Apartment Hunting in Guangdong

I arrived in China's Guangdong Province, via ferry from Hong Kong on June 4, disembarking in the Special Economic Zone of Shekou, a district of Shenzhen. I had been here last September for a couple of days and remember the weather being cool, but today the temperature is far from cool; it is already damn hot and humid.

The first order of business is to locate an apartment, one of the criteria is close enough to the office that I will not spend a large part of the day riding a bus, and considering the heat, not too far to walk. An apartment management company is chosen to show us around, and an ordeal of walking, looking, walking, and looking began immediately. The walking about is an ordeal in itself, as I have to be constantly on the alert for bicycles, buses and cars whizzing around. They come from all directions, and the operators have no idea of giving any quarter if you happen into their pathway. I am sure the cyclists have no brakes, and when they do stop, the bikes are left at the spot they stopped. The ladies just skip through the maze; seemingly without a care in the world. They were born into this kind of existence, I suppose, but I like to keep watch over who is going to kill me if I make a false move. Medical reports say walking is good for your health, but I am questioning why? How?

The more modern facilities are outside my budget, as it costs from two to three thousand RMB (about two hundred fifty to four hundred dollars per month), for a two bedroom, furnished place. The furnishings amount to a bed (most of them with no mattress or mattresses filled with concrete), washing machine, couch, maybe one chair, a small dining table, and a refrigerator. There are no curtains or drapes, dishes, microwaves, or bed sheets. I will have to spend a lot of time shopping for all of the things it will take to get up to speed with just the simple requirements of everyday living. A coffee pot would have to be the first on the list. Where to locate all of this stuff? Why, Wal-Mart, of course; Wal-Mart? And I thought I had come to China to see another culture.

Most of the places we check out are in newer high-rise buildings complete with security guards, and elevators, which seem to be too busy to stop at any floor. The rooms strike me as too stark and empty –smelling of paint and varnish, much like a new house. I have just been in Southern Oregon where there are many trees, rivers, and birds, so this modern day living does not seem what I need here. I want an older place, a more homey spot, and of course, a cheaper one.

Walking with care and watching for the holes in the sidewalks, the real-estate agent and Annie, my interpreter/guide, wend our way through back streets and narrow alley's, finally arriving at the gate of a garden-complex housing area. The guard on the gate says we cannot go through because the owner must answer the phone to accept visitors. A large banyan tree is growing near the entrance gate; I look with envy at the people having a nap in its shade. After waiting awhile we are informed there is no answer. (I learn later the inter-com system doesn't work – maybe never did). The lady agent indicates she has another idea. Walking around an iron security fence, through a narrow alleyway called a Hutong. The Hutong's are honeycombed among the many apartment buildings, and lined with "Mom and Pop" stores; I suspect one can find most anything to buy in these warrens. We finally come upon a back entry gate.

The narrow wrought-iron gate allows us into the highly secured living complex – no guard here; This high level security reminds me of building the Great Wall and leaving the sea front unprotected as the Dynasty's did ages past.

The buildings are all constructed of cement, and look to be fifty years old or more, but since Shenzhen was only invented twenty-five years ago, it could not be possible. I am able to count at least eighteen separate buildings scattered around the garden setting, with walkways and hedges separating them. Each apartment has its own balcony, and every one is enclosed by an iron grillwork, as are the windows. Every balcony has laundry hanging out to dry - some with several plants growing in pots, spread around the enclosure, forming small jungles growing in the shade of panties and brassieres.

The apartment is a three-floor walk-up. I have seen these protective bars in other parts of China, and still marvel at the idea a burglar would climb a vertical wall to the third, fourth, and fifth floors to get into a residence. But then, everybody in China is paranoiac about staying safe - at least inside his or her houses. As soon as they come out they will challenge a big bus while walking through the center of a busy street.

I am already leaning toward this area because of the large lichi trees, flowers, hedges, and date palms surrounding us, and it is relatively quiet. Some people are picking the lichi nuts, while the birds eye them with disappointment. The nuts are actually picked with a long stick; used to whack at the branches until the fruit falls to the ground.

The entry to each of the buildings has a steel door, and a bell system to alert the apartment owner of a possible visitor. The door we pass through is open, and on inquiring, learn this one is broken and cannot be locked. The stairway is steep and rather narrow; the steps are poured concrete. I rented an apartment in Beijing, which was constructed the same way. A difference here is the stairway opens to the outside on each level. It is much colder in the north, so I guess that is the reason.

After puffing my way up three floors we arrive at another steel door protecting the inner apartment. A cute little lady, about five feet tall, wearing a shirt with Mickey Mouse waving from the front, opens the door to our knock, and invites us in with great fanfare. She is full of energy, and offers everyone tea before we can sit. The first thing I notice is the furniture; all leather and dark-red in color; everything appears neat and clean. The floor is ceramic tile, and a large aquarium sets in one corner. I am surprised to see gold fish, but on close inspection find they are in a picture pasted to the backside of the empty container; there are no live fish at all. Two leather chairs, a couch, tea table, and a large TV, perched on a cabinet, make up the full complement of living room furniture. A large portrait of the Mickey Mouse lady from days gone by is propped on the back of one of the easy chairs. The necklace and earrings, along with her mischievous little smile, suggest it was a time of enjoyment for her.

While the girls are chatting over tea I look over the little house. As with the other older apartments I have seen in China, the wiring is attached to the outside of walls and the plumbing is hanging from the ceiling. The overhead lighting is sparse; one small bulb in each room, excepting the living room which has a fluorescent fixture high up on the wall. It will be difficult to read in the evenings, but where there is a will there is a way. I am beginning to believe the Chinese do not read too much - at least after dark. There is one overhead fan, and, in one of the bedrooms, a Westinghouse air conditioner in the window. The kitchen has a two-burner stove, but no oven, and, much to my chagrin, two 15-gallon propane bottles sitting on the floor. The attached pipes are old rubber hoses leading to the stove and snaking through the cement wall into the bathroom.

The bathroom has a quick-heating water heater; as in a travel trailer or RV. There is no enclosure for the shower; the water has to pass over the floor to reach a rusty cast iron drain in the corner. In another corner is an older model washing machine, which I soon learn is not operable, and has not been for some years.

The beds are enclosed with mosquito netting, leading me to believe there could be a problem with something chewing on me at night. Checking the mattresses I find one to be made of steel, and the other would be soft enough to sleep on, but only if you were very tired. There is a pillow made of wicker, which I decide not to try. The whole place is only about 300 square feet, plus the balcony.

Finding my way back to the living room, I hear the girls have arrived at a price of 1500 Yuan per month, (about $185.00 US dollars); plus utilities and stuff - providing I like it. The place seems to be pretty quiet, and close enough to where I will be working, so I make a quick decision to take it, and an arrangement is made by the ladies to meet at the rental office in the morning to sign the necessary papers.

Keep in mind that I am totally unable to understand one word of any of the discussions. I have been trying to learn the Mandarin Language, but here the dialects are a mixture of Cantonese, Hong Kongese, Hainanese, and Hunanese. They do not even use the same sounds for counting; I decide I do not want to confuse myself more than I am with a different way of speaking, so just shut off my brain to the noise. Four people man the rental office, all sharing one small desk, leaving barely room enough to sit down with the flimsy plastic cup of tea offered. My future landlady is about forty-five minutes late, but no one seems to worry as the usual custom is to be about an hour late; especially if you are the prime mover in a negotiation.

The apartment owner's name is Miss Hu. She has been living here, in Shekou, for the last seven years. Miss Hu is asked to provide proof of ownership, or a document proving she has the right to rent or lease the apartment. She does not have any proof with her, but it is agreed that after everything is signed, the agent will accompany her back to the house to see the paper work. I have asked for a six month lease but am informed the rental contracts are all for one year. An initial deposit of three months rent in advance is called for, and, I will learn later, there is an additional fee of one half of a month to be paid by me, the other half by Ms. Hu, to cover the rental companies fee. The total amount due from me amounts to 5,250.00 Yuan, payable in cash immediately after the rental agreement is signed.

China does not have a checking system in the banks. You are given a passbook for your account, and if something has to be paid, a trip to the bank is necessary to complete a transaction. If you have enough to pay a bill it can be debited to your account, and recorded in the passbook, or you can pay the bank in cash. Any salaries or retirement income is deposited directly into this account. Recently the Bank of China issued a debit card to be used in any of their ATM machines to acquire cash; only Chinese cash, however.

In order to pay rent to Miss Hu, I would have to deposit the money to her account. To do this I had to have her account book. When I go to the bank to pay, the money can be transferred from my passbook to hers, or I can use the debit card to pay in cash. If she was in the area I could pay her directly in cash.

The chattering and negotiating of the contract takes about an hour and a half, and it is finally agreed I can take possession on the tenth of the month; three days hence. This is good news since I am paying 300 Yuan, about $36.00, each day at the hotel.

Outside, in the heat once again, I dream about getting to the hotel and buying a cold beer, but Annie has other plans. "Where are we going now, Annie?" "To the police station", she says, marching up the battered sidewalk. "Now what in the hell do we have to go to the police for?" "You must register your place of residence as soon as you rent an apartment. Now that you have a rental contract we can go and apply for the document," She says. It suddenly occurs to me that I do not even know my own address, and really not sure I know how to find the apartment again without a guide dog. Fighting our way up the sidewalk, and making mad dashes crossing the streets, we arrive at the local police station unscathed, except for hot feet. The station is easily recognized, as the police cars and motorcycles are parked on the sidewalk in front of the building.

The police document requires two passport style photos, and a double check on my passport and visa. Until last summer, in Mainland China, it was illegal for a foreigner to live anywhere but in a government designated hotel. Now you are allowed to stay where you wish, but must register with the police in the district you are living. Here in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, apartments can be rented, but if I decide to move from this area of Shekou, then I must re-register the change within three days. Copies of the rental agreement and my passport are finally accepted, and I am told I can get the official certificate of legality in about a week.

Outside Annie points out the super market I will be using, and shows me where the apartment is located from here. Fortunately, it is not too far to walk to the market, even though it must be traversed through the maze of strangely parked bicycles, and holey sidewalks.

The next fun thing to do is go see what Wall Mart has to offer. The only difference I can see from an American store is the departments are located on several floors connected by escalators. The trouble I have is to find where the entryways are to these moving stairs, and which is to lead up or down. The signs directing the way are all in Chinese characters, which I am not able to discern. Following Annie, we find the microwave department on the third floor, where the oven I think I want is out of stock. Opting for another, we then pick out some sheets for the bed, a towel, and a hot water cooker. The total cost is about sixty dollars U.S.

Not being able to manage these things on a bus we hire a taxi to go back to my new house. Miss Hu greets us with more tea, and I try to locate a spot to put the microwave. Finally deciding on the top of the refrigerator, a discovery is made that the plug-ins are different; a new connecting plug must be located. I steal one from another room, and lo and behold, learn quickly the oven and the fan cannot be on at the same time. The main breaker is tripped, shutting down the whole house.

Where is the main breaker panel? Why, outside in the stairway landing, of course. This breaker is hidden behind an old piece of plywood serving as a cover for the main electrical input to the apartment. Along with the open wiring, the gas bottles on the floor in the kitchen, and electrical connections with no protective covering, I wonder how OSHA would treat this set-up; probably about a ten thousand dollar fine. Miss Hu has a friend who is able to install a larger breaker and we are back in business. Now I am concerned if the little wires running around the walls are big enough to handle the increased load.

I am scheduled to move in tomorrow but, as far as I can discern, Miss Hu does not appear to be ready to move; all of her books, clothes, and personal items are still in place. One thing she has done, however, is wash all the windows, and move her ex- husbands clothes from my room to hers. I wonder for a moment why, if she is divorced, all of his suits and shirts are still here, but decide that is her private business.

On the way back to the office we are able to walk down a nice smooth sidewalk. There is a corridor of corrugated, red colored bricks leading down the center. Annie says this is for blind people to follow, which I thought was interesting as up to now I had not seen any blind people walking about. In the center of the blind man's pathway there is a fireplug – another Chinese invention to help the poor. At the bank drive up window there is a section for the blind to use the ATM machine.

On the tenth of the month I drag my suitcase and books to my new home. Miss Hu, welcomes me with open arms and the first thing shows me how to close up the mosquito netting surrounding the bed. I was not too interested in the procedure, as I wanted to see evidence she was getting ready to go. Noticing she has made no apparent move to sort out her things I feel obligated to tell her it was alright to take a couple of days to prepare. She actually got down on her knees and thanked me by holding and squeezing both of my hands.

After the long journey from America, and the stay in the hotel, my clothes are in need of some soap and water. While staring at the symbols on the machines controls, Miss Hu indicates she will take over the chore. I argue a little and go ahead with the business of starting the washer. Soon it is evident something is radically wrong with the unit; the water is barely trickling in and, seemingly running out the bottom faster then into the tub. One of the procedures to run this complicated piece of machinery is to take the strainer from the drain in the floor and insert the drain hose. I had not done that, and I immediately lost my position of chief clothes washer.

Ms. Hu did not do much better than I, as the machine refused to start. Indicating, "I told you so," she went out of the room and found a small flat stool, which she sat on and preceded to scrub my shirts and shorts on the rough tile floor. We used scrub boards in my day, but other than watching Indians in Arizona do laundry by beating their clothes with a rock on the edge of a stream, I had not seen this method. I decide not to learn. She rung the things as best she could and, turning them all inside out, hung them on a wire strung across the balcony. Two days later they were almost dry.

The next day when I returned from the office she took me by the hand and proudly showed me a new washer. This one I can operate, and when the machine starts Miss Hu watches the blinking light with an eagle eye. As soon as each new cycle is indicated Miss Hu pushes the button. I had to almost pick her up and carry her away from the unit before she destroyed the internal timer. All of the time she stayed in the apartment, she would not use it. She loves her plants and brings a small potted cactus to my room and places it on the nightstand next to the reading lamp. The first night while fumbling for the light I am stabbed in the back of my hand. Miss Hu has a great big heart.

After two or three days there still is no indication of my housemate preparing to do anything except to play house. What was a situation developing here I had not experienced before. Watching her methods of general everyday living was interesting, such as washing a tin plate with a spoonful of water and a drop of dish soap, or cutting the rinds from left over melons to make soup, but not what I had in my mind about getting my own private place to live. I have to stand guard over the microwave to keep the tin plates out.

Ms. Hu cannot leave me to my own desires for one minute. She is always coming up with some reason to talk, apparently telling me most of her life problems, which of course I understand nothing. Good listening practice to determine when I should laugh, or smile, or look disturbed about what she is saying. When she appears with a package of gold and silver needles; long, medium, and short, I realize she wants to give me an acupuncture treatment. I quickly remember how to say, "No!" in Chinese.


One night I awoke in need of getting rid of some of the beer forced upon me in the Snake Pit cantina. Something was keeping my legs from swinging over the edge of the bed, which was a puzzle; usually I don't drink so much beer that I can't find my way out of bed. Groping about in the dark the realization comes that Miss Hu has come in sometime during the night and, with a series of clothes pins, locked me into the bed with mosquito netting. She has also started incense burning in a tin plate on the floor, and it is actually hard to breath. To keep the incense in the room, I discover she has closed the door and hooked the hasp on the outside. On second thought, maybe she wanted me to stay in the room.

I come home in the evenings and find she has supper ready and waiting. I like to sit down and relax a few minutes with a beer before tackling rice and hot peppers, but she insists on force-feeding my face. I suspect I am in some kind of trouble when, about the fourth day I start out the door for the office, she wants to kiss me goodbye. Now, don't get me wrong, Miss Hu is a well meaning lady, and apparently very lonesome, but I thought I was paying the rent for an apartment, and only an apartment; not including a housekeeper, cook, cleaning lady, doctor, and worrier over mosquitoes. I have already experienced a part of my life dealing with one mother – I do not think I need another.

When emerging from my room, early one morning, to find four women having morning tea, I start thinking of a way to suggest she pay me rent. One weekend a boyfriend stays. This seems a little too much when he uses the washing machine to do his laundry; after all I am paying the electric and water bills now.

I ask Annie to call and ask when Miss Hu plans to leave. Annie reports that Miss Hu is not happy to go yet, as she believes I will not be able to handle all the important things, which need to be done around the house; such as learning how to water the plants. One of her prize plants is an aloe. She breaks off a piece every morning and uses it for face cream. Another is a red-pepper plant; the little buggers will dissolve the enamel on your teeth.

One day, I learn she will leave on the following Thursday. I had Annie call from the office to see if there would be anything I could do to help her get ready to go. Annie informs me not to get my hopes too high; Miss Hu has not bought a ticket yet. Annie understands my concern and offers to help her get a ticket; Miss Hu had called about departure times, but did not make a reservation, she thought the call was enough. Finally a ticket is purchased and I start counting the days to peace and quiet. Miss Hu spends the time trying to convince me I should go with her. One day I see she is sewing a money pocket inside her panties, "to keep the thieves from finding it", she says. Then she says she has told her mother about me – Oh boy!

After one month, the day is finally here when I can go home to my house, open the door, and sit quietly enjoying a beer. Looking at the fish that aren't there, and the pile of clean tin plates, I feel something is wrong. What is it? You know what? I miss Ms. Hu.

A short biography of Miss Hu:

Miss Hu was born in 1950, in the City of Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu Autonomous Region, which is located in the Northwest region of China, west of Mongolia, and east of Kyrgyzstan. Her father, a doctor, had been moved from the east coast of China for re-education in "Chairman Mao thought". She experienced all of the trials and tribulations of the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and the development of the new society. She was married to a man her family chose, and bore two children, both boys. The family came to the Shenzhen area, where her husband was able to find lucrative work as an entrepreneur. When she was about forty-eight years old, her husband came home one day, kissed her on the cheek, and said he was going to America. He took one of the boys, leaving her with the house and the other son. To survive, she learned acupuncture, nerve message, and the rudiments of working as a doctor. Most of her life was spent with barely enough to eat, and always the lurking question of what would come next. Her parents are eighty-five years old, and she opted to rent her house to me while she returned to Urumqi to take care of them. Miss Hu has to be one of the most trusting souls in the world as she took nothing with her except a couple of dresses, and her acupuncture needles, leaving me in charge of all her belongings, including the pepper and aloe plants.

A short biography of Annie Lin:

Annie was born in the countryside of Hunan Province. She is the sixth daughter of seven children. Her parents named the daughters by number; her name was Lio (six). The seventh child was a boy and received a regular name. Annie says she is twenty-nine years old, (strangely all girls I have met in China report their age as twenty-nine. A fortuneteller told her she would die young, and wanting a child, bore a son out of wedlock (this is taboo for a girl in China, still). Her boyfriend found a younger girl and left after five years. Annie learned how to speak English, and found a job. At the time I met her she had studied the language for six months, and was proficient enough to be my interpreter. Later I discovered she could not read or write our Language.