Locked Out of Your Apartment in China

We all do stupid shit. And some people live abroad. Therefore, I was bound to do something stupid while living abroad.

Life is simple sometimes like that.

And so there I was standing outside my apartment door at 10pm on a Tuesday night, bag in tow, sweating profusely in the hallway, calling my landlord because my key was inside. What to do now?

Landlords in China

The country has a tough relationship with landlords. Ostensibly a communist country, land ownership is practically impossible for the average citizen. You legally cannot own land in today’s China; you lease it.

You can effectively lease property for the lifespan of an individual. The max is 70 years, which should serve for a lifetime. This is different in the countryside, where the government doesn’t own all the land, but things change quick in the Middle Kingdom. What’s rural can become urban rapidly.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards would attack landlords or anyone deemed to display capitalist values. Friends of mine in China recounted stories where their grandparents lost everything they had – farm, house, land – and had to start over. Their possessions went to the government and they lost all equity, all stakes.

One particularly bad story was a friend of mine in Foshan. He told me during this time, they had nothing. The government gave each family a small tin of pork fat to cook with. You would collect it from the wok after cooking and use it again the next day.

His father lost all his land, and slowly forfeited all his possessions. They threw him in jail where he killed himself one day, as he’d rather die under his own volition than be tormented sans free will. At the time though, young Red Guards would have viewed this as just since owning land was anathema. A capitalist bastard dying was a small price to pay. Landlords were evil, having deleterious effects on the state, they reasoned.

Today, people still hate landlords for a familiar reason: they are capitalist pigs. But the situation has evolved manifold.

Landlords are known to be soulless cretins who will scam you for all your money, no questions asked. They ask for two month’s rent as a deposit (which is perfectly acceptable), but they will find all sorts of reasons not to give it back after the contract is up. Any sort of “damage” to the apartment will be a huge fine, whether it’s reasonable or not.

The cabinets have a normal scuff? 300RMB (about 5% of a deposit, perhaps). The mattress isn’t the way it was? 700RMB. The shower fan is slower than it was? You pay for it. Stuff like that, but just bullshit added up so you won’t see any money back. You can technically take them to court, but like in the US, no one will be cause the lawyer fees and the time spent isn’t worth it. So landlords usually win out.

Further, they never update their properties, are loathe and unresponsive to fixing problems, never inject capital. Properties in China can often be shoddy anyways with an intended lifetime not too long. My Wanda complex in Foshan, Guangdong was leaking bad, moldy, and breaking down within three years of its grand opening.

Why would landlords stay in situations like that? They get in, when the ROI is high and go on to the next big thing when the time is ripe.

This situation isn’t too different from the US to be honest. Scores of people hate their landlords. In China, they’re just ubiquitously despised.

My Landlord in Foshan

So when I forgot my key in my apartment that morning and found out abruptly at night when I reached in my bag and found nothing, I was shook. I had to deal with notoriously bad Chinese landlords?

I called him late at night, and he said no worries. The problem was that he was out of town, and that actually they’re based in Guangzhou, the next city over. Uh oh.

So, a new grad in a strange new country, locked out at night from his apartment, speaking to a scary landlord in a foreign language. What’s the cure?

He says to take the subway to Guangzhou, to a random stop, a mostly unlit stop, and meet up with his cousin who would give me a key. I checked the time and would juuust about make the last train. If I missed it, I would be a long taxi ride from home.

Sure enough, I took the subway to an arbitrary stop I would never have gone to otherwise, met some random guy who didn’t speak much Mandarin anyways, collected a spare key and headed home. Easy enough.

Chinese Landlords Aren’t All So Bad

In my experience, my landlord was a decent guy. He furnished my place fully, helped get internet, aided in getting in my apartment late at night, was always responsive.

Further, he very much helped me out on my last day in the place. I was fully expected not to get a cent back of my 4000RMB deposit.

My floor was warped because I left the window open one rainy night. (Whoops.) The tiles on the wall in the bathroom suddenly fell off one day, which actually wasn’t my fault; it happened in my friends’ rooms as well. The furniture was low quality and the fake wood outer layers began to peel off. The kitchen was moldy because the humidity in southern China never dips below a billion percent.

Most of it wasn’t my fault, but certainly some was. We’re all human. Point is, on move out day, my landlord sat there as a young American with barely passable language ability sweated in triple digit weather trying to cobble together all his luggage and find keys for the building I didn’t know I had.

He gave me back every single penny of the 4000RMB deposit. What a guy!


Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!


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