The Chinese xiaoqu

The xiaoqu is a form of residential development common in China. Since the 1980s most urban residential development has followed the xiaoqu concept and today most urban Chinese live in one.

Older xiaoqu are comprised of large groups of 6-story walk-ups. Wrecking balls are now rapidly knocking these down to make way for new high-rise xiaoqu like the one in which we live.

Each modern xiaoqu is a group of multi-story buildings of between 1,500 and 4,000 households. Each complex, either older or new, is enclosed within a compound with one or more guarded gates that give an illusion of control. Our xiaoqu occupies most of a city block and has three guarded gates. The guards are often sleeping, reading, or talking or texting on their mobile phones. Pedestrians can walk in and out at will. But any delivery person or resident wishing to drive into the xiaoqu must convince a guard to open a gate.

Two sides of our xiaoqu are enclosed by the outside walls of its high-rise towers. The ground floor outer walls are occupied by businesses of all sorts. One side faces a busy six-lane street and sports a grocery store, a tea shop, an upscale hair salon and a spa. The other faces a one-lane neighborhood street and has all sorts of small shops – hairdresser/barber, laundry/drycleaner, foot massage, pet grooming, convenience store, real estate office and sellsers of children’s clothing, window glass and mirrors, signs, etc.

Inside our xiaoqu enclosure is a small children’s playground, exercise equipment for adults, a water feature with a fountain that doesn’t work, and a health club. The health club has an Olympic size swimming pool, weight training and aerobic workout room, dance studio and yoga studio. Although it is inside the xiaoqu, membership is open to the general public. We have both joined.

Just outside one of the gates is a three-story daycare/preschool/kindergarten built at the same time as the xiaoqu. From our living room we can see its large rooftop playground. Like the health club, it is used by the general public.

In the basement of each building there is space for parking two-wheelers: bicycles, electric bikes, motor scooters and motorcycles. There is also underground car parking, but because there is does not enough space to accommodate 2012 levels of car ownership, parked cars spill out onto every ground level space. We suspect that now that the xiaoqu has filled its parking spaces, residents buying cars need to look elsewhere. Watch for a future posting about auto ownership in Shanghai.

According to online information, the Chinese central government is using the xiaoqu policy to produce good quality citizens by promoting social cohesion, neighborliness, a sense of belonging, a feeling of security and a harmonious society. Recently xialqu management placed posters in the lobby of our building showing step-by-step how to clean and disinfect heat pump air filters to improve indoor air quality and efficiency of operation. We checked ours, found them clogged, cleaned them as advised, and noticed a marked improvement in efficiency.

During the weekend following appearance of the posters, a team of residents conducted day-long demonstrations of the process for people who wanted to do-it-yourself. People who wanted to pay someone else to do the job could make an appointment for service.

China also carries out public policy initiatives through its xiaoqu. When China mobilized in response to the SARS epidemic, small groups of people in each xiaoqu provided health and sanitation advice to residents. The Chinese government is concerned about the country’s ability to satisfy its growing energy needs. Besides being a gesture of neighborliness, heat pump cleaning education and service may be part of the city of Shanghai’s mobilization to reduce energy consumption.

Perhaps to Chinese people familiar with life in a traditional lane house or extended family courtyard house feel a similar and comforting sense of enclosure within their xiaoqu.

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