Are you looking for an apartment in Beijing? Do you want a balcony to sit outside, a dishwasher so you don’t have to do the dishes, an oven to bake, a walk-in closet for your clothes, a washer and dryer for the laundry, …?
Well, if you are moving to a villa in Shunyi (the American style suburb outside Beijing), or maybe into a high-end expat-heavy apartment complex, you may get your wishes. Or at least some of them. At a high price.
If you are a Beijing expat looking for a regular Chinese apartment at more reasonable cost, that wish list won’t come true. Here’s what you will find in a typical Chinese apartment:
A Chinese kitchen
Most Chinese kitchens have a cook-top stove with only two gas burners. But those two burners are really powerful. This is great for stir-frying dishes in a wok. Less so if you want to cook a typical Western meal, where several dishes are cooked more slowly in parallel.
Ovens and even microwaves are not common. You can buy a small oven or microwave to put on the counter top, which is what many Westerners do. The only issue with that is that Chinese kitchens are not very big, so you will run out of counter space quickly.
Dishwashers are also uncommon. Instead a Chinese kitchen may have a cabinet with a build-in drying rack. So the dirty dishes are washed, placed in the rack to dry, and put away later.
Another problem is that many kitchen sinks only have cold water. We could convince our landlord to install an under-the-sink water heater but that may not always be feasible for everyone. So not only do you have to wash dishes by hand, you may have to do it with cold water.
Speaking of cold, refrigerator/freezer combos are common. Sometimes they are not located directly in the kitchen but placed in the hallway, living room or a small space that is like an enclosed balcony off the kitchen.
Laundry – all you get is a washer
Laundry equipment is a bit more basic than what you may be used to. Chinese apartments have just a washing machine, usually in the bathroom. Typical Chinese washing machines are top loaders, connected to cold water, without an internal heater. So just like washing dishes, laundry is done cold, if you don’t add warm water manually.
Clothes dryers are non-existent. Instead, all laundry is hang-dried, typically on the enclosed balcony, where laundry lines are installed.
Bedrooms and closets
Typically apartments are rented furnished, which includes closets. Newer places may even have a walk-in closet, depending on the owner. In addition, the bed frame may have ample built-in storage space.
Speaking of beds, mattresses in China are very hard and you can often feel every spring. A mattress topper from IKEA can work wonders for a comfortable night.
The bathroom doubles as shower
Chinese bathrooms usually don’t have a separate shower stall. It is often combined with the toilet area, so when you take a shower the loo gets wet, too. So does the entire floor. Sometimes you can add a shower curtain to limit the splashing.
In newer bathrooms you may find shower enclosures but those are often really small. Bathtubs are uncommon but not unheard of. It all depends on the owner of the apartment, as every owner builds out their place differently.
Even though squat toilets are very common and popular in China, most Chinese apartments seem to have Western style toilets. That’s a big relief, right?
Hot water in the bathroom is typically provided by a big water heater mounted under the ceiling. Low water pressure does not seem to be a common problem.
Is that a balcony?
On first glance, many Chinese apartments have a balcony. Or at least they had one. It is usually fully enclosed and used for two main purposes: drying laundry and storing stuff. There are laundry lines installed on the ceiling and often a system with hand cranks to lift or lower those laundry lines.
Sometimes you also see bird cages and even a few plants on the balcony. Still, the idea of spending leisure time on a balcony is foreign to Chinese.
Even in the expat areas of Beijing a real outdoor space may be hard to find. I was told that from all the apartment houses geared towards foreigners in Sanlitun, only two offer real balconies where you could put a table and chair and maybe even a barbecue.
Is a Chinese style apartment for you?
Depending on your budget and other considerations, you may not have the choice between an apartment geared towards expats in Beijing that sports all the Western amenities, or a more typical Chinese style place. Before you go apartment hunting, prepare a list of things you would like to have.
And be prepared to be flexible. Maybe a bigger kitchen allows you to add an oven and microwave, rather than finding one that already has that included. You may be able to add a shower curtain to separate the shower area from the rest of the bathroom. Maybe you can talk your landlord into upgrading some appliances, especially if you sign a longer-term lease.
Just keep in mind, living Chinese-style is just part of living in China.