demolished but several, particularly the structurally sound, have been maintained, sometimes refurbished. Most residents are not well off. Rents are heavily subsidized by the Communist Party; on the open market, downtown real estate value rivals Hong Kong prices.

Lilong Charm

Each unit houses three families, usually one per floor, so lilong life is, to say the least, intimate. Typical sights and sounds include: laundry hung everywhere, including (brightly-hued) underwear; staccato click-clacks of nightly mahjong competitions; pajama-clad men and women taking out the trash; hawkers roaming about advertising their wares, usually through a megaphone with chant-like monotony; makeshift appurtenances on from balconies to provide extra space for anything from air conditioners to scraggly plants; the yips and yaps of small dogs, often poodles, socializing with other neighborhood pets; the twang of novice violinists; curious neighbors keeping tabs of everyone's comings and goings; bicycles and mopeds, and increasingly cars, in front of every door; occasional, albeit sharply-pitched, altercations, usually about "space infringement."

Yes, lilong life, certainly not for everyone, has charm. But, with an open eye and mind, one can plumb the scene for insights on the fundamental motivations of Chinese people, even the structure of Chinese society. Here are some of my observations.

Conflict Resolution: A Community Affair. First, conflict resolution is a community affair, usually managed by an informal power structure, only loosely aligned to municipal government organs. "Individual rights" rarely trump collective harmony. During renovation, I wanted to enclose my roof garden and turn it into a sunroom. I was visited by a low-level Luwan district representative who informed me that my plans had aroused the displeasure of neighbors who did not want the original structure "changed." To avoid any "unharmonious" discord (i.e., save face), the government agent refused to tell me: a) who had complained, b) what entity, if any, could hear an appeal and c) the specifics of what, precisely, constituted structural alteration. After I had established "friendly neighbor status," the entrance guard told me a few "suspicious" residents had banded together to send a message: as a foreigner, I was entitled to no special privilege and my "Western lifestyle" should not disrupt the unity of the neighborhood.

Trust Investment: A Sunk Cost. Second, trust facilitation requires active, skillful investment. Smiles and friendly chitchat are necessary-but-not-sufficient confidence builders. As construction started on my home, with buzz saws piercing the lane's daytime calm, I came bearing gifts: chrysanthemum tea, high-end (Starbucks!) moon cakes, and baijiu (strong alcohol consumed by men). To demonstrate "commitment to comradeship," I visited neighbors during office hours and wore business attire to "signal respect." My next door tenants claimed the noise pollution was dangerous to their health. Compensation negotiations were conducted by intermediaries. I ended up paying $250 to four separate families, the equivalent of one month's salary for the average Shanghainese. To avoid being branded a patsy, however, hopes of a bottomless "trust fund" were squelched. Bottom lines were clear. Three months after I arrived, I was asked to pay for "lost rental income," a demand I politely rejected.

It's no surprise trust is not taken for granted in China. My renovation experience with the construction company was a survival-of-the-fittest draw to the death. Owner and builder were locked in a dog-eat-dog battle of supremacy. Customer satisfaction is not an inherent good. Each party must protect his economic interests because commercial practices have been neither institutionalized nor standardized.

It all starts with the contract. Terms are intentionally vague; "deliverables" are defined but specifics such as materials, component pricing and timing are not delineated. The contractor is incentivized to increase his margins by skimping on quality. The owner must double- and triple-check the value of everything from waterproofing material and ventilation fans to drainage pipes and floor joints. Workers, mostly migrant workers from poor provinces, are poorly supervised so daily visits are required to verify adherence to specs. (Closet measurement was disregarded. Bathroom mosaics looked like Rorschach tests.) It is standard for clients to withhold up to 30% of payment for continued leverage over suppliers during the one-year guarantee period, lest repair requests fall on deaf ears. Threats of legal action elicit smirks due to the reality of ian neffective, often corrupt, judiciary.

Older vs. Younger Generations: A Big Gap. Third, the older generation, buffeted by relentless upheaval over the past fifty years, is fundamentally more "protective" than the new generation. In Shanghai, approximately 20% of citizens are over the age of 60. In my lane, the figure exceeds 50%. (Younger types forsake the intimacy of lane life for the modern conveniences of new apartments, even if located far from the city center.) I have been struck by the conservatism of my elder co-habitants. Unless I greet them directly (in Mandarin), direct eye contact is averted. Their "suspicions" regarding my "intentions" are thinly masked. On the day I moved in, one neighborhood godfather, a husky, loud-voiced 80-year-old, grilled me. Where's my wife? Why don't I live in an expat apartment building? What time do I leave for the office? When am I going to resell my property? (He, happily, has "endorsed" and my good intentions. Now I am called "Old Tang," a friendly variation of my Chinese surname.)

On the other hand, younger people, even of modest means, ask for tours of the house and greet me warmly whenever they see me. They are eager to practice English, exchange political views and invite me to tea. They want to know what DVDs are good and which television commercials our agency is producing. The new generation's broad world view and trenchant curiosity is not limited to the middle class. It penetrates all levels of society.

Joy in the Corners. Fourth, the Chinese, despite limited means and honed self-protection instincts, are happy. Chinese celebrate today. The flipside of an insecurity-based world view is appreciation of minutae. Small-scale twinkles are glorious. The con brio vigor of chess wars, muted by the buzz of gossip, is a delight. New Year fireworks elicit howls of laughter. The morning bun hawker derives satisfaction from each sale. Old men take pride in their pet turtles. Every door is surrounded by plants, a sign of emotional investment in one's abode, no matter how modest. Weddings are a joyful community affair. Neighbors unfold lawn chairs to relax, often in pajamas, and watch the world go by.

This foreigner's experience in the Shanghai lanes has been more than satisfying. I am reminded -- vividly, on a daily basis -- that the Chinese, even those who have not benefited directly from the winds of economic reform, are noble. Their sense of community, not to mention an instinct of finding pleasure in the moment, suggests the masses will march, head held high, towards the future. Despite inevitable setbacks and unpredictable twists and turns, the Chinese will adapt and, finally, thrive.