China, the Renovation Nation

I wrote this piece about five years ago. It’s a dark piece, and came out of a dark time in my life — when I experienced a lot of renovation around the place I lived in Shanghai, and was grappling with what to do with my future. If you’re having some dark days (from weather, life, or even holiday blues), this is for you.


Across the street from my gym, there is a clothing store for infants and toddlers. I know it well because I always park my generic, cement-gray bicycle right next to its display window, lit up with the tender image of some darling baobei sporting the latest in baby fashion – an odd foil to my ugly wheels.

I began to notice how the windows became plastered by screaming yellow signs promising deep bargains. Fifty, 60, 70, 80 percent off! Like lichen covering a rock, they even obscured the front showroom and finally that trusty display window. Inside the store, free-for-all bins sloppily loaded with clothes had replaced the racks and models.

There they were – all of the telltale signs of store renovation.

And sure enough, for weeks afterwards I parked right next to a work-in-progress. I saw the team of workers, night after night, navigate the noxious fumes and the symphony of drills, saws and chains in what I feared might foretell the end of retailing of infant and toddler clothes on Danshui Road as I knew it.

One night, I saw those workers in the middle of the half-finished store. The décor captured that feeling of newborn innocence. Whitewashed walls, floors and shelves; a pastel painting of imaginary elephants with a poem about the joys of being a child. The men stood there smoking cigarettes, as though they were in a bar, and sullied the floor with ashes and spit. Well, I suppose if babies are born with original sin, then stores for babies are no different.

I never really saw renovation like this, in all of its glory, mystery and (in some cases) malevolence, until I came to China. In the US, construction and renovation is something that exists behind fenced sites or blocked-off mall facades that confidently exclaim “Coming soon!” We don’t really get a peek behind that great red curtain to see what it takes to reach the grand opening. But here in the PRC, just have a look around your neighborhood or school. You can watch construction and renovation like watching surgery in an operating theater.

I got my first taste of open-heart construction while teaching English at Henan College of Education. When I arrived, there was a completely unobstructed playground with students whiling away the hours at badminton, soccer or basketball. And by the end of that year, almost one-third of the playground disappeared with the addition of a new building.

That building affected everyone living at the school. I moved to a room across the hall to escape the 24/7 raucous hum. The school had a “construction entrance” that made it possible for us to creep into the school grounds without drawing the ire of the guards or having to scale an imposing gate. My students, many living in dorms that faced the construction, often nodded off during my class break, or looked comatose throughout the entire class.

When I spent a summer in Suzhou after teaching English, I began to understand the forces behind the renovation craze. At least, I began to understand one of them – unrenovated apartments. For three weeks, I lived in a concrete block with the most essential and crude facilities: a sink, a toilet and a bathtub. I learned that all apartments started out as a concrete block, unless the owner paid for home improvement. That meant any given apartment building was a motley assortment of homes, from the modern and distinctive to — in my case — the makeshift and cockroach-infested.

While working at an environmental organization I’ll call “the Center,” renovation visited me once again. The Center decided to rent out some basement space to a real estate company, and with this agreement came redecoration. The fumes choked every inch of the building, only blocked by the double doors to our third-floor office. Trips to the bathroom downstairs required a nimble step and thick baggy top or jacket to protect your mouth from the science experiment brewing the basement.

Quitting the Center didn’t mean the last of interior decoration and construction. My interim housing arrangement — living at the apartment of a swimming instructor I met — fell through. As a consolation, she found me a room in a community of “peasant homes” — named so because the owners usually come from the countryside. The perimeter of the area was a large construction field and, during the day, workers drilled the streets before me. They started at 8 a.m. and worked until dark. At a time when I had no alarm clock and little enthusiasm after quitting, the noise was the one thing that motivated me to rise out of bed.

I got my first respectable China apartment with my job at a Chinese internet company. It was in a well-established, gated community with guards, parks and assorted small businesses — and I presided over a corner of it, from the 7th floor. In the middle of the summer, the city government sent us a memo about a new plan to address residential “beautification issues” — specifically, the spider-like metal bars that engulfed random windows and balconies. They were an eyesore and safety hazard. In the months that followed, I heard the hum of destruction as construction crews torn down these unsightly metal critters.

My first summer in Shanghai ushered in a new round of community improvements. At the time, I was living in a Shikumen-style home, just a breath away from Xintiandi — Shanghai’s glitzy entertainment district. But we had all Shanghai and no glitz. The city government decided to replace the water pipes, and dispatched a group of migrant workers. The workers entered each home one after another, like a troop of uninvited soldiers. They temporarily worked and napped in our lanes and hallways. John and I couldn’t even enjoy dinner at home for several days because the nooks, crannies and stairs of our place were oozing with strange men. Then one morning, one of them dangled outside of my window like an orangutan, drilling our pipes at 7 a.m.

Things quieted down once I moved to another apartment in a nearby community. But then the 3rd floor apartment in the building opposite us was sold, and we became a captive audience for that strange symphony known as home improvement from the beginning of July until the end of September.

Then that husband in the wifebeater shirt who lived across from us suddenly disappeared in October. Sure enough, days later I saw a renovation company pull up next to their stairwell. With their arrival, the lights across from our kitchen stayed on almost 24 hours a day. Weekend mornings came with a set of earplugs and tossing and turning.

Everything is much calmer now – even the occasional soft hammering is nothing more than a little “friendly fire.” Still, I secretly look forward to the day when I’ll come home from work, only to find the real apartment owners there.

I don’t think anyone loves renovation. It’s yet another one of those meibanfa — no other way — aspects of living in China. As long as people buy and sell apartments or buildings that come half-renovated or unrenovated or renovated in a style they dislike, renovators will always have a job. And we’ll just have to learn to live with it.

Learning to live with it doesn’t get easier with experience. But, sometimes, it can be fascinating. For once, you have the opportunity to see something stripped away and rebuilt, right before your eyes. In a way, you see behind the façade of China – because here, for construction and renovation, there is no façade.

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3 Replies to “China, the Renovation Nation”

  1. The image of a brand new floor defiled by ash and spit resonated with me, Jocelyn! When I built a home in Asia (renovated a much smaller one, that is) I recall talking to a Chinese workman as he applied marble to the bathtub. When he finished his cigarette, he threw it in the one remaining hole and then grouted a piece of marble over it. Easier than carting out trash. Probably how it’s done all over the world. But so unsettling to see what lies behind the facade. I never enjoyed taking a bath there, knowing I was luxuriating on a pile of garbage.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Anastasia!

      Oh man…a cigarette, forever enshrined in your bathtub. Ouch! Though I expect it won’t be the last time that happens. Sometimes, maybe it’s better we didn’t see how something was built. 😉

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