Today’s Chinese Matchmaker Arranges Housing Swaps, Not Marriages

Times Staff Writer

Fan Shuhua is a modern-day Chinese matchmaker. She sits in a booth in a Peking park, arranging not marriages but housing swaps.

Her clients come from the legions of city-dwellers who want to get out of a miserable housing situation--people with a wearying commute to work, people living in unheated fifth-floor walk-ups, people who have no school nearby, no place to shop.

Fan, using a small file of index cards, notes where each applicant lives and what each needs, or dreams of getting. Then, in the time-honored tradition of all matchmakers, she tries to find compatible pairs of applicants, each with something the other wants.

“I try to bridge people,” she said the other day.


Outlet for Frustration

Fan works for Peking’s Municipal Housing Bureau. Housing swaps are the only officially approved outlet for the frustrations of millions of Chinese who do not have the money or opportunity to buy an apartment but are dissatisfied with the housing assigned to them by the state.

People who live in Chinese cities are not free to shop for a place to live. They must wait to be assigned an apartment. Finding housing is so difficult that stories abound of people continuing to stay on for decades in overcrowded apartments, even after they have grown up, married and had children.

“I’ve been living for the past six years in a single room with eight square meters of space,” a Peking cab driver told a reporter. “It was too small for just me and my wife, and five years ago my son was born.”


Holds Out No Hope

Asked if he sees any chance of getting better housing in the future, he replied, “None.”

In Shanghai, authorities reported last year that living space for the 6 million people in the downtown area averaged 4.9 square meters per person--an area only slightly larger than 7 feet by 7 feet. An investigation last year by the government-controlled newspaper Economic Daily showed that 8% of all city families have no real apartment at all, but live in what had been an attic, a washroom or a hallway.

Within every work unit, a Communist Party secretary or other ranking cadre has the power to decide who gets what apartment. Key factors are official position, seniority and size of family--as well as good personal ties to the party secretary.


“Right now, I am classified by my unit as a young intellectual,” a writer said recently. “When I get to be 35, then I will be classified as a middle-aged intellectual, and my wife and I will be entitled to a real apartment--two rooms with our own bathroom and kitchen facilities. But of course I never know; they change the regulations over and over again.

Asking for This and That

“I just went in to see the secretary last week to ask about better housing, and the guy said he’d think about it. ‘You ask me for this, you ask me for that,’ the secretary complained. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you and your wife have a child? Then you would qualify for more space.’ ”

Officials in Peking say that the most common reason people cite for wanting to change apartments is not lack of space but distance from their jobs.


The housing assignment system guarantees that some people will live on the grounds of the factory where they work, but it also means that others will be doomed to a time-consuming commute. People who live with their parents, or in an apartment assigned to a spouse, may find themselves standing on buses for 90 minutes or more traveling to and from work.

“Before we moved here, it took me two hours,” said a young woman who had just moved into a new apartment originally assigned to her in-laws. “Now, in the new place, we’re near the subway line, and my husband and I can both get to work in an hour and a half.”

Unofficial Deals

This couple is one of many who have worked out informal, unofficial housing deals. It is commonplace in Chinese cities for people to live in an apartment that has been assigned to their relatives or friends. Sometimes, middle-aged, two-career couples are assigned two apartments, one by each of their work units. They live in one and turn the other over to someone else.


In recent years, an under-the-table private real estate market has begun to develop in urban areas.

All land in China’s cities is owned by the state, but many of the buildings are privately owned by enterprises or, occasionally, by individuals. The owners are entitled to sell their properties, so long as the price is within state-controlled limits and the seller pays taxes to the state on the transaction.

Some Avoiding Taxes

However, the China Law Journal reported in a recent issue that in order to avoid taxes, some enterprises and individuals are buying and selling property without reporting it, or registering the sale at a price far lower than was actually paid. Furthermore, Chinese authorities have admitted that some brokers are actually profiteering from the real estate trade.


For the millions of Chinese who do not own a home but want to exchange state-assigned apartments, the officially sanctioned broker is the city housing bureau.

The bureau began holding housing exchange fairs in 1980, borrowing an idea that had been tried in the Soviet Union. A year ago, officials said, 80,000 people took part in the fair, and over a five-day period, 3,100 families concluded deals.

The demand is so great that the authorities are now using computers to help them keep up. But for now at least, much of the work is still being done by experienced matchmakers like Fan.