Issue #11: The toll of China’s real estate crisis + the sound of migrant workers-writers, and more
It’s Beimeng, Charlotte and Yan here. After a short break, we’re back at the tail end of summer with stories that have moved us.
Over the last few months, the speed at which China’s mortgage protests spread across the country took many by surprise. As Chinese regulators go above and beyond to avoid a “Lehman moment,” many desperate homebuyers are moving into unfinished apartments as their last resort. We have two stories to help you understand the crisis’ devastating toll on individual families.
We also present a few Shanghai lockdown stories published by local news media Sixth Tone that help archive the collective experience of Shanghai residents and highlight the importance of liberty and human connection.
You’ll also see powerful performances by migrant worker-writers such as Fan Yusu, and we’ll end with a fascinating project about public toilets (yes, you read that right) in Shanxi province.
Our work is supported by reader donations. If you like this newsletter, please consider getting a paid subscription so we can continue doing this work. You can read more about our mission and pricing model here.
1. China’s Real Estate Crisis
China’s brewing real estate crisis has captured international headlines. Homebuyers in nearly 100 cities have threatened to stop mortgage payments after debt-ridden developers left new apartments unfinished and collecting dust. We’d like to zoom in on two stories that illustrate the devastating fallout on individual families affected by the crisis.
The first is from videographer Zheng Haipeng, who followed a group of residents who moved into an unfinished apartment complex called Yihefang in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. In 2014, a year before the promised handover to homebuyers, the developer stopped the property’s construction. Economic slowdown due to the zero-Covid policy further strained homeowners. The highrises are far from ready: the walls are bare concrete; there is no gas, running water or electricity; residents have to climb a dozen flights of stairs everyday just to get home.
Owning a home carries great cultural significance in Chinese society. Many of Yihefang’s residents bought the apartments in preparation to getting married, for their children to be eligible to go to good local schools, or for retirement. After years of unsuccessful attempts to hold the developer accountable and restart the construction, many of them feel hopeless. “We used our own money to buy a home. Why is it our fault now? ”
The second story is a photo essay from 2020 about another group of homeowners who moved into their unfinished properties in Kunming, Yunnan province. The group sued the developer and won in 2017, but never received the court-ordered compensation. Their subsequent appeals to various levels of authorities not only fell on deaf ears but also got some residents detained. Photographer Zou Biyu told us recently that the homebuyers are still waiting for their apartments to be delivered, seven years after the developer abandoned the project.
2. Climbing out of the Debris
In June, the Shanghai government declared victory in its war against COVID-19. Despite the triumphant spirit officials tried to convey, people weren’t (and aren’t) ready to move on.
Sixth Tone recently published three well-produced visual pieces in which the people of Shanghai process this collective experience. In The Memory Project, its editorial team collected about 30 lockdown stories from people from all walks of life and retrospectively logged individual suffering. In Thank you for Your Cooperation, the team interviewed residents on the streets as they tried to put their lives back together, for many, with changed outlooks. Last but not least, Let’s have a picnic downstairs is a video essay produced by our own Beimeng in collaboration with her neighbors. The lockdown, like in many other places in the world, had made people regain a sense of community, seeking and offering support to their neighbors. Beyond group-buying (necessary) groceries and (rebellious) non-essentials, Beimeng and her neighbors also organized a picnic and made a documentary to remember the time they went through together.
If you are interested in reading more about the role visual media played during the Shanghai lockdown, please find our April special issue on the topic.
3. The Sound of Chinese Migrant Worker Writers
There are 300 million migrant workers across China, but often they are merely faceless numbers holding up the country’s economic miracle. Their aspirations, struggles, and agonies are not often acknowledged by mainstream society. Since 2014, migrant workers have flocked to Picun, a village outside Beijing, to join the Picun Literature Group to study literature, share ideas, and write their own stories. For them, writing is both a means of self-expression and an escape, a search for joy and meaning outside their tedious jobs in Beijing as restaurant servers, construction workers, and nannies. Around 300 workers have participated in the group since its founding, and Ma Junyan, a journalist and visual storyteller, has compiled some of their stories in a powerful multimedia piece.
Featuring writer-poet Xu Liangyuan, poet-singer Xiao Hai, and writer Fan Yusu, who is perhaps the most renowned member of the group after she published a personal essay about her life in 2017 that went viral on the Chinese internet, the piece captures each of them performing one of their works.
Now, something light-hearted:
What’s the pride of your city? For Linfen, it is public toilets. Photographer Tianxi went to Shanxi province intending to document its traditional architecture, but found himself drawn to Linfen’s striking public toilets. In his photos, one is shaped like a gold ingot, another like a watchtower on the Great Wall. Once, he came across a massive, three-floor toilet complex: the first floor for men, the second for women, and the third a museum dedicated to the city’s public toilet culture.
Who we are:
Yan Cong is formerly a photojournalist currently pursuing a research MA in new media and digital culture in Amsterdam.
Beimeng Fu is a video journalist based in Shanghai. She is a lover of languages and documentaries.
Ye Charlotte Ming is a journalist and photo editor covering stories about culture, history, and identity. She’s based in Berlin and working on a book about her hometown’s German colonial past.
Writers: Beimeng Fu, Ye Charlotte Ming, and Yan Cong; Copy editor: Krish Raghav
Have a comment or just want to say hello? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find us on Twitter.
Liked our content? Become a paid subscriber of Far & Near and forward it to a friend!