When the young violinist was a student 12 years ago, he and a roommate were assigned a small dormitory room. After graduating and joining an orchestra, both had to remain in the dormitory room. There was no other place to go.
Five years later, the violinist wanted to marry and begged his supervisor for housing. "All right," he was told. "We'll put your roommate somewhere else and your bride can move in with you."
Another five years have passed, and the violinist remains in his old school dormitory room with wife and small child, so short of space that they must cook on a small portable gas burner in the common hallway and share a toilet with 12 other people. They are victims of China's massive housing shortage, the inevitable and now quite critical result of 200 million urban people trying to squeeze into too few rooms built too slowly with too little care.
The Chinese have been crowded for a long time, even before the Communists took over in 1949. Preference for close family and neighborhood ties probably draws these tradition-conscious people closer together than in other societies. dThey are used to being jammed together in stores, buses, dining halls and lecture rooms.
But the human urge for some space and privacy has not been snuffed out, even in a nation of nearly 1 billion. It feeds frustration and corruption that have become serious problems for a government desperate to win strength and popularity.
Along Peking's busy West Qianmen road near Tienanmen Square, a row of new apartment buildings eight to 15 stories high stretches for blocks. More than a year ago, workers waiting eagerly for spaces in the new buildings discovered to their dismay that they could get no heat in the upper floors, that the elevators often failed and that gas and water also had serious problems.
For months the huge buildings stood virtually empty. Now, after makeshift adjustments, some people are moving in, but many apartment windows remain dark at night.
At least 35 percent of the families in China's cities have housing problems," the official Guangming Daily said. "Five to 6 percent have no proper houses at all. They are people waiting for houses so that they can marry, who are newly married and are staying with relatives or in public reception centers. In many places, the adequate floor space per person is under 20 square feet " -- supposedly the basic minimum guaranteed everyone in China.
A study in Peking Review said total housing floor space in 192 cities in 1978 had gained 46.7 percent since 1949, but at the same time the population of those cities had increased 83 percent. The average of 38 square feet per person in 1978 was about 10 square feet less than it had been when the Communists took over in 1949.
If Fuzhou, along China's southeastern coast, the amount of available spacer per person in the city has dropped 50 percent in the last 10 years, leading authorities to try an experiment in free enterprise. Chinese residents have been given permission to build or repair their own homes with government materials and claim personal ownership of the building, a privilege generally forbidden in Chinese cities. Fuzhou, Canton and Shantou are also allowing Hong Kong companies to build apartments for sale to overseas Chinese. But the Guangxi region of south China is going much further than that, making government-built apartments available for sale to Chinese city residents.
Private initiative, legal or illegal, generates much of the activity in housing offices across China. Every office and factory maintains a list of employes who are seeking better housing. But the lists are not strictly followed and people with influence can find ways to move their names quickly to the top. The Chinese call this "going in the back door," a phrase used for all kinds of petty corruption.
The press sporadically scolds housing officials who trade favors for more space, but the practice seems so widespread and so potentially useful to everyone that most Chinese say they have given up trying to change it.
Those corrupt housing officials who are punished usually have let things go a bit too far. Wang Enlin, of Shanghai, accumulated about $1,700 before he was caught. The critical moment came when one female worker, who had paid him extortion several times, failed to get housing and "losing everything and overcome with remorse, killed herself," according to one newspaper account.
In the housing bureau of Luwan District in Shanghai, the man in charge of assignments, Xie Wuan, reportedly forced people asking him for housing to let their children work as unpaid servants in his house -- doing the marketing, washing clothes, cooking meals and waiting on tables.
Xie is one of the few whose frantic clients finally turned him in, perhaps because, according to one account, he "used the housing situation as a threat to rape and molest a total of more than 10 women."
The discontent and disruption caused by cramped quarters has become so socially explosive that the Communist Party has encouraged China's revitalized comedians to try to break the tension. In response, Peking's comic dialogue artists have produced some of the most biting satire of the day, heard regularly on television and radio.
Wang: I'm really frantic. We've gone steady for eight years and we registered four years ago, but without a room how can we marry? I'm so frantic I can't see straight. You've just got to help me.
Li: How I, unless I move out and let you have my room?
Wang: That would be fine.
Li: Fine for you, but what about me? Where should I live?
Wang: I've a suggestion. My fiance works in a packing case plant. They are selling off extra-big packing cases cheap. I'll buy you a couple to live in for the time being.
Life imitates art. Packing box shanties have appeared in the last year on the side streets of Peking and Canton, usually populated by Chinese who have received permission to move into town but who cannot get housing officials to assign them any space.
A warm, clean and dry place to sleep, walled off from the neighbors remains the dream of all young Chinese. In one comic dialogue, a homeless worker is rebuffed by a brusque bureaucrat who has no time for people who have no money for bribes.
"We've no vacant housing," the official said, "you'll just have to wait."
"But for how long?"
"Until the country is modernized. Try about the year 2000. CAPTION: Picture, Chinese workers use bamboo scaffolding to construct residential building; Copyright (c) The Globe and Mail, Toronto