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A Sense Of Community Survives In Chinese Apartment Complexes

China is covered in forests of high rise apartment complexes, but there is still a strong sense of community that survives throughout.

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Around 5PM on nice days the apartment buildings begin emptying their residents out into the public areas of the housing complex. The crowds stroll through the streets, they hang out in the gardens, children play on the playgrounds, the elderly work out in the exercise areas. Everybody — old, young, and in between — is outside, all together. Social connections are reestablished, the adults share the daily news and gossip and the kids run around and play.

Though apartment living has changed this society it has not yet killed its propensity for strong communities. I have occasionally ragged on how the transition to apartments from ground level, traditional style neighborhoods changes communities, but I do not wish to imply that this transition entirely disintegrates social bonding and neighborly togetherness. Though I unequivocally feel that high rise or apartment living does loosen the bonds that hold a community together, in this country where tradition is still so strong, this effect is minimized. There is still a lot of life in the apartment complexes of China.

For the past six months my family and I have been based in a new apartment complex on the southern fringe of Taizhou. This area is slated to be the new city center, and it’s where all of the super modern shopping malls and fancy new housing complexes are being built. Two years ago there was pretty much nothing here but some small villages and plots of farmland. Now proverbial everything is breaking loose.

This is the southern fringe of the Hailing section of the city, which seems to be being built out to meet the anticipated demand of the China Medical City, which is around 15 km to the south. This is a truly massive development that the central government is trying hard to concoct into being a global center for medical research. As of now, the place seems to be a colossal flop. But this is not stopping the building up of the city nearby to make it look a little better, and maybe, just maybe entice foreign companies to move their operations there.

It’s cliche to say that things happen fast in China, but even in the few months that I have had a base in this apartment complex I’ve watched it come alive. It is now brimming with families, most of them young members of the new middle class who have their peasant parents living with them.

There is a calm feeling here, as the place is removed  from the outside world by design (i.e. walls). There are no real roads here, and the traffic is of residents only, and is sparse and slow moving. These complexes are like idyllic, Sesame Street stage sets. Every day the elderly gather together in the garages that they’ve converted into bedrooms and play traditional music and sing. Though people move into this place from all over, everybody get acquainted with everybody else, and each night they congregate together down below their towering homes: three generations of The New China mingling.

We are among them. My family and I are the only Westerners living in this place, but I cannot say that we are out of place. Foreign workers are a part of the new middle class of his country. The people look at us curiously, but we’re treated as neighbors.

On this sunny spring day at the end of May butterflies are out in abundance. There are literally thousands of them fluttering in the bushes and resting upon flowers. It’s an all out invasion. Seriously, there is a flickering blanket of butterflies covering the garden like a 1980s glam rocker’s sequin studded cape. The bushes wink with butterfly wings, the Chinese try to capture them.

My four year old daughter is among them. She is provisioned with her own little butterfly net, and she is going wild in the melee. She is working with a pack of fellow young butterfly catchers, and a few grandparents have gotten in on the blitz. My daughter is yelling “I’m going to catch you butterfly!” in Chinese, and the people around her squeal because they can now understand what the little white girl is saying. Three little kids are smiling like wild, hooting, and jumping through the bushes and stomping down the garden in pursuit of colorful insects, and the onlookers and passerbys beam with appreciation for their youth, exuberance, and happiness.

I took a photo. This was really a perfect moment in China.

For all the pollution, the absolutely insane development, the social problems, the governmental problems, the netizens bickering, and all the strange things that happen here, there is an integral, subtle, and deep feeling of wholesomeness in this country. The people stick together, families are tight, and the little things — like going for evening strolls, cultivating community, and watching a group of kids attack butterflies — are still valued.

catching-butterflies catching-butterflies-in-net petra-shepard-in-china chinese-butterflies
Filed under: China, Culture and Society

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • mitchblatt May 29, 2013, 6:15 am

    I know this is the case in many apartment complexes, but not the one I had in Shanghai. Our neighbor below us used to harass us, and he once smashed the window of our bathroom. But we did have our own community within our apartment. There were 7 of us living an a one-family apartment that had been subdivided into a 合租 co-rental apartment.

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    • VagabondJourney May 29, 2013, 6:42 am

      Yeah, for sure, I had an apartment in a tower over a shopping mall once. Totally no community there. But the ones with the gardens and the walkways and little ponds and canals are actually pretty sociable places. I’m actually pretty surprised. I guess it helps that there are a lot of old people living here. They sit in front of their rooms and all hang out together playing music.

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