By Austin Dean
A sure sign of adulthood is an interest in real estate. There comes a moment when you’re home with your family over the holidays, watching television with your mom, and think to yourself, “That was a good episode of House Hunters, but I can’t believe they paid that much for that house.”
Spending time in China only catalyzes this change, as it often seems that the entire country is participating in a never-ending conversation about real estate. At the individual level, your friends tell you about their plans to sell, buy, swap, and trade up, and question you about American real estate prices and practices: “How big of a house could I buy in San Antonio for $200,000?” (Don’t underestimate the soft power of the San Antonio Spurs.)
Everyone also argues about the big picture: Is there a real estate bubble? If so, what would that mean for the Chinese economy? Is the real estate developer Evergrande too big to fail? Why are Chinese companies buying so many trophy real estate assets abroad? Of course, like any question with lots of money at stake, people disagree.
Let’s actually elide these questions and talk about a related but under-explored area: interior decorating and home remodeling.
A few years ago, this was actually a big topic, and one framed around a very specific question: Why did Home Depot fail in China, and why was IKEA succeeding? One theory held that when you go to Home Depot “you’re asking for help to solve an existing problem that you have — you want to install a ceiling fan, you want to put new windows in or you want to build a deck.” But perhaps many Chinese were not that interested in solving those problems by themselves. As a Wall Street Journal headline put it “Home Depot Learns Chinese Prefer ‘Do-It-for-Me.’” IKEA, on the other hand, was selling an experience: that of walking through showrooms and trying out furniture, eating Swedish meatballs and lingonberry sauce in the restaurant, and piling one’s cart high with inexpensive knick-knacks in the marketplace.
Beneath the debate about the different fates of Home Depot and IKEA in China is a deeper truth: given the choice, most people would like to change something about their homes. That is where home remodeling TV shows come in.
One show, Jiaohuan kongjian (Switch a Room), concentrates mostly on decorating, with a few smaller projects requiring drills and saws thrown in for good measure. Somewhat surprisingly, it airs on the finance channel of Chinese Central Television. To use lingo people at the finance channel would understand, you get the idea that this type of show is outside the network’s “core competency.”
Each episode focuses on improving the look and feel of two apartments. Usually based in a big city — Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai — most of the apartments are pretty unremarkable: two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room. The people living in them often have a kid.
The show doesn’t do a good job fleshing out these people as characters. As Mao Zedong might say (and HGTV understands), a good home-decorating show needs “contradictions”: there must be tension and conflict, even if it’s only about what color to paint a wall. These contradictions, and how they get resolved, are at the core of any decorating show. It’s not really about the color of the paint, but the people making the decisions. Because the characters on Jiaohuan kongjian aren’t well drawn out and developed, you won’t find yourself hoping that the couple featured in the show end up with more light in their living room or a cool new dinner table.
The producers of Dragon TV’s Mengxiang gaizao jia (Dreams Transform a House), on the other hand, must have watched their HGTV, as they really know what they’re doing. Each episode usually begins with some kind of drama: a couple fighting, an accident, or problems with remodeling. It sells itself not simply as a decorating show, but a reality-decorating show. The remodel is simply a setting for the rest of the drama.
The other big difference is the homes themselves and what the renovators do to them. There are no cookie-cutter apartments on Mengxiang gaizao jia. Instead, as a real estate agent might say, the properties featured on the show have character: an old-walk up in Shanghai, a six-story house in Guangzhou, a Beijing courtyard complex. (Others, choosing a less charitable adjective, might say the houses are crappy.) The show is about major overhauls: ripping down and rearranging walls, changing the layout, and building a new house around an old frame. Naturally, this isn’t cheap. While Jiaohuan kongjian generally spends 20,000 yuan (about $3,000) on redecorating each place, Mengxiang gaizao jia spends a lot more, often between 200,000 and 300,000 yuan ($30-45,000).
Mengxiang gaizao jia also highlights the conundrums faced by ordinary Chinese. The show excels in giving the micro-history of a family, a house, and a neighborhood. In one episode, it chronicles the story of three generations of a family living in one quarter of an old Beijing courtyard-style house in the center of the city. Husband and wife, daughter and son-in-law, and granddaughter all crowd together in a 39-square-meter apartment. They don’t even have a proper bathroom. The son-in-law and the daughter actually have access to a much larger apartment in a different part of the city. So why are they living in such cramped quarters? The schools in that area of the city happen to be excellent. It’s a classic case of people living in a small, cramped apartment in a good school district (Xuequ fang).
The “contradictions” in Mengxiang gaizao jia arise both naturally and with the help of the producers. In the episode with the 39-square-meter apartment, a neighbor objects to many of the changes proposed by the person in charge of the renovation. And, as it happens, that person in charge is actually from Japan. As the Beijing couple note at the beginning of the show, how can a Japanese person redesign a home in China? The people have different styles of living! Now we have multiple layers of “contradictions” and a very watchable program. Naturally, the “contradictions” get worked out over the course of the episode. The neighbor backs down and the Japanese architect wins over the Beijing couple.
As Home Depot found out the hard way, China isn’t yet a nation of rehab addicts. But there are quite a lot of fixer uppers waiting for a property brother to come along and do a solid renovation. At the end, their owners will face that classic HGTV conundrum: love it or list it?