The Effects of the Chinese Social Elite in Shanghai`s Residential Urban Form

Shanghai`s most expensive properties, located on the river edge of the New Pudong area, are surrounded by an urban space primarily created to serve motorized transport while servicing a high traffic density and having a street scale that would dwarf even the largest human-being. Perhaps this setup may seem strange in relation to most common modern-day oriented concepts of high-end urban planning. So what is it that makes these blocks hold such a high value? This paper attempts to understand the traditional values set by the Chinese elite in order to form an understanding of the current situation in Shanghai.
The Typologies of China`s Elite
The Son of the Heaven is the title chosen by the most powerful men in the history of China. Controlling absolute power, these men were able to shape cities to their desire, understanding that this was the vehicle towards political power over the people. It was their belief that they had to “pursue the eternity of his governance through abiding by natural principles which were believed to be followed by all creatures” (Chen 2013: 11). The foundations of China are entirely built upon the beliefs of just one man, the Emperor. For a considerable length of time, China was isolated from the rest of the world, making its culture pure and untainted. This even more strengthened the influence of the monarch which exercised sovereign authority over the key urban areas, and of all China. The monarch, as the country`s highest elite member thus had great influence in designing the urban structure where the center of commerce and culture lie.
With strong beliefs in natural principles, Moffet`s translation of the Ritual Book of Zhou (Moffet, 2003: 93) suggests that from as early as the Han period, cities were formed from an Ideal City Model. This Ideal City model can be traced as far back as 859 BC in the State of Lu (Zhuang and Zhang, 2002: 115) and can still be clearly seen today in many of China`s cities. This paper will focus solemnly on the select few who are fortunate enough to be part of China`s social elite because it is the people in this bracket who have traditionally had the primary voice in deciding how cities would be traditionally formed.
Historical Concept of an Ideal City
The Ideal City model approach is suggested to be seen as far back as 859 BC which originally set out a structured grid that was introvert in nature. Its strong central northern to southern road was paramount to creating a gateway climaxing at the foot of the impressive, but enclosed palatial grounds while its scale, often wider than the other roads enabled it to be easily recognized as a main vein of the city`s infrastructure. Moffet also suggests that the walled palatial grounds were preceded by an impressive courtyard and flanked by a place of worship. A vital aspect of the imagery of the Ideal City is the impact of the walls creating clear barriers to clarify the social hierarchies.
(Image: Aerial view and plan of Chang`an of the Tang. Chinese City and Urbanism, V.F.S Sit, 2010, World Scientific Publishing.)
Chen identifies the transformation of the lifangs from introvert to extrovert as an important turning point for urban morphology of historic Chinese cities because it allowed diversity in building types, thus awakening the public realm which allowed common citizens to control the functions of the cities which generally enhanced social classes (Chen, 2007: 17).
Lin`an (now known as Hangzhou) was formed in the late 11th Century and was built upon the silk trade (Ma 1971/Chen, 2007: 17). Being one of the most important cities to take on the characteristics of the more flexible city models, it defied all previous ideal models by breaking away from the typical rectangular shape and choosing to be situated on the east edge of the West Lake. Its form was generated by the lake`s edge and completely controversial compared to the Ideal City Model, having been situated the palace to the south gate of the city. Lin`an was also void of a central axis road through the city that gestured dominantly towards the palace instead of choosing to house the typical citizens with shops, markets, housing and workshops along this route. This was a vital change in the formation of cities because from this date, there is evidence of the emperor`s choice to go against the Ideal City Models that previously defined cities instead of choosing to respond to location elements such as rivers, lakes and mountains.
(Lin`an (Hangzhou), South song. Chinese City and Urbanism, V.F.S Sit, 2010, World Scientific Publishing.)
(Lin`an (Hangzhou), South song. Chinese City and Urbanism, V.F.S Sit, 2010, World Scientific Publishing.)
Zhai mentions the “importance of the `Dajie`, the biggest public streets in Beijing during the Ming-Qing dynasty on the Chinese culture. These streets usually divided urban form in grids and connected the city`s gates. They also acted as the major linear public spaces in the city which clustered all the representative nodes” (Zhai, 2012: 83). Similarities in Pudong adopting the Dajie streets can be noticed, but absent the human scale. These are lessons adopted from Beijing, the imperial city, but only with some change in scale.
Structural form is important for Chinese people, as can be seen from the example in Jinmao which appears like a Chinese pagoda while integrating features of American construction. The paths were designed more for delivery and fire access than for individual users.
The origins of Shanghai, Qing dynasty, West of the Huangpu River
Shanghai was quickly adopted as one of China`s five (5) trading port cities. Similar to other semi-colonial cities, under the `treaty-port system` established in 1893, it was divided into a Chinese municipality and two foreign-run districts (Wasserstrom, 2003: 59). These were known as the International Concession and the French Concession.
Formation of the bund, the impact of the British, French, American trade
(Shanghai`s development and expansion, source: Shanghai Atlas)
Shanghai`s population increased by one million in 1900, two million in 1915 and three million in 1930. By 1942, around 150,000 foreign migrants lived in the city (Cheng, 1999: ).
A proposal by the first President of the Republic of China in 1918 was the initial catalyst of the new formation in the Pudong area. This proposal consisted of building a new city centre in Pudong in order to become a city like New York. According to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, “land value and investments would increase with access to the canal proposed in the hinterland of Pudong” (Zhai, 2012: 26). From this, we can identify that according to Yat-Sen, waterways or canals have a major role in increasing investment and land values. If this is correct then properties closest to the Huangpu River would naturally become the most valued. Development plans in 1991 also showed a very clear priority to create urban forms sprawling along the river edge and reserved the inner land for agricultural use.
Pudong`s Finalised Masterplan proposal, 1991 (Source: SUPDI)
The change in power in China during 1949 saw a change in priorities. The Chinese Communist Party`s (CCP) views primarily orbited around the progress of industries and the residential urban form was very much of secondary importance. This often meant that residential blocks were simply attached to industrial construction as opposed to developing and maintaining a central city. Pudong was fortunate enough to evade this and remained gereally untouched during this time.
It was March 1990 when the Pudong Development proposal was officially launched following the events of Tian`anmen Square in June 1989. Deciding that China must accept and encourage western investment, Pudong became the top priority in setting a precedent for the future planning of Chinese urban infrastructure.
Pudong`s Strategy guidelines included the following: (1) Open door policies to stimulate development (2) adoption of special preferential policies to attract foreign investment, technology and management from Hong Kong and elsewhere and (3) opening up of certain services including finance, insurance, and retailing (Zhai, 2013: 31).
In the plan to pursue economic reform to stimulate opening up and development, the plan included setting up experiments to establish Shanghai stock exchange and securities centre, a free-trade zone and the commercialization of land use rights.
The benefits foreseen from the developments pursued in Pudong was not only limited to reviving Shanghai and linking the city to the global economy but likewise in serving as the economic driving force for the Yangtze river delta and the Yangtze river valley, with effects extending to the country at large, and so complying as well with economic reform and the national interest (Zhai, 2013: 31).
The Ideal City of Today
Zhai`s suggestion that Pudong not only represents an integral part of Modern Shanghai but was also the latest model of urban China concluding that the “aesthetic value included in Pudong has been accepted by other Chinese cities while they try to build their own `Pudong`” (Zhai, 2013: 52) has great importance in gaining an understanding of what is considered the Modern Ideal City. The basis that other Chinese cities are attempting to duplicate this urban form holds value in understanding what the Modern Ideal City of China must entail.
Can we form typologies that identify the Modern Ideal City? Different architects and urban planning experts have laid down the different ideal elements that characterize a good city structure.
Kevin Lynch, one of the modern premiere environmental design theorists, has provided that the concepts of city structure should include landmarks, nodes, paths, edges and districts in order to create urban form of human cognition. These elements, are for him, necessary as an ideal city structure is believed to be a reflection, or a determiner of a good society. He further stated than an ideal city “instilled civic pride and responsibility in its citizens, and promoted their moral and social development” (Lynch, 1996).
Qi Kang, on the other hand, proposes that the urban elements are jia (frame), he (core), zhou (axes), qun (cluster) and jieman (interface). (Qi, 1982: 65) Qi Kang believes that a city is not an inanimate structure but, must be likened to a living organism which must have veins and arteries which facilitates ease in operated. Without this, any operation will result in a massive haemorrhage. Moreover, Qi Kang believes that architectural works should not be insensible but rather, should be humane and must have emotions.
For Wu Jin, the important components of urban form are street networks, blocks, nodes, land uses and development axes.
Among the essential elements that are identified by Chen, another Chinese specialist on the subject of urban infrastructure which are relevant for Chinese cities are the general plan includes the location, topography, size, shape, axes, built up fabrics and series of boundaries and the silhouettes which is the meeting point of the land horizon and the sky. A key importance of roofscapes in Chinese culture is its contribution to the creation of a unique silhouette as these structures are within half of the elevation from the horizon to the sky.
In the illustration below, it can be observed that the silhouette created by roofscapes of the residences in China were important in the structure of the urban community. The roofscapes were designed with uniformity and with an intention to create a collective image that shows harmony.
Lijiang Old Town Roofscape (photograph by the author)
All urban structure specialists can easily agree that one of the most important elements of city planning is the street network. Street networks are open spaces bounded by street-lines which are reserved for the use of surface traffic. These street networks provide service for transportation and communication (Conzen, 1969: 5). The arrangement of streets in a ground plan serves as the skeleton of a city (Qi, 1982: 56). As a skeleton provides the form of the body, so the streets define the form and appearance of the urban community. Wide streets help make a community, facilitate people`s interaction and encourage participation and physical comfort (Jacobs, 1993: 33). Being likened to veins and arteries of the city, the streets play key roles in determining the economic and social progress of the community. As such, control over the street also determine the control over necessary economic and even political power. In Chinese traditional urban design, street networks and streets were strictly controlled, as recorded in Kaogong Ji. This particular record provides that the street network in an ideal city was to represent the social status of the administrator of the city (Chapter 1). Each hierarchy was specifically represented so that the public would know the status of the people who primarily utilize the roads. One illustration of this classification is that the streets for the king`s city should ideally be always much wider than that of the prince`s (Chen, 2013: 68). The difference between the sizes of the streets mentioned the public to properly identify
Urban blocks were defined as “within the town plan unoccupied by streets and bounded wholly or partly by street lines” (Conzen, 1969: 145). These urban blocks, therefore can be concluded as being dependent of street structures where they are adjacent from. It is in these urban blocks where important establishments are erected to serve the financial and trade transactions in the city.
In traditional Chinese cities before the Song period, blocks were clearly defined by walls, with only two doors on the south and north, opening to the streets. This feature is most prevalent in primitive concepts of basic city structures, and particularly identified with early Chinese military strategy. Since in the ancient times, communication systems did not yet allow advanced mechanisms for maintaining control over political territories, the construction of citadels was a necessary defense stratagem. However, the presence of walls in ancient cities had a different effect on the economy. While maintaining strong control over micro commercial transactions as market activities were confined in a definite area where authorities have absolute control over all factors that affect the economy, it however prevented outside interference which resulted in isolation. The walls which controlled the political and economic affairs of the city likewise insulated the people from foreign intervention. A community was thus physically walled in an urban block and often, with a religious temple at the centre (Chen, 2013: 68). Cultural heritage was also important in Chinese city planning as reflected by ancient structures of cities. Being primarily built for political, commercial and cultural centre, a city accommodates basic buildings as government service centres, markets, schools and temples (Zhai, 2012: 139).
Public spaces were defined by “their social meaning, functional usage, accessibility and public ownership” (Arendt, 1973). These structures, hence, are freely accessible for common people. Public spaces are community areas which are constructed to serve the public`s social need. While primarily constructed for the general populace, public spaces likewise serve governmental functions. Although in modern standards of urban planning, public spaces can be observed as basic and necessary, this was not present in ancient cities in China. Chinese planned cities were traditionally void of public spaces except for a controlled market. (Chen, 2013: 69). This setup can be attributed to the observation that public activities were not supported by the physical environment. Instead of being constructed by the society for the development of social tradition which necessarily takes place in publicly owned spaces, these areas were constituted through a series of unprompted events which were not consciously directed for the purpose of building social arena. Residents created spontaneously such places from periodic gathering around a temple or waterfront to proclaim such social needs. Since those spaces were deeply connected to the local everyday ways of life, such as those related to festivals and religions, it created an important connection between public spaces and public buildings in Chinese traditional cities as a catalyst of social dynamism (Chen, 2013: 69).
Public buildings, on the other hand, are not as open in structure as the public spaces mentioned earlier. These are structures which, although similarly constructed for the same purposes and are also owned by the public, these edifices serve more particular purposes and are more controlled by authorities rather than by the populace. Public buildings are indoor public spaces that share similar attributes with public open spaces. These public buildings also characterize early Chinese urban areas. In fact, the advanced structural elements, modulus-oriented building parts and meaningful decorations were the best representation of Chinese architecture. In contemporary cities, public buildings attract most of the investments in a municipality and act as landmarks to represent the city in various ways. (Chen, 2013: 69)
In the list of basic urban structures, one of the most indispensable structures are the dwellings of the residents. Houses are mass urban components which are present in all communities and as such, in all cities. Houses are spaces useful for everyday life and are closest to the local people and the culture. The houses of people obviously portray most accurately the lifestyle, culture and status of the citizens. It is where people primarily reside and where they display their identity as a consequence of the significant amount of freedom that homes provide. Looking into the houses of urban communities as a way of getting acquainted with its history and culture is as useful a tool as using a microscope in defining the attributes of an organism.
There are but few accounts that contain the traditional details of domestic architecture in China. This is because in the 1940s, wartime conditions prevailed in the country and reports on survey conducted were mostly destroyed because of the turmoil. Among the few records that survived the war era were the works of Liu Zhiping. His early records, however were not able to reach publication because of intervening events. Eventually, he was able to provide a comprehensive summary of Chinese architectural types and structures. (Knapp, 2000: 71). In his book entitled “China`s Old Dwellings,” Knapp (2000) describes the traditional house structures in metropolitan Shanghai using the term “Longtang.” Longtang is “the term used by Shanghainese to describe the narrow rectangular multistory dwellings found in the densely packed neighborhoods that emerged to accommodate Chinese who moved into the foreign concession areas.” Over time, longtang evolved into many forms, often adapting to the economic status of the dweller while mostly maintaining its size and structure.
Zhai states that the “blocks in Pudong are designed to be of large size (500mx800m), and very often one residential block contains only one plot” (Zhai, 2013: 53). What this means from the developer`s point of view is that they have full control on how each of these blocks work on a public and private scale with the Pudong roads being the interface linking each block to the next. Zhai also suggests that these roads have lost any role of interface they may have had because many of the private plots have “block fencing walls erected to enhance the spatial defence”. Quite purposely, the plots take on a defensive attitude towards its surrounding context, choosing to completely ignore anything that lies out of the plot line.
Zhai also successfully identifies that the guidelines of the Pudong development have no mention of the physical character of the urban space or its aesthetic look. This can be inferred to mean that it is not a part of the planners` responsibilities. Despite the visible lack of aesthetic planning in the urban structure of the Pudong area in Shanghai, it remains to be the hub of the social elites because the costliest real estates are location within its vicinity. The road scales and variations of Pudong compared to other cities because of fences surrounding its blocks, sets it apart from the Huaihai French style streets which consist of a combination of commercial and residential blocks and also from Nanjing which has purely commercial zones.
Zhai identifies some key aspects on the claim that the roads in Pudong are not designed to create pleasant places for pedestrians, describing barriers between the road and the pavements. Such are not only there to protect pedestrians but to also to keep pedestrians from the cars acting almost like a group of bouncers protecting the latest celebrity (Zhai, 2013: 82). He further added that “Pudong has become an un-walkable city for those who live, travel and work here, due to its strategy in designing the scale of streets in relation to the pedestrians” (Zhai, 2013:82)
Ren (2011: 99) suggests that “urban preservation in China is mostly driven by economic and political interests rather than by concerns for protecting cultural heritage”. However, there is a further motivating factor in the preservation of these areas that is driving those with financial power that dictates how some areas of urban preservation are to be created.
Consequences of the Shift in Power and the Effects of Consumerism and Globalization on the Development of Shanghai as China`s Premiere City
When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949, the economy was yet to be revived because of the after-effects of a series of wars that left the country`s economy in a very low state. The railroad system was severely affected by the war and hence, communication and transportation was not in good shape. Due to the extreme challenges the country was facing, the authorities resorted to the centralization of government fiscal management (Eckstein, 2006: 125). Even though the very purposes of communist ideology naturally abhors corruption, the Chinese Communist Party was not able to evade this problem. This was especially evident in the process of selection of leaders. Based on a survey conducted among the children of some 1,700 key leaders in China, the result showed that “about 3,100 held official positions above the government bureau or military division level” and about “900 were the principal leaders of large and medium-sized state-owned enterprises (SOEs)” (Burns, 2006: 33). This just shows the desire of the CCP leaders to ensure that their status will not be maintained for a long period of time. This has resulted, paradoxically, to “nepotism and favoritism in elite recruitment have become prevalent at a time when educational criteria and technical expertise are more important than class background and revolutionary experience” (Cheng Li, 2001: 245). Instead of resulting to economic equity, corruption among state officials had resulted to an even more concentration of wealth among the social elites. Although most reports would reflect a relatively effective system during the reign of the CCP, those reports are, allegedly, generally tainted with courrption that was slowly gaining control over the system of government (Burns, 2006: 45).
“The elimination of private property ownership gave the communist party-state enormous power to reshape landscape for legitimating state power and social control” (Ren, 2011: 45). With the government still holding a 70 year maximum lease for private land, is it correct to identify that China`s state government continues to hold enormous power over the nation`s identity and social control or do the Chinese people hold a valuable grasp on how their nation and identity is ran?
The precedent of the Bank of China`s Document No. 121 released in 2003 titled `Notice Regarding Further Regulating Real Estate Financing` is important in understanding how the powers of China are slowly but surely changing from that of its recent past. It stated that in “restricted bank lending for high-end luxury property developments…. Document 121 raised the down payments for purchasing properties from 20 percent to 30 percent and raised interest rates for the people buying a second home” (Chen 2011: 88). This was clearly a document aimed at controlling the growth of the social elite by the Government. Developers rapidly responded and mobilised to oppose the policy with Zhang Baoqyan, the CEO of Antaeus Group, telling the media that “the new policy grouped together developers with strong performance and those with poor performance through administrative means, and killed the fair competition between the firms” (Su, 2005: 112). This manoeuvre by the Chinese government was a very clear attempt at maintaining control of the social decisions and growth of the rich. Therefore, it would suggest that these social elite are indeed troubling the thoughts of the Government running the country.
Just seventy-eight days after the release of Document 121, a further document (18) entitled “Notice regarding Promoting Continuous and Healthy Growth of the Real Estate Sector” was released. In essence this document reversed all decisions created in Document 121 altogether and actually “encouraged further development of the real estate financing system, as well as bank lending to developers in good standing” (Ren, 2011: 90). With this rapid turn of events it was an obvious victory for developers and the social elite knowing that the government no longer controlled their spending and loaning habits. “No matter if the original policy is flawed, or if the developer`s critiques are justified, the fact that the policy was revered shows the power of the private business groups to influence government decision making” (Zhang Jianping, 2004: 241). It can be suggested that these social elite are indeed slowly loosening their grip from the officials that run China, but what hold do this very same group have over the identity and typology of Modern Chinese architecture?
With the housing prices offered within Shanghai rising above 130,000RMB/m2 and a typical monthly salary between 3,000-10,000 RMB for the typical white collar worker (Gemini marketing statistics), it is obvious that the number that are able to afford such properties are a select few, but it is these select few who are currently maintaining control in developing China.
Types of Social Elites in Shanghai
This study will identify with the very select few, the social elite as they are often called. This sector of people usually have the most social status, `guanxi` (connections) and wealth. By studying the types of properties these people are buying into, we can gain insight and understanding in their way of living, lifestyle choices and requirements needed in a modern Chinese city. Is it still as obvious as it was in the original ideal city plan to identify the location of the elite, or has tradition been lost and a different urban identity taken its place?
Ren states that there is a clear divide between two different sectors of wealthy Chinese property owners with one sector made up of mining, factory and trade owners and the other based upon a more urban professional group made up of lawyers, business directors and accountants. “According to local newspapers and the company reports, in the last quarter of 2005, SOHO China building developers achieved sales of Pound74,000,000 more than half of which was spent by coal mine owners from Shanxi province” (Ren 2011: 94). However we will not be exploring on the first sector of wealthy owners as the preliminary region of sales is purely of an investor point of view and largely aimed towards commercial spaces as opposed to the second sector including the urban professionals that are living and spending time in these developing residential sectors.
Shanghai also houses a 3rd type of Social elite, the expatriate. Often relocating to Shanghai for work, this bracket of people have huge incomes even compared to the west and are growing in numbers yearly with figures in January 2013, showing that there are 173,000 expats in Shanghai alone ( For example, an architect with 20 years of experience can earn over Pound18,900 a month or Pound245,700 per annum (Gemini salary statistics) while typical figures in the UK come in between Pound40,000-Pound100,00 per annum (RIBA Salary statistics) although it`s worth noting that foreigners are unable to purchase property in China unless married to a Chinese citizen.
For the basis of this study we will be focusing primarily on the development and decisions of the 2 types of Chinese elite within Shanghai because we can target principle typologies created by Chen and Qi that are aimed towards the Chinese city opposed to creating a study that highlights the key typologies between the expat influence and Chinese culture that would be a much bigger study. It is important to note that while Shanghai has been extremely influenced by Western practices, it is still essential to target the Chinese social elite.
According to the survey conducted by the Shanghai Social Science Academy (Li, 2004), inequalities in the income of people in Shanghai is increasing as “the income of the tenth decile increased from Pound351/month in 1990 to Pound24300/monthly in 2000, while that of the first decile grew only slightly, from Pound142 to Pound575/monthly. Consequently, in 2000, the income level of the tenth decile is five times of that of the first decile.” This inequality which seems to be growing further is among the reasons for the presence of social elites in China who are maintaining influence not just in politics but in economy as well.
The Day to Day Needs of Social Elites in Shanghai
It is possible to map the typical typology differences between the International social elite and the Chinese because it is not possible for Expats to become home owners. To acquire real property, they must instead look at renting a property. By slicing the very highest segment of the Shanghai rental market and mapping their location within Shanghai, we will be able to gain an insight into the types of locations preferred by international social elites. Likewise, with the Chinese market being urged to buy and acquire their own flat, we are able to slice the most valued properties in Shanghai and by cross referencing them, we can begin to understand the typology of residential properties purchased by the wealthiest Chinese. In acknowledging these two areas, it is then possible to draw upon and highlight key differences in the needs of these two highly diverse social classes.
We can identify the wealthiest Chinese where house prices are highest in the following illustration:
Each red dot identifies an apartment for sale over Pound9923186.
(Data taken from image drawn by the Author)
Each red dot identifies an apartment for sale over Pound9923186.
(Data taken from image drawn by the Author)
We can identify the wealthy expatswhere rent prices are highest in the following illustration:
Each red dot identifies an apartment for rent over Pound5569 per month.
(Data taken from image drawn by the Author)
Each red dot identifies an apartment for rent over Pound5569 per month.
(Data taken from image drawn by the Author)
To understand how the Chinese urban fabric functioned on a large scale from this point onwards, it is important to analyze and understand how the small scale houses fed the socio-economic organizations. The courtyard house is one of China`s most traditional identities representing a clear social hierarchy within the extended family. In the hierarchy the elders occupy the highest spot, followed by the first son`s family, others son`s family, the younger generations and the servants respectively (Blaser 1995, Hu 2008 The Emerging Housing Policy Framework in China).
Perhaps the economic revolution which blanketed China shifted the spotlight to Shanghai, making it the third largest financial market, even surpassing the strong and time-tested, resilient cities such as Tokyo, Zurich and Hong Kong during 1949. Shanghai is now transforming itself from being a powerhouse in Asia to becoming a world-class city. This intention is evident from the construction of high rise buildings, which resembles the appearance of western urban forms that characterize first-class world cities such as New York and London. With this intention, a “foreign-led, and high-density-driven, urban development strategy has become the acceptable norm in Shanghai” (Lau, Mahtab-uz-Zaman and So Hing Mei, 2000: 103). China aims to make Pudong their version of New York by making it the center of international finance and trade. As such, like other international cities in the west, it has invested in vertical structures. Skyscrapers are all around the city and establishments are being constructed primarily to serve trade and commerce, while bringing residential aspects into a more subordinate priority. Although Shanghai is becoming more and more western in form, its origin is still distinct from western urban cities. London and New York, which are considered as having the standard form of urbanization in the west, are products of Industrial Revolution while Shanghai was formed out of capital globalization (Huang, 2004: 7).
Among the members of the current elites in China now were witnesses to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. These were the generation of Chinese who had experienced the struggle between “liberty and democracy on one side, and traditional values and communist system on the other” and as such, they were in a position to think more on China`s future compared to the generations before them. They seized the newly opened opportunities that resulted to this tragic event by creating their own companies (Lu, 2008: n.p.).
Just like in almost all urban areas, Shanghai likewise has many Bai Xiang (or literally translated, leisure). In the commercial district of Pudong, luxurious lifestyle offers a walk along “glittering malls, exclusive hotel arcades and heart-stopping prices” (Harper and Pitts, 2013: n.p.). In line with the plush lifestyle of elites living within the area, Shanghai shares the modern convenience usually expected among the residents who are rich and moneyed.
Housing Typologies of the Chinese Elite
In a list provided by a Chinese website on luxury guide called Red Luxury on the most expensive residences in China, four (4) out of ten (10) identified luxury residences are located in Shanghai`s Pudong area. These are the: Riverside Triumphal Arch where an apartment unit`s cost can be as high as 58 million RMB or US $9.45 millionTomson Riviera, where an apartment unit`s cost can be as high as 140 million RMB or US $ 22.8 million Emperor Zillah, where a unit may cost as high as 150 million RMB or US $ 24.45 million.
In reacting to the selling price of an apartment in Pudong which was sold in 2012, with a cost of 220,000 Yuan (US$ 35,000) per square meter, Patrick Chovanec, a former business professor at Tsinghua University said that the price was more than double compared to the costliest real estates in one of the most expensive cities in the world. In New York, according to him, the most expensive property sold only amounted to US $ 34,444 per square meter (Taylor, 2012: n.p.).
An overview on the internal structures of some of the priciest real estate in Pudong may somehow contribute to explain the reason why despite the very high value the developers have attached to these properties, the elites in China are still patronizing them. From the pictures below showing the floor plans of units that are patronized by the rich in China, it can be observed how the use of space was maximized to be able to cope with the fast-paced and business-oriented lifestyle in the area.
The floor plan of a flat in the Tomson Riviera.
(Drawing from
The floor plan of a flat in the Tomson Riviera.
(Drawing from
The floor plans of a Villa near Changshulu
(Drawings from
The floor plans of a Villa near Changshulu
(Drawings from
The typology described above shows a great degree of variation fromthe traditional use of internal housing spaces as it tends to adopt instead a western interior design. In this light, Murphy maintained that the “essential features of traditional Chinese architecture needed to be preserved intact whenever possible and that foreign architects in China could design architecture in Chinese style and, most important, for the Chinese” (Cody, 2004: 42). The Chinese people, known for their high regard over their own tradition and culture, have noticeably opened up slowly to western influences as can be observed from the deviation in structure in the new models of residences sold at prices which can be inferred to be offered exclusively to the elites.
In western premiere cities like New York and London, spaces are maximized to serve both business and residential needs, often regarding greater primacy over the former. The same has been the trend for global cities and Shanghai is not an exception. In a city where people move in a rush and every activity can be effectively translated into monetary value, “the exclusive use of facilities was inefficient and a waste of resource.” (Wu 1990: 128) Such can be the primary moving force in the recent trend where the Chinese local elites are moving into tower residences instead of traditional independent housing facilities like in the villas. Aside from the excellent location for financial opportunities, efficiency in the use of space is another important consideration evident from the assignment of rocket-high prices in real estate in the Pudong area.
As in the case of any other global cities, Pudong generally offers only real estate properties for the elites set up in Walled Tower communities rather than traditional villa style homes. These types of elite real estates are characterized by super blocks which”seriously reduced the permeability and legibility of the urban fabric, thus discouraging social interaction on urban streets” (Chen 2013: 35). Walled tower communities are said to be symbolic and historical for it reflects fundamental elitism. Because of its high walls and vertical form, these communities appear to be self-contained islands located in the heart of high level cities which create a strong class-based barrier (Hanson and Courtenay, 2013). On the other hand, villas which are considered as more traditional housing facilities for the conservative Chinese are considered to be more classic in its symbol for status because traditionally, gardens had been an important element in distinguishing the elites in China. In Tang Villa, one of the largest villas in Shanghai, the architects combine “traditional Chinese architectural and cultural concepts with modern living requirements” and nature is given high emphasis (Leece, 2007: 40).
In commenting against the modern towers which are dominating the real estate structures within Pudong area, Gaubatz (2005: 45) reviewed that the Central Business District`s (CBD) consumption spaces “are full of glittering shopping malls, chain stores, plush hotels and exotic restaurants.” He further criticised that “it does little to preserve the local character of cities and facilities social polarisation since original residences were purposely displaced.” However, despite what we can consider as cultural irreverence towards China which, historically, had been more conservative than any other countries in its traditions and practices, Chinese elite consumers are still more and more preferring a western taste in their choice of residences. Chinese elites are easily distinguished by their level of income and by their ownership of properties which usually comprise of a comfortable, traditional residence in the outlying areas of the city and one unit or more in the condominium towers located in the city`s business center (Lu, 2008: n.p.).
In describing the high quality of life enjoyed by the elites in high-rise residences that are typical of western cities which is likewise the case in Shanghai towers, Hanson and Courtenay (2013) said that “around the building and all its neighbors, the ground is completely sterile, with little or no usable green space, or retail or pedestrian connectivity.” On the other hand, elites in China who prefer luxury villas enjoy secured and gated spaces. These elites, mostly are people who have great influence both in politics and economy. Chinese elites who often prefer living in villas are those who have travelled abroad often and were exposed to the lifestyle of their counterparts in other countries. While traditionally, luxury villas would preserve Chinese architectural designs in its entirety, new compounds in Shanghai follow mainly Western structures rather than the traditional models. In some places, villas were designed to look like castles to represent feudalism as a concept of European culture. An example of this is the expensive Shanghai complex called the Le Chateau. However, even with the great influence of western culture in the architecture of modern villas, Chinese culture is not altogether abandoned but finds its place in some other elements of these estates. Most often, the Chinese element is reduced to the names of these places. Some of these places in Shanghai are named as `Dynasty Villas`, `Emerald Court` and `Mandarin Garden`. Villas, hence, make possible the interweaving of cultures which is also termed as the “civilization mix” (Giroir, 2006: 208).
Since in the high urban places, business purposes are served primarily before residential needs, fast-paced living is the trend. Therefore, walking is considered a luxury because it can waste away time. In the heart of the city, both villas and tower residences share the same bias towards motorized transport. In relating her experience in visiting Pudong, the place where China`s elites acquire residential real estates, Beadle (2002: 245) criticizes the transport system as one designed for vehicle movements while ignoring mostly, the movement of people.
According to an organization catering to expatriates in China known as InterNations, the expats who are considered among the elites in China, mostly prefer renting rather than buying properties, even though pursuant to new laws, they can already acquire properties in their names. Moreover, expats, prefer villas as they often come into Shanghai along with their families. Choosing villas over residential towers is most convenient to foreigners because villas usually have management staffs who speak in English and shuttle services to nearby international schools or city center are commonly afforded to them. Of the places in China, the most popular among expatriates is the Pudong New Area. The information mentioned here are included in the online guides of InterNations in articles entitled “Expat Districts and Housing in China,” (n.d.) and “Expat Housing in China” (n.d.).
On the premise that most expatriates, while in the Central Business Districts prefer acquiring real estate in the villas and the local elites, on the other hand commonly chose to reside in condominium towers reflect on the needs of each class of elites that can be catered by each type of luxury residential estate. Since the elite expats arrive in China with a definite business responsibility, they are more secure in their status, hence, mixing Chinese culture with their international needs is a viable option while for Chinese elites who secure their social positions are more conscious of their preservation of their status in the societal hierarchy. Villas offer a wide area for different activities conducive for family recreation while tower units are mostly mixed with business elements considering its location and structure. Moreover, Chinese elites who compete in the financial market are often engaged in stock exchange and therefore, they cannot freely decide the location of their business. This makes living in the thick of the China`s financial district both as a necessity because it saves time and money and as a luxury as tower residence are regarded as a status symbol for its rocket-high price.
As pointed out in the earlier discussion, elites in China are commonly distinguished not only by their income bracket but also by the real properties they own. Quite commonly, although they acquire a comfortable villa together with a unit in residential towers, they invest more on the latter as those are of higher prices than the former. In the age of globalization, local elites find themselves blending in with the urban lifestyle found all around the world, which usually disregards local cultures and instead puts forth a whole new different culture that is built on financial prestige.
The suitability of Pudong as a hub for the rich and privileged is based on urban spaces which are usually dependent on motorized transport, with a high traffic density and large vehicle-prioritizing roads. This condition makes walking a bad mode of travelling as it often requires walking for a distance of at least 400 meters to reach the next block. With this description, it can be concluded that the Pudong area, is essentially structured for business, and not for residential purposes. Pedestrians are not favored by the street networks. This is somehow paradoxical when viewed from the sky-rocket high values of real estates in the area. Perhaps the modern Chinese elites, who started off as generally conservative are now slowly opening up to a culture based on globalization.
Jane Jacobs, in writing about the life and death of Great American Cities provided that “If a city`s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting, if they look dull, the city looks dull” (Zhai, 2012: 199). Jacobs then expressed her dissatisfaction over the seemingly “dull urban space” that characterizes Pudong, which houses the most expensive real properties in China saying that the area is disinteresting to pedestrians because of gated communities and functional zoning. However, in spite of many criticisms in the structure of the Pudong Area in Shanghai, it still boasts attraction to local elites. The elites, who are fully capable of buying convenience find themselves in the center of this area which Zhai said to be of poor street environment.
The recent sale on a real estate property mentioned earlier involving an amount of which is even way more than double the amount of some of the costliest properties of equal size in New York, seems to give a hint on the consumer behavior of local elites in China when it comes to their residential preference. In the same article by Taylor (2012: n.d.), Professor Chovanec noted that the purchasing power of the people in Shanghai in 2011, based on their average income of Chinese people amounts to an average of US$8,357 while the purchasing power based on the average income of people living in New York is approximately US$56,400. From this comparison, one can infer that the acquisition of overpriced, western-based residential structures are more of a status conscious impulse among the local Chinese elites rather than borne out of genuine necessity. In contrast with expats who prefer villas mainly because of the convenience it offers not just in favor of individual needs but to the expats` families, the consideration can appear to be more on the practical aspect. It was likewise mentioned before that towers symbolize fundamental elitism which is not only confined in western culture but present as well in Chinese traditions. From the great disparity between the purchasing power of the local Chinese elites and the values of the real estate they acquire, and also considering the criticisms of urban development experts on the location of these properties, a conclusion on their real estate investment attitude tilts more on societal rather than practical considerations. This inclination is even more revealing considering their growing disregard towards traditional housing standards as they patronize more and more the western culture in adopting a globalized way of life. The suspicion regarding bubbling in the valuation of the real estate in areas where the elite are located becomes a sound inference because of the apparent inconvenience that accompanies the said properties. From these observations, the powerful elite in China of today`s generation seems to create a social impression larger than their actual capacities through overvaluation of their residential assets. This shift from traditional values is also accompanied by a higher regard over social impression rather than practical convenience.
If this real estate consumer behavior of local Chinese elites will be contrasted to the behavior of expatriates, it will reveal that these local elites are now beginning to give less value for traditional residential preferences but are now prioritizing business rather than personal convenience. With the ever increasing need to elevate financial status in a global city, conservatism becomes too much of a luxury. Perhaps we can attribute this to their need to consistently compete in the financial market while the expats are endowed with more freedom as their incomes from their employments are relatively more stable. Hence, expats become more able to explore the culture of the locality. For their financially secure situation, exploring the local culture is regarded as a necessity because of their usually limited stay in the foreign territory.
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