Snail Houses: Poor Chinese Coping With High Housing Prices

From Mop:

The bitter lives of “snail house” men and women from various places

[Note from Fauna: 蜗居, wōjū, wo1ju1 is a little difficult to translate and is used as both a noun and verb in the original Chinese post. It has been translated as “snail house” by terroir here but the basic meaning is a small and uncomfortable but necessary living place (noun) or to make something into a small and uncomfortable but necessary living place (verb).]

[Above] A post-80s generation pretty girl lives in her company’s lavatory because housing prices are too high for her to afford buying.

Following the example of “land barons” that keep appearing one after another, even though many people keep pushing for lower property values, the cost of housing continues swell abruptly. Under the financial crisis, finding employment is already so difficult without having to bring up the issue of buying a house; what are recent university graduates to do? In July 2009, this girl transformed this bathroom into her own “snail house”; within this room of not even 10 square meters she lives a life that is free and easy, with the key point being that it doesn’t cost money.

[Above] In Foshan, these “snail home” containers have made a grand appearance and are available for rent at the cost of 6 yuan per day.

In July 2010, shipping containers used for residential purposes have made a grand appearance in Foshan. At the intersection of Haiba [Ocean #8] Road and Guilan [Laurel Orchid] Road to the side of the public road and the nearby common border, there is a large lorry with a sign on it, “Shipping containers for living in, daily rent only 6 yuan”. As general manager Chen Guangzhi of the Jugai company explains, this company is named Laosi Shipping Container Company [named after “Rolls”-Royce], and is originally from Shenzhen, Guangdong, and started this subsidiary business in Foshan just two months ago. He tells us at the present this is the first Foshan shipping container rental company. These shipping containers for living are approximately 3 meters across, six meters long and 2.8 meters high. Inside lining the ground are ceramic tiles of a dull red color, 5 metal bunk beds as well as a place in the center of the room to install an air conditioner. The most common of these “living containers” comes prefabricated with electric wiring suitable for immediate move-in.

[Above] A family of four’s “floating snail house” of 10 years.

On September 3rd, 2010, at #252 in the Chahe section of the waterfront new village in Lai’an county, Anhui province, [we meet up with] Wang Jiafu’s family of four that live aboard this broken boat as a “snail house” on the water. To live on a boat is very peaceful, rarely do outsiders come to cause disturbances just as neighbors rarely come to make house calls. For ten years, old Wang’s “house” has remained moldy walls and floors, without ceilings nor decorations, only uneven wooden floors and seven simple doors painted to a orange-red color. Atop their dinner table is set an exceptionally eye-catching enamel cup; it appears to be quite old for exposed all around the mouth of the cup are signs of rust. In 2000, old Wang relied upon his contacts within the shipbuilding industry to purchase this 24 meter long, 5.6meter wide old boat used for transporting cement for 8000yuan. It is upon this broken boat that he has constructed his new “home”.

[Above] New edition “snail house”: Discarded minibus turned staff dormitory

In July 2010 at Chaotianmen in Yuchong district of central Chongqing there have appeared “house car people”—by having the seats removed with a bed in their place and an installed air-conditioner, this discarded minivan has suddenly changed its identity into a staff dormitory. If examined closely, [we see that] this minibus can immediately change. The minibus’ original chairs have already been dismantled and exchanged a single person bed with a quilt on top, and at the head of the bed is an electric fan whirling away. Insider the van is cooling ointment and medicinal water to reduce the effect of the summer heat as well as a few toiletries for daily use. The “owner”, a Mr. Diao, is an attendant for the Donghewan neighborhood temporary parking lot, and this modified minivan is the dormitory for him and his coworker.

[Above] Impoverished student’s home destroyed by rain, builds “snail house” in the trees

Impoverished student Wu Wanjie is a resident of Yuzhou district in Yulin City, Guangxi province. His family of four originally lived in a mud house in the newly formed Xiamaling community. One evening 5 years ago, the mud house collapsed with a loud bang in the middle of a fierce storm. Afterwords, the family took lodging in the mud hut of the family’s maternal grandmother. No one could have guessed that early in the morning on June 2, 2010, a sudden torrential downpour caused the mud hut of the maternal grandmother to also collapse. Of the entire building, there only remained a 3 to 4 square meter kitchen and two mud walls. Since their mother and father do not have any other skills in which to make a living and their income is very meager, fixing or building a new home was out of the question. At the suggestion of his younger brother, the two brothers gathered wooden doors, rope, and other plastic materials and constructed a bed to sleep in atop a tree where they lived in this “snail house” for more than 20 days. Because this bed was unable to resist the harsh wind, the falling rain and the shaking of the tree, the two ultimately had no choice but to eventually evacuate.

[Above] A real “Snail House” appears in Chongqing, 7 apartments housing over 200 inhabitants

On May 9, 2010, in a certain neighborhood of the Nanan district of Chongqing city, a restaurant purchased 7 apartments, packing in at least 200 young men and women. Due to the fact that [the rate] of inhabitants exiting and entering is very high, waiting times for the elevator can last up to half an hour, often with strangers entering and exiting the complex, and when sleeping at night one can also hear from downstairs laughter and noise.

[Above] Retired miner digs 6 meters to make a “snail house”

Everyday in a shanty town in Zhengzhou [capital city of Henan province], 64-year-old retired miner Chen Xinnian takes his mining light and tools still picks up his mining light underground to tunnel. His goal was to dig out a three-room house underground in order to give his family better living conditions. After digging for 4 straight years, in September 2010, 50 square meters of space had been dug out and they moved in. Chen Xinnian says that because of rocketing housing costs, he decided to dig out a house for his wife and children. Chen Xinnian lives in a shanty town where ten low, short houses are lined together, every household putting assorted possessions in the empty space at the front and back of their houses. Chen Xinnian’s yard takes up 40% [of his “property”], so he dug a “house” in his yard.

[Above] The most niu, smallest, functional apartment made out of a staircase

November 20, 2008, one “Definitely the most incredible mini apartment on Tianya” post became popular on the internet. Apparently, in Shenzhen where land is expensive, a landlord actually used an unused stairwell to construct a fully functional mini apartment, and was named by netizens as history’s most niu, smallest, functional apartment with many netizens claiming to have been “shocked/stupefied“. The mini apartment is made out of an unused stairwell in a high-rise, with the apartment’s entrance on the second and third floor staircase. The passageway is approximately 1.5 meters wide, with many things placed on the steps and a computer desk and single bed placed at the corners of the stairwell. The entire place is narrow, but decorated to be rather cozy/comfortable.

[Above] This snail house resident inhabits an abandoned cement pipe

Located on the south side of East Nigang Road and outside an enclosure on the north side of Honghu public park is a home that can be called Shenzhen province’s most niu “snail house”. The resident of this snail house says he is from Shangxiu city in Henan province and has left his family a few years ago for work. Not long ago he had worked for a nearby distribution company, but most recently because he felt so fatigued he was not able to work and make money and so abruptly quit his job and moved out from the distribution company’s collective dormitory. He points at a section of unused water pipe behind him covered with a blanket and says “Living here is quiet, no one to disturb you.” He says that this year he is more than 40-years-old, has a driver’s license and knows how to drive a car, and has a wife and two children back home [where he’s from]. The two children has since grown up, so he doesn’t have much pressure being away [since he does not need to support the children anymore]. When the topic of living in a “snail house” is raised, he says you shouldn’t look at it as just a water pipe, that living inside isn’t to suffer, light a stick of mosquito-repellent incense at night, [and one can] sleep very peacefully all the same. “A while ago the weather was very cold, but living inside the water pipe, covering both ends with blankets, it isn’t cold at all.”

[Above] New Shanghainese [people who have migrated to Shanghai] “snail house” into shipping containers

Our protagonists are newcomers [migrant workers] to the city of Shanghai, and their “snail house” is a shipping container. Their “box houses” may be located on land where the previous buildings have been demolished, on temporarily borrowed construction sites, or in new villages that do not attract attention on the outskirts of the city… During an ordinary day, hard-working laborers of the construction site temporarily stay in these shipping containers. They live in these shipping containers because they “can’t afford to rent a place in Shanghai”. Living in a shipping container can really cut down on the cost of living. To commercially use a shipping container costs 1000 yuan a month, but if used just for everyday living it only costs from 300 to 350 yuan. If one wants to make a lump sum purchase, an air-conditioner ready mobile home is normally only around 20,000 yuan.

The most niu “snail house resident” sets up a home in underground well in Suzhou

In May 2010, a netizen from Suzhou reported that in the greenbelt under to the south side of the Nanyuan Bridge in Suzhou city was an electrical well/cellar missing a manhole cover that has been squatted by someone using it as a “snail house”, with a heap of bedding, clothes, a summer mat, etc. After what has been called “the most niu snail house in history” was exposed, two nights ago relevant [government] departments removed the belongings of this “snail house resident”, and sealed the cellar well. Living under a bridge is commonly seen, but in this case of living below a bridge in a underground well, this would be the first known time.

[Above] “Cage rooms” where rent is more expensive than seaside luxury residences

Hong Kong’s population is dense, so many old, infirm, and poor people reside in the beds of densely populated old buildings, each enclosed by wire netting, crammed within what is commonly known as “cage rooms”. Hong Kong’s cage rooms, also known as bed dwellings, refer to units that have 12 or more tenants, all sharing a kitchen and bathroom. Amongst cage room residents, the elderly are indeed a very typical demographic and as a result of living alone, poor living conditions, and suffering from health problems, the suicide rate for Hong Kong’s elderly is consistently high. In Hong Kong where a little land costs a lot of money, the poor who want to find a stable and secure place of their own are truly beset with difficulties. In the grand mansion “Harbor View Peak” [Gangjingfeng] in Tsim Sha Tsui, each square foot rents for 33 HKD; whereas the rent for a lower bunk in a cage room in Kwun Tong costs 41 HKD.

Comments from Mop:


Sigh, this is something to which nothing can be done. What can you do in this society?


The advantage of a harmonious society.


Bitterness; the Heavenly Kingdom [China]; that the ancient people valued the knowledge of “To secure a vast building comprising ten million rooms is to shelter all the world’s poor scholars, who would without exception all be smiling happily” [an excerpt [literal translation] from a poem by Du Fu, the meaning is often used similarly to a combination of “No matter how bad you have it, somebody has it worse” and “Love thy neighbor” and “Charity/A good deed is its own reward”], but what is a “poor scholar”? It is the vast masses of the ordinary people, it is the poor!!!!


This is not the Heavenly Kingdom [China].


Sigh, even though there are many houses/apartments, [I] still don’t have one to call my own, so sad.


Actually, [the main issue/problem is that] the population is too large… and that’s why housing prices are like that.


Different types of cup, different types of washing utensils…[A pun of “different types of tragedies, different types of comedies… ]


[Feeling] Helpless.


This definitely is not China! Having developed socialism so many years, it is impossible for this kind of phenomenon to exist! Long live socialism!!!!!!!!


Sigh, the real estate companies, the pharmaceutical companies, the hospitals, and next the foodstuffs companies will all be drinking the blood of the people.


Right now even university students are living in “speculation houses” [houses purchased in anticipation of rising prices]. At least 90% of the houses [apartments] here where we are are dark at night [unoccupied]! Within three years the [real estate] bubble will definitely pop!


This is the society–the harmonious society–I love!


Other countries have this too… wipe your cunt.


This is not the Heavenly Kingdom. [This is not the China we desire.]


What is the [Chinese] Communist Party doing that even [common] people can afford to live in houses?


Economically capitalist, politically communist, combined fascist.


Every day brother [referring to self] reads countless [internet] posts, many in total, and this has depressed my spirit and made me lose my self-confidence; my feeling of dignity is almost of the verge of being completely used up. Formerly, I considered myself to be one of this country’s exceptionally patriotic citizens, just as I considered myself to be one of this country’s citizens who was most concerned with the fate of its people. Afterwards however, I discovered I am merely a small average commoner whose own fate he can not even control. When pondering the main issues that affect our country today I find it to be very funny because I need to ask myself: am I crazy? Have I become like Ah Q [protagonist of Lu Xun‘s seminal work, “The True Story of Ah Q” (1921), whose state of mind is often used to describe someone who does not accept facts and face reality but instead rationalizes each and any failure into a “spiritual victory”, thus claiming an unjustified position of superiority over others]? To write a reply to this post would merely be complaining and voicing discontent just like an insane person running around crying everywhere, and even if passerbys would hear me they would simply just shoot me a look of contempt. It is useless. Henceforth, I will just keep these written thoughts in a notebook [to myself]. Each time I read an [internet] post I will reduplicate it within so I can conveniently save it for my seriously grave but weary shadow.


Seeing these “snail houses” makes me feel a bit perplexed and disappointed with the future.


To be born is easy, to be alive is easy, but to live is not easy. [word play in Chinese]


Reality is cruel.


Sigh, the cost of housing inflicts suffering upon people.


But the actual facts are still unclear.


This is the “harmony” of a harmonious society.


No house, no marriage.


Sigh, what is one to do if one grows old alone?


Birth control, haha, that’s a good method.


“Poor scholars” [referring to the Du Fu quote] are the poor of the land-owning upper class and are but simply aristocrats in decline, they aren’t part of the common masses.


Haha, rising [housing prices] is good, the place I bought in 2000 has doubled in value, and renting it out has been extremely good [profitable], like having a group of university students working for me [taking advantage of those “smarter” than you].

Speaking honestly, all of your money have slipped away into my pockets. You don’t like hearing that? Then get lost back to your rural countryside then, haha.

No place to sleep tonight? chinaSMACK personals.


Written by terroir

Terroir is a gentle soul who doesn't enjoy sunsets but does like the company of those who do. He says no to Tia Carrera, yes to Bruce Lee, and walks the thin line between the top of a still, calm lake and below it, where it looks even calmer.