Xiao Hu is a local Shanghainese. He works as a private driver for a local businessman with a net monthly salary of 3000RMB. He has been doing this job since 1999. In 1997, he joined the ranks of millions of xiagang zhigong (下岗职工), the workers layed off by the SOE (State Owned Enterprises), who no longer could enjoy the so-called iron rice bowl, or tiefanwan (铁饭碗). Nonetheless, leaving his work unit or danwei (单位) didn’t go hand in hand with leaving his home: like most factories did at the time, unit homes were handed over to their occupants, and Xiao Hu became a home owner overnight (he obtained a leasing that, since the promulgation of the Real Estate Law in 2007, has an explicit duration of 70 years, automatically renewable, with right to transfer and to inherit).
It took him 10 years to get his personal dwelling. At that time, the housing shortage in many cities in China was such that workers had to wait as long as a lifetime to get public housing (until the mid-nineties half the population stayed in their parents homes due to this housing shortage). In the meantime, three generations, eight members in total, had to live in the same 24 square meters room. As the roof was high enough, they managed to build another floor so that they could double the living space, despite feeling more cramped. They had to share the bathroom and kitchen with other neighbours. When he first moved to his new home he was overjoyed. It was a 15.7 square meter apartment in one of the old Xuhui district. Back in 1985, the average living space per capita in China’s cities was just 7 square meters (one fourth the living space per capita in 2010). The monthly lease was, and still is, 50RMB per month.
In 1997 the number of vehicles in Shanghai was still low. He thought becoming a taxi driver could be quite profitable, with so many people earning higher salaries, expatriates flocking to Shanghai who were not allowed to drive in China, as well as tourists who came attracted by the revival of the “Paris of the Orient”. Being a local Shanghainese was an advantage since migrant workers were not allowed to get a taxi driver’s licence. He studied how to drive and obtained his licence, but he soon discovered that it was very difficult to earn a livelihood as a taxi driver, unless he gave up sleeping. He had to pay a monthly fixed sum of 4,500 RMB from his revenue to the cab company (which was owned by the Shanghai Government). After meals, cigarettes, gas, and car maintenance, he calculated he would need to double that amount just to get by. Therefore, he quit the job after just one year and started his current job as private driver.
While during the last fifteen years the city’s economy has increased sixfold, his salary has not kept up with this pace. He has seen how soaring prices eat up his income every year, and feels nostalgic for the time when he started and had a greater purchasing power. However, this sentimentalism doesn’t go as far as longing once more for the iron rice bowl because, as he remarks, he can fill his stomach and dress warmly (chibao chuannuan – 吃饱穿暖). As is the case in many Shanghainese households, his wife oversees the household economy, giving him a 50 RMB daily allowance. Fortunately, he holds another account for himself where he deposits tips and money he gets from overtime work. As he enjoys his daily breakfast of youtiao (sort of Chinese churros) and rice congee, he reflects on the changes society has undergone during the last two decades. He has witnessed the comeback of social classes. Among his comrades from the old factory there are many who have succeeded in business and hold several apartments and luxury cars. They belong to a new rich class who flee to Sanya during winter, and who feast on hairy crabs every weekend.
Learning how to live in a consumer society where the number of unaffordable goods does not cease to grow hasn’t been difficult, as he belongs to those who learnt how to be happy with little. However, housing is a source of anxiety again, although this time for his daughter, who is already 28 years old, and won’t get married anytime soon. Had she a boyfriend, this problem would be solved, as Xiao Hu expects any prospective candidate to have an apartment as a prerequisite for further discussions about marriage. As is the case for most young people working in Shanghai, buying an apartment is almost unthinkable with just a salary (the average price per square meter is as much as 30 times average yearly incomes). Despite the wave of redevelopments undergone in the city in the last two decades, his neighbourhood hasn’t changed, and probably will remain like this since the local government has declared the area as protected. There is little hope for an eventual expropriation that could land the family with a large apartment located in one of the city’s new districts. He considers himself lucky though, since compensation for expropriation is something that hasn’t always been satisfying. The family is contemplating buying an apartment built on farmers’ land. Although they are aware that it’s illegal, as the law forbids citizens to buy farmers’ homesteads (and forbids farmers to sell their homesteads), they are willing to take the risk. Prices are half those of similar properties in adjacent urban areas, and the local government has been lenient so far, although demolitions do happen now and again. Risk of demolition is low, he says, as he inhales the last drag of his cigarette. They still have to wait three years till Xiao Hu’s retirement, at which point they will probably leave the apartment to their daughter and the couple will move to the outskirts of the city. Or they will stay and continue sharing housing with her, and perhaps with the next generation, like the time when Xiao Hu was working at the state owned factory.