Newspaper headline names Grandma Li’s family “the toughest squatters” as they protest against real estate developer by hanging a banner outside their half-destroyed house which reads “Government, please save the people.”

A squatter house in Chongqing standing out strikingly on a site where its neighboring buildings have all been torn down.

The Li family, refusing to relocate, uses candles to light the house when water and electricity supply are cut off. Unfortunately, Grandma Li falls down in the dark and becomes paralyzed.

The Li family enjoys Chinese New Year dinner in a cramped candle-lit room…

...while Song Siming spends the Spring Festival with his family in a spacious and nicely decorated villa. These two consecutive sequences sharply contrast the living conditions of the poor with those of Party officials.

The sound of hammering on the ceiling alarms a paralyzed Grandma Li.

She crawls to look for his son and daughter-in-law when villainous construction workers begin tearing down the ceiling.

Camera close-ups of Grandma Li’s horrified face.

From Grandma Li’s point-of-view …

... we see the ceiling collapse, fall, and crush her.

Grandma Li’s son and daughter-in-law attempt to save her after the house collapses.

The Li family visits a new three-bedroom apartment—their compensation for Grandma Li’s death.

Ah Gu, Grandma Li’s grandson, is excited to select his bedroom.

Haiping tours a decent, newly-build apartment and makes a decision to purchase the apartment in preparation for reunification with her daughter.

The buying process is interlaced with government corruption. Song Siming meets with a real estate developer, strategizes how to push up real estate prices, and hands him an urban renewal proposal, promising profits for the real estate developer.

The narrative continues with Haiping and Su Chun signing a twenty-year mortgage contract, agreeing to pay two-thirds of the monthly household income.

Song Siming, the Mayor’s Secretary, becomes a suspect in an anti-corruption case.

The investigation of Haizao and Haiping brings Song Siming’s corruption to light and leads the investigation team to Chen Sifu.

Chen Sifu, Haiping’s boss and a real estate developer, is a go-between for Haiping and Song Siming’s affair and a vital piece in Song’s corruption board-game. Grandma Li’s death exposes the hidden relationship between Chen Sifu and Song Siming, which leads the investigation team to Mayor Zhang and Bank President Xie.

Song Siming, representing Mayor Zhang, proposes an embezzlement scheme…

... to Bank President Xie’s representative…

... and a real estate developer through whom Bank President Xie mobilizes RMB 300 million in order to support Chen Sifu in raising funds through the Hong Kong Stock Market.

Mayor Zhang, Song’s supervisor, is the culprit behind a series of collusions with real estate developers.

The anti-corruption team leader reports Song Siming’s corruption case to a Party Secretary.


In the following section, I will first analyze the ways Haiping, Haizao, and Grandma Li become agents and victims of the current modernization project, and then discuss the social problems revealed by their trials. I will also demonstrate how and why the use of prominent female characters as a skillful plot device teases out a corrupt network between the government and the market.

The state’s goal of “joining the international orbit” and economic disparities between urban and rural areas have turned the city into a symbol of cosmopolitanism and development, a fantasy land where its dwellers become rich and proud of their global citizenship. Such a discourse creates a psychological place for Haiping, where she imagines herself to be a member of the global citizenry in China. She then becomes Americanized and consumes international luxuries such as Hag Heuer watches and Nike sports shoes. Hence, she acts as an agent who persuades her husband and younger sister to stay in the city after their graduation from college. Her move represents the endorsement of modern development. Such a decision, unfortunately, opens a Pandora’s box for her family. Her choices turn her into a negative shrew who yells at her husband for his economic incapability and breaks the bond between herself and her young daughter. Although the sisters and their sexual partners are all college graduates, these educated elite still experience the pressure of making a livelihood in the city due to the unreasonable, surging real estate prices. Haiping’s choice to live in a packed attic room leads to two long years of separation and alienation from her daughter. Feeling this separation, a heart-broken Haiping snivels that all she desires after her painful pregnancy and sacrifice for the sake of promotion at work is an intimate mother-child relationship, but her own flesh and blood is not close to her.

Narrow Dwelling highlights Haiping’s motherly pain as emblematic of the many social injustices and economic disparities resulting from the development of China via globalization and the corruption that accompanies it. Such images of suffering women are a common trope in ideological literature that aims to critique a corrupted system. For instance, during the May Fourth era in the 1920s, Lu Xun’s “The New Year Sacrifice” (1924) uses Xianglin Sao, a twice-widowed, uneducated peasant woman, to serve as an image of the injustices of the traditional Chinese patriarchal social order (Huters 1993). Narrow Dwelling, through Haiping’s commentary, repeatedly blames the real estate market for the separation of mother and daughter, and with dramatized pain, emphasizes the reality of the property market in Shanghai and other Chinese cities.

The other protagonist, Haizao, illustrates another aspect of women’s lives as they live as victims and agents of the current modernization: sexuality. Haizao believes that she is allowed to pursue an all-compassing, individualistic desire, and that society under the current state ideology of consumption will accommodate her pursuit of sexual desire even though it is, in fact, adultery. She also perceives herself as an active sexual subject in control of the affair through her active participation in sex acts. She asks Song Siming, her married lover, to pretend to rape her so that she can enjoy the pleasure obtained from acting like a victim. Even when she becomes pregnant, she refuses to constrain her sexual desire and convinces Song to have sex with her, suggesting a “nine soft one hard” penetration technique, which she believes will do no harm to the fetus. Involved in an extra-marital affair, Haizao regards being a mistress as an underground occupation and herself as an underground laborer.

The surging real estate market is part of the larger, neo-liberal logic of consumption, which leads Haizao to mistakenly believe that sexual consumption is an expression of gender-neutral desire that undoes the existing traditional codes of conduct, virtue, and morality projected on women. Yet, due to socially inculcated gender differences between men and women, Haizao experiences a distinct consequence as a result of her sexual relationship, in spite of the fact that she and her partner participated equally in the act of adultery. Haizao’s naïve belief in the value of neo-liberal desire renders her subject to her fiancé’s violent reaction to her infidelity. When her boyfriend learns of her affair, Haizao seeks his pardon, only to be raped. In contrast, Song receives support from his wife even after his indiscretions are exposed and he loses power. Song also rapes his wife when she condemns his adultery. The rapes of Haizao and Song’s wife suggest that men occupy a dominant power position in gender relations, regardless of whether a woman is the victim or the perpetrator of adultery. This contradicts with young urban Chinese women’s fantasy of being free, desirous, and consuming subjects, the shared fantasy that inspires anthropologist Lisa Rofel’s proposal that desire is at the heart of consumption, and thus, a new cosmopolitan self in post-socialist China (118). While urban Chinese women, according to Rofel, now have freedom to consume and cultivate a self that desires instead of one that sacrifices (119), the rape of Haizao and Song’s wife suggests a persisent gender difference in the consequences of sexual desire. Ultimately, cosmopolitan desire allows the woman to yearn for consumption, but sexual consumption remains the man’s privilege.

The most tragic female character is not one of the young sisters, but rather a grandmother who occupies a relatively minor role in Narrow Dwelling—Grandma Li. Grandma Li, in her old age, is the head of her four-member household composed of her son, Li Wuji, her daughter-in-law, Xu Li, and her college student grandson, Ah Gu. With the exception of the grandson, who lives on campus, the family members reside in an old, shabby house that is around one hundred square feet. The aged Grandma Li has no ability to earn money, and the son and daughter-in-law typify individuals of the social underclass who, in Grandma Li’s words, have no money, no professional skills, no qualifications, and no social status. Li Wuji is a security guard at an arcade where he is subjected to customers’ violence and Xu Li is a domestic helper who has no stable job and a low income. Therefore, it is impossible for the family to afford nice living conditions.

Grandma Li convinces her son and daughter-in-law that the demolition is an excellent opportunity to acquire an apartment for their family of three generations, given that their dilapidated asset is located at the center of an urban redevelopment project. They reject relocation firmly unless the real estate developer exchanges their small property for a three-bedroom apartment. The Li family is determined to squat until the last minute and willing to bear with the hardship of having no electricity and water due to the razing of neighboring houses. Unfortunately, Grandma Li falls down in the dark and breaks her legs. Grandma Li is overly optimistic that the family’s refusal to move will force the real estate developer to compromise, and she underestimates the risk of resisting a profit-driven real estate company. As the real estate company’s patience wears thin, the company boss orders construction workers to tear down part of the Li’s apartment roof illegally in order to create an uninhabitable environment for them and take over their house. Grandma Li, in an effort to protect their home, crawls to stop the villainous construction workers and is tragically crushed by the falling ceiling. She is buried in debris and dies at the crime scene.

Through its three women victims, Narrow Dwelling reveals four different kinds of social injustice and irony, as well as economic disparities, while indirectly pointing towards corruption as the ultimate cause for these problems. First, the two sisters endure a housing crisis in contemporary China, in which the unbearable housing prices burden common people and turn them into mortgage slaves. Given the long-established desire in the Chinese context to possess one’s own assets, the younger generation, regardless of having formed a family or not, is driven to fight for property ownership. Establishing the sisters’ origins in a rural hometown explains and magnifies their need to buy an apartment, as they have no family members or relatives in the city with whom to share. They represent the younger generation who works for the private sector and enjoys no state welfare.

The two couples, Su Chun and Haiping, and Xiao Bei and Haizao are all college graduates and belong to the white-collar class; however, none of them is able to afford a reasonably sized apartment. The younger sister, Haizao, particularly exposes young women’s moral ambiguity, as well as the quandaries of economically-modest men. Haizao’s affair with a married Song Siming bespeaks the fact that younger women are willing to sell their natural capital—the body—to bail themselves out of their financial difficulties in the new economic order. A salaried Xiao Bei is unwittingly betrayed and becomes a passive victim of Haizao’s infidelity, while a rich Song Siming, who collects bribes and takes advantage of his official position, gains privileged access to women. Song’s economic power, for an idler like Haizao or other women who desire a comfortable life, qualifies him to be a preferred lover over a proletarian such as Xiao Bei, regardless of his marital status. This plot point suggests that men who are not opportunists in a money-oriented society will have their masculinity stripped from them and will become the ultimate losers in the new economic order. Economically disenfranchised men lose in the competition for women; wealthy men or opportunists win out in the scramble for both material possessions and women.

Grandma Li’s heart-wrenching case reveals the threat and social injustice that urban development imposes on existing homeowners. Grandma Li is the mastermind behind her family’s battle to acquire a bigger apartment. Selecting an impoverished, elderly individual as the representative of general home owners exaggerates the vulnerability and exploitation of ordinary people in a neo-liberal real estate market. Grandma Li is persuaded by a group of resident committee members of her neighborhood (an embodiment of the state ideology of development) to move out for demolition. The lobbyists claim that the situation represents a rare chance occurring only once in a thousand years (qianzai nanfeng de jihui) to improve the Li family’s living conditions and that they will be able to reside in a modern-style apartment where they will have a private bathroom and kitchen and a convenient flush toilet. They also hustle Grandma Li to keep up with the new environment (genshang xingshi) and the new thoughts (xin sixiang) and maintain a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Such rhetoric glosses over the menaces and misery that the downtrodden have to suffer under the state’s practices, promising a bright future and better life by accentuating superficial abstractions like globalization, metropolitanism, and economic progress.

Yet Grandma Li’s cold sarcasm exposes what indeed happens to commoners as Chinese cities evolve into global metropolises. Ordinary people occupy a lower and lower social status (yue huo yue jian) and are eventually expelled from their own homes and communities in the downtown area in order to make room for foreigners and the rich. Once new luxurious apartments are built, former residents are never able to afford a new home on the same land with their small amount of compensation money. Grandma Li’s remarks unmask the social injustice that development benefits the rich alone while leaving behind the powerless petites urbanites. In launching urban redevelopment projects, the government creates advantages for its ordinary citizens and current home owners, but only to generate profit-seeking opportunities for cannibalistic enterprises or corrupted officials. Modern, high-quality residences are built for wealthy external buyers rather than the humble people who are indigenous to the area.

The Li Family’s resistance to relocation also displays the social issue of squatters (dingzihu). Grandma, Xu Li, and Li Wuji hang a large piece of cloth which reads “Government, please save the people” outside their half-destroyed house, earning them a newsworthy reputation for being “the toughest squatters” (zui niu dingzihu). The phrase “the toughest squatters” was not coined by Narrow Dwelling’s scriptwriter but borrowed from a real contemporary context. In August 2006, a blog entry entitled “The Toughest Shanghainese Squatters” circulated on the Internet; in February and March, 2007, another piece of news went viral in the cyber world, this time, “The Toughest Chongqing Squatters.” The former emphasized the temerarious measures the owners used to defy the government and real estate developers who attempted to make them vacate a house, while the latter reported on the sensationalized spectacle of a squatter house in Chongqing standing out strikingly on a site where its neighboring buildings had all been torn down. (Li 2010). The death of Grandma Li also indicts ruthless real estate developers who ignore people’s rights and lives for gains, scheming to pay the least compensation and making the most profit by pressuring people to move.

Assigning women as the active agents of buying and bargaining for an apartment accents social ironies of contemporary male intellectuals’ impotence, loss of moral vision, and indifference to social unjustness. Instead of reflecting on the source of such shocking real estate prices and driving social change, Su Chun and Xiao Bei devote their labor to salaried work and money management, hoping to save enough money for a down payment. Su Chun even accuses Haiping of being overly picky in their initial stage of apartment hunting, causing them to miss a golden chance to purchase a property at a lower rate. Incapable of affording an apartment in the city, he chooses to withstand Haiping’s wailing about his economic impotence by repeating,

“Yes, yes, yes, it’s all my fault. Had I been more capable, my wife would not have to suffer so much.”

While Haiping and Haizao abandon loyalty and honesty by hiding Haizao’s infidelity from Xiao Bei, the financially disempowered and henpecked Su Chun stays mute and fails to maintain moral order. These plots are indicative of a situation in which male intellectuals, although present, are morally ambivalent. Unlike their predecessors, who protested against inflation, political systems, and social injustice in Tian’anmen Square in 1989, intellectuals after the 1989 Protest were first disillusioned regarding political engagement, then overwhelmed and occupied by the quest for money and the economic freedom created by the retreat of various kinds of social welfare and the deepening of the Economic Reforms after 1992. In a marketized China, they are too preoccupied to fight for their own benefits and have to accommodate immoralities for the sake of economic concerns. Therefore, they are not able to act as moral leaders, critically engage in current affairs, or combat social iniquities.[8] [open endnotes in new window]

The most odious (if obscure) young male intellectual is Grandma Li’s grandson, Ah Gu. Ah Gu’s grandmother mentions him several times, but he only physically appears two times on the screen, first when his family is fighting against urban renewal, and then when his parents are assigned to a new apartment. In the scene where he first appears in his shanty home for Chinese New Year, not only does he fail to show pity for his broken-legged old grandmother, but he also appears blind to the injustice that puts his family into literal darkness, as the real estate company has cut off their electricity and water supply. As the Li family appears in the brand new apartment they receive as compensation for Grandma Li’s death, Ah Gu excitedly navigates the layout and chooses his room without a single sign of sadness for the human cost of the apartment. Ah Gu’s dramatized, detestable, cold attitude toward his family’s hardship is indicative of the attitudes of young intellectuals, who are indifferent to social injustice and the extent to which the unjust system burdens them personally. Perhaps it is now more apt to call these filmic college graduates “educated elites” rather than “intellectuals,” as their actions do not reflect superior knowledge or morality. The secularization of intellectuals is well-illustrated in the scene in which Haizao teases her sister for being a philistine (tai xianshi) and for giving up her literary pursuit for the sake of earning a living. Haiping compares economic needs to a fish and literature to a cilantro garnish, meaning that one has to first meet one’s needs before pursuing idealism.

Rather than merely portraying social disarray revolving around women, Narrow Dwelling indeed pierces into deeper societal structures and attributes social iniquity to corruption by embedding it in a sensationalized plot set in motion by women characters. For example, chapter eight interlaces Haiping’s desperate desire for fixing her broken mother-daughter bond with the collusion between the government and the market. We first see Haiping touring a decent, newly-built apartment and making a decision to purchase it in preparation for the reunification with her daughter. We then see a meeting between Song Siming and Property Developer Zhang (who previously appeared in episode six, during which he pressured potential property buyers into paying a higher price for assets). Song and Zhang plot to create convenience for the developer and profit from an urban renewal plan. Here, the corrupted official undermines the people’s interest and transfers wealth to the real estate developer; Song, in return, takes bribes from these developers. As a result of this businessmen-officials conspiracy, ordinary people are caught in a net woven by the corrupted government and unscrupulous enterprises and become mortgage slaves. Episode eight illustrates this entrapment by shifting its narrative back to Haiping’s shopping for her ideal home, in which we see Haiping and her husband signing a twenty-year mortgage contract, agreeing to pay the bank two thirds of their monthly household income as installments. Such a narrative structure clearly attributes the irrational and unaffordable real estate prices to governmental corruption.

Why do we encounter Haiping’s sentimental yearning for a reunification with her beloved daughter and her insistence on buying an apartment that is priced out of her household’s financial capacity? If Narrow Dwelling’s ultimate focus is two young women’s struggle to stay in the city, why do we see the tragedy of Grandma Li? If Grandma Li is significant, why is it that her story occupies a relatively insignificant portion of the television drama? If the three women are purely innocent characters, why are they shown as morally ambivalent: supporting infidelities, willingly working as a “professional mistress,” or greedily requesting an exchange of a small property for a bigger apartment? I argue that these women’s dislocated desire represents a narrative thread that leads us to the core of the social problem. Jeffery Kinkley, a historian researching Chinese anti-corruption novels, argues that women have served as subordinates in anti-corruption television dramas in this way:

“...women are chiefly means by which males are corrupted, or at least tempted...In realms of power, other females are likely to be mistresses” (2007, 40).

His reading is valid in pointing out women’s likelihood to be mistresses in television dramas on anti-corruption. However, in contrast, Narrow Dwelling is noteworthy for the fact that it positions women as notable, active agents in the housing crisis, and more importantly, as threads to develop and reveal corrupted characters. 

Female protagonists set the whole narrative in motion by directing us to a complex network of various victims and villains. Haiping drives her sister into developing a sexual affair with a corrupted Party official, Song Siming, for monetary benefits. Song is yet another thread to fabricate a further subsidiary plot concerning a bigger corruption scam. Although a leading protagonist who attracts viewers’ attention, he is not the true culprit of an about-to-succeed scheme; rather, his senior, an even higher Party official—Mayor Zhang—the mayor of a metropolitan Jiangzhou, is the primary perpetrator. Finally, we learn that it is the inappropriate economic desires of Party officials that cause the misfortune of the on-screen women and, by logical extension, the pain of off-screen ordinary people. It is also Haiping’s everyday network that brings out the story of Grandma Li’s apartment squatting, as the Lis are her neighbors.

In this way, by developing connections between the storylines, the narrative sets up a detective mode of reading that dovetails with an on-screen investigation into Song’s corruption scheme. In Episodes Sixteen and Thirty-one, the anti-corruption investigation team reports that the inspection of Haiping, Haizao, and the death of Grandma Li leads them to Chen Sifu, Haizao’s boss, the real estate developer who indirectly causes Grandma Li’s death, and a vital piece in Song Siming’s corruption boardgame. The examination of Chen Sifu then directs the investigation team further to Bank President Xie’s indecent role in assisting Chen Sifu’s small company to become a publicly traded enterprise on Hong Kong’s stock market, aiming to snowball even more capital. At a later point we are told that Bank President Xie himself embezzles two billion RMB for stock speculation in the United States. In other words, these women characters are clues to holes in the officials’ corruption plans and provide fissures through which to pierce social injustice. Haizao and Grandma Li especially represent a breach (tubokou, in the words of the investigation team leader) of the power network that the above corrupted Party officials have woven.

This explanation urges us to raise further questions about the narrative design. If corruption is a fundamental concern of the narrative, why does it embed the corruption in Haiping’s hysterical pursuit of an apartment? If Song Siming, a corrupted official, signifies bad elements of the Party, why is he played by a good-looking actor, Zhang Jiayi, who receives warm support from viewers, and particularly female viewers? If Narrow Dwelling aims to expose the government’s corruption, why does the narrative draw our attention to the two young women who interweave all other characters and superficially present the three women’s greed, ignorance, and stubbornness as the crux of social disorder? To answer these questions, it will be helpful to consider Narrow Dwelling’s form. It’s an easily accessible television drama. Due to the state’s firm belief in the propagandistic role of media and literature, it is subject to censorship before, during, and even after production. Although television program production is becoming increasingly marketized, the state remains an influential factor in determining if a television program is able to reach the Chinese home screen. The availability and production of particular kinds of genres is monitored by SARFT, in the name of generating a healthy society and protecting the youth. The discouragement of anti-corruption television program explains why Narrow Dwelling does not specifically focus on an anti-corruption theme, although the narrative points to corruption as the ultimate source of social evils. In other words, the rationality of producing a melodramatic and sensationalized narrative instead of exploring a crime genre (she an ju) plot (in this case corruption) is arguably associated with the show’s production context in China.

What became of Narrow Dwelling’s vision? What kind of socio-economic context gave rise to and enabled such a controversial narrative? Social resentments towards the property market in the script are based on solid economic facts. The turn of the twenty-first century saw the “full marketization” of housing provisions (Li and Zheng 2007; Lee and Zhu 2006), which turned one of every citizen’s necessities—a shelter—into an unaffordable commodity. The real estate market price became an index for China’s economic growth. Big cities such as Shanghai rely on demolition, urban redevelopment, and creation of luxury housing in order to develop into global cosmopolitan centers. Development projects have driven up the land prices for real estate in the city center, such that homes are now an unaffordable, high-priced commodity under the logic of the market economy. The increase in the real estate price in Shanghai has been truly shocking; the average price for a square meter of commodity housing increased 270% from 2001 to 2007 (Hua 2009, 134). Ordinary citizens, especially those from the younger generation who did not enjoy seniority in state-owned enterprises that would allow for the purchase of work-unit housing, had to purchase their homes at skyrocketing market prices. The real estate market price has become an index for China’s economic growth but does not demonstrate Chinese people’s pain as they are caught in sweeping changes provoked by the housing reforms and the state ideology of developmentalism. Critical television dramas such as Narrow Dwelling, through exposing the predicaments of two types of city dwellers situated in a booming real estate market, resonate to the real estate prices in reality and subtly point to business-government collusion as the real source of social injustice.

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