Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Price of Prosperity

My father-in-law is unusually talkative today. He's speaking in Shanghainese, and I catch maybe one word in ten, enough to get the gist but not the details. And it's probably more important for him that he says these things than it is that I understand them.

He's talking about his old house in Jiwang.

When I first met him, he and his wife lived in a single room, shared a kitchen and a toilet with six other families. There was no heat, no hot running water, no shower. In the early 1990s, his five children pooled their money to purchase a house in the newly developing Western suburbs.

Two floors, eight rooms, heat and air conditioning, hot running water and two bathrooms! It was the Zhou family homestead, the place where any of us could stay when we were in Shanghai.

But the subways never made it out to Jiwang, and the area didn't develop as hoped. So the Zhou family sold the house and bought a condo in the city. Half the floor space, but five minutes to the subway and supermarkets.

He misses the house in Jiwang, he tells me. He misses practicing taiji in his garden, playing mahjong with his neighbors. No doubt he also misses his wife, who he shared that house with, but he doesn't mention her.

But the move back to the city was necessary. He's frail now and needs someone to take care of him. He lives with his daugher, her husband and their grown child. It's still common in China for three generations to live under one roof, but they couldn't have done this at the house in Jiwang, since the commute to work would have been too long.

It's a common story here. Loss of community has been the price of prosperity in Shanghai and other Chinese cities as people move from outlying villages and city tenement blocks into modern high-rise condomiums. Living quarters improve, but friends and neighbors are lost forever.

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