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.

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[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:

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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.

  • Octavian

    My name is Matt Foley and I live in a van down by the river.

    • nice! nice! I love it!

      Go for it!

      song of the article

      Red House
      -Jimi Hendrix

      五毛党 。。。。。真的不是加的

    • Osirus

      You must be an unemployed American then?

    • tony

      so do i, what color is your van? maybe we can do tea tonight.

  • file124528

    Lucky for these folks shitty bai jiu and cigarettes are cheap.

  • The freedom to make money and become rich is the same freedom as to lose money and become poor.
    And. Every. Body. Believes. In. This. Dream.

  • milkbar

    Then they come to Sydney and live in the middle of the city, piled high in apartments just like home…

  • Teacher in China

    I really regret not buying a place when I first came here 5 years ago…had I known I was going to stay this long, I would have. Damn, prices have more than doubled since then where I live.

    How long can this really go on, when so many people can’t afford a basic human right like a place to live? I guess in a way that’s not fair – you can live just fine in a third or fourth (or more) tier city, can’t you? But how much money can you make in those cities? I’d like to see a comparison of average wages vs. average housing prices in different tiers of cities in China.

    Anyone living in a 3rd, 4th or more tier city care to comment on that?

    • My wife and I bought an apartment just outside of a 2nd-tier city (Xiamen, Fuzhou) last year, and yesterday someone made an offer to buy the place at nearly double what we paid for it (we turned it down). I’m a university teacher so I’m not rich but we’re comfortable and the place is decent. We’re in the middle of furbishing the interior (cuz when you buy a home in China, you just get an empty concrete box).

      A nice middle-class existence is possible for expats in any Chinese city since they often get paid much higher wages than locals, and if locals want a middle-class life they usually have to save and scrap and seek help from the family, but it’s still attainable. However, if someone wants to chase the big bucks, they have to limit themselves to the ultra-expensive first-tier cities. Not a problem for most expats since usually don’t plan to settle down in China but sucks for Chinese people. In my 2nd-tier city, the average price per sq. m. has increased by more than 500% in the last ten years, and that’s not all that crazy compared to BJ and SH.

      • bobiscool

        My aunt was about to buy a house for 130k RMB in the outskirts of beijing ten years ago, but decided against it the last minute.

        The exact same house, not renovated once is now worth 11million RMB.

        I’m not even exaggerating.

    • Paul Quessy

      This continues until we say that we have had enough with the way the world works. When we stop accepting the captialistic system and create a systme that is not based on profit and is based on quality of life. An Equal Money systtem is the solution where all life is provided for equally and not subject to the amount of money one has or does not have

  • malagebi

    Is it that they can’t afford better housing or that they choose to live in squalor in order to save money?

    • Sunni

      They just can’t afford it.
      Actually, to sound more harsh, they probably wouldn’t be able to afford it if they sold themselves (organs, body parts, what have you).
      Housing prices in China are crazy expensive these days, even for people living in North America.

  • Teacher in China

    I agree that China has a huge problem to deal with as there are still so many really poor people living here, but I think you’re misguided in your comment.

    “The Olympics/expo did not improve the lives of the average person one bit.”
    Since when does anyone hold Olympics or Expos in order to improve the lives of the average person in their country? Has anyone ever made that claim about either of those events in the past? Why it should it be a different set of rules just for China? Why can’t China hold these big events in order to showcase the other side of Chinese society – the side that is actually doing well? Besides, the prevailing attitude is that these events increase tourism and interest in the home country, which will end of benefiting the economy and eventually the people lower down on the totem pole.

    • Alex

      But knowing that most cities have and economic crisis in small scale after the olympics and lost money…it was a pretty selfish decision to do that and the Expo when your poberty rates are so high and a very big percentage of the population doesn’t even get running and potable water. It’s even offensive to those poor people.

      To be honest, they handled quite well with the Olympics. Let’s see with the Expo.

    • disgraceful

      LOL? Have you not read the logo of the Shanghai Expo? “Better city, better LIFE.” The entire expo theme is about how its making everyone in Shanghai live a better life, yet its still the same rat’s nest that it was before.

      • Teacher in China

        It’s interesting that you bring that up, because I always thought that the Expo theme was chosen in part so that China could “learn from” other countries’ ideas around the world. Think about it: you know you have a huge social problem and problems with space and how to use it, and “green” energy and whatnot; what better way to try to solve these problems than an intense, 6 month long study of what everyone else is doing in the world? Of course it’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s a start.

  • Mosanto

    Great article.

    Now i truly understand the meaning of “no house, no marriage”.

    Is it mostly men who live in these conditions? I can’t imagine a young single girl living like that, surely she can find a man to support her.

    • Jamie

      And also, “no car, no marriage”, you will understand it soon

    • sayhello

      the ones who cant are called leftovers because their standards are set too high.

    • LaoWire

      I am a foreigner living in Foshan, and pass those roads frequently (Guilan road and Haiba road), foolishly never noticed the “snail houses”, but will look it up again.

      As per this link… amazing article !! I have read it twice. It strenghten my conviction of never buying a house in China.

  • Hm… given these sorts of conditions – it is a wonder that sanitary concerns are not more of an issue, like fellow BRIC member India:

  • 肯得鸭

    Survival of the fittest!…..Welcomes to the great CAPITALISM world folks!!!

    • Alex

      Chinese are masters of fucking each other up.

      • 肯得鸭

        This is CAPITALISM at its best! Under Capitalism, there are only two types of people: “THE HAVE” and “THE DONT HAVE”. The Rich rules and the poor works for the Rich! If not careful, China will soon have “Classes War Fares” which will make it again return to Communistism!
        Americans were smart enough to fine tune their system to avoid “Classes War Fares” by offering many varieties of Government’s assistant programs such as welfare, food stamp, housing assistant….etc. Currently, there is no such government programs to help the poor in China. This creates a danger of a new revolution which brings back the Communistism when there are too many “DONT HAVE” people who finally dont want to be exploited any more and demand for equal share in the countries’ wealth!

        • lol

          well before capitalism it was just all “THE DON’T HAVE”…you want 100% poverty or 80% poverty?

          (note: I know some people will point out it’s not 80% poverty, but imo anyone who can’t afford a decent house is pretty damn poor)

        • Peter

          In many respects, this is not capitalism at all.

          • “The power of capitalism comes from the barrel of a gun.”

            …or something like that.

  • Joe

    They are… it’s called the One Child Policy.

  • Alikese

    Unfortunately when you have a population as big as China’s stuff like this is going to happen. Everyone wants to move to the big city, get a job and buy an apartment, but with so many people having the same dream the housing prices skyrocket. It’s simple supply and demand. If people didn’t mind staying in the countryside they could afford to have a house and land, but they wouldn’t be able to afford a shiny black Buick.

    The government could try to entice developers to make low rent housing instead of expensive high-rises, but I think that would be a hard sell and would only help a little bit. People need to realize that they don’t need to move to Shanghai and make $100,000. Until that point there will be stories of overcrowded living in squalid conditions.

  • George

    this is what happen when a country abuses the use of capitalism
    looking at this just makes me sad
    how could an average person survive?

  • Bill

    There are too many people moving into urban areas. It’s not physically possible to give everyone a nice house or apartment if you have 20M people living in one city. I don’t think Beijing apartment prices are any higher than prices in New York. That’s why poor urban Americans live in “ghettos”.

    • disgraceful

      Beijing prices are between $300-600USD / sq ft, depending upon the “quality” (here’s a hint, its all poor quality). NYC prices are between $100-1000USD / sq ft, depending upon where you choose to live (it is possible to buy townhomes for $150 / sq ft that are 5 minute subway from Wall Street).

      Lets keep in mind that the average NYC salary is probably in the 80k USD range, whereas it is 10k USD in Beijing. I would also wager that Manhattan is similarly densely populated as Beijing.

      • bobiscool

        go wiki; the average income is about 7.7k, but obviously the wage for bejing would be higher than small cities, thus 10k is a very reasonable guess.

        and that’s not taking into account the fact that stuff in china are (generally) cheaper than in the US.

        • Peter

          Avg. salary is a tricky thing, especially in China. There are so many extremely rich and so many who are very poor. In the city where I am living I would say most people earn from 1200 RMB – 3000 RMB per month and you could probably double this for Beijing. Sure there are lots of people who make 10K-20K per month (in Beijing) but many MANY more make between 3K and 6K RMB per month. I don’t have statistics here, but this is from talking to lots of friends and strangers from this city and other parts of China.

          Chinese who hang out or work with foreigners often make more, especially in a city like Beijing, but the typical “man on the street” in this city (Dandong) would be VERY happy with 3K RMB per month and apartments around here are going for 2000-5000 RMB per sq. meter.

          So if you can save 1000 per month, that just means you will have to work for 300 months and by that time the prices will probably quadruple, unless this bubble bursts.

  • Rick in China

    33HKD per foot in TST, huh, are they talking about 33hkd per sq.foot per night or MONTH? Must be monthly, because Chungking or its rivals in TST rent far cheaper than that (beds and shared space for like 100hkd/night?)

  • Justin

    Sad…reminds me of the border towns in Mexico where the maquiladora workers live in hollowed-out school buses, except the school buses seem a bit more comfortable (and spacious).

  • Peter

    I don’t know why people are so negative in their responses… I know they are angry about housing prices, but you can see very cool creativity in these housing solutions. I would love to try to put together a house like this, just for fun. If I could make it livable (especially in winter) I would move in permanently. I mean if you pile two containers on top of each other, that’s got to be like 100 m(2) at least. Reminds me of Wee Houses in the States.

  • ni

    housing price are so high because all the corrupted officials are buying the flats for their wifes, kids, and secret girlfriends. This make ordinary Chinese unable to afford them.

  • fireworks

    Government housing projects should solve the problem otherwise trailer parks will developed just like they have in the US. I don’t see trailer parks disappearing soon in the US as the economy is still tanking and Obama and told Treasury to keep printing the greenback to make it more competitive and create jobs.

    China’s gotta ramp up its monetary policy to halt inflation at some point. Asset bubble developing in coastal cities. State owned enterprises from other industries are getting into the property market to make big profits. Cheap loans from state-owned banks.

  • The second floor container house seems only accessible to very tall basketball players or people from Shandong.

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  • bill stack

    Actually, it is a misconception that a snail carries its
    home on its back; it’s more like an exoskeleton.

  • imtheone

    Most likely to be expensive. The shipping is a big factor too.Storage Containers