Living Large in a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd World Town

Old butting up agains the new

Old butting up against the new

China is an economic juggernaut that has been on a global growth spree since 1979, when then Chairman of the Communist Party Deng Xiaoping enacted sweeping reforms to the economy.  Since then, China has had one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and hundreds of millions of Chinese have have seen their living standards rise for more than 30 years.  In the last decade, China has grown its middle class by more than 200 million people.  The city we live in, Shanghai, is currently the fastest growing city in the world, and I see no signs of that slowing.

All around us there is development happening in Shanghai.  When I take my scooter out each day and go 16 kilometers (10 miles) in any direction, I inevitably run into a development, either commercial, residential, or both, under construction.  And these are not just one-off developments, but massive swaths of land being turned into office parks and cities the size of downtown Royal Oak, MI, all within the boundaries of Shanghai.  It is awe-inspiring to behold the kind of economic development and growth that the Chinese have lashed together in such a short amount of time.  It also is sobering to scooter through the nearby migrant village where many of the people doing the manual Iabor in these developments live in numbing poverty.

I am surrounded by untold wealth in Shanghai, and unimaginable poverty.  I can come out of my big, western-style house in my big, western-style development, get on my scooter, drive about 3 minutes and cross a major roadway (Jinxiu Lu).  From there I drive about a block through a walled entrance to a dirt road in a field that once was a village, and emerge 2 minutes later at the edge of the migrant village of SanQiao.  It too is an awe-inspiring thing to see, just a different kind of awe.

SanQiao is made up of teeming alleyways, congested streets and close, crowded structures

SanQiao is made up of teeming alleyways, congested streets and close, over-crowded structures

There are close to 20,000 people living in SanQiao, most with no running water and limited electricity.  It is a warren of broken streets and walkways, with many low, crumbling cement structures abutting them.  Water is piped into common areas, and bathrooms are mostly shared, as are kitchens, both of which usually sit outside a central structure that numerous households utilize.  And there is rubble and trash (not to mention wild fowl) everywhere because this isn’t a designated Shanghai migrant neighborhood.  It just evolved that way over time and there are no city services.

An outdoor kitchen in SanQiao

An outdoor kitchen in SanQiao

Make no mistake, however, SanQiao is just like a real city and almost anything a person needs to survive can be found within its borders.  There are numerous food stands throughout the village, as well as a central wet market that sells meat, produce, breads, pantry items and most household products.  (This place is pretty gross, even by wet market standards, and I will spare you the corroborating photos.)  There is also a long, cramped alleyway that serves as the village “business district” and has shops that sell everything from liquor to fake designer luggage.  Once I was walking through this area and encountered a village “dentist,” sitting with a patient at a card table with folding chairs outside a store front, pulling a tooth.  Pretty much every service you will ever need is right there in that alley.

And...the tooth is out and tossed

And…the tooth is out

I was walking through the alleyway that particular morning as part of a tour of SanQiao organized by Tracy Lesh who has a company called Shanghai Tea Treks (  Tracy and her company partner with various organizations to offer cool cultural events and tours in Shanghai and surrounding areas, with a focus on Chinese Tea Culture (check her website to learn more).  Though I’ve spent alot of time in SanQiao by myself and with the girls, I had never met anyone who actually lived there, due to the language barrier.  (Funny that I have no qualms talking my kids into one of the more squalid sections of Shanghai, but there are parts of Detroit I wouldn’t take them without an armed escort.)

Tracy and her partner Michael of Shanghai Tea Treks giving history of migrant village of SanQiao

Tracy and her partner Michael of Shanghai Tea Treks telling the history of the migrant village of SanQiao

Tracy, with her partner Michael, was able to introduce me to several people and families in SanQiao, who all had, to varying degrees, similar stories.  They had come to Shanghai as migrants from the countryside in the hopes of giving their children better lives and greater opportunities.  Xiao Hui, a seamstress in SanQiao with a husband and two school-age children, all of whom live in a one-room house with no running water, explained it best when she told us that she lives and works here in 3rd world conditions so that the generation after hers doesn’t have to.  They came from Anhui province and, like so many other migrant families, did so for the greater economic and educational opportunities of Shanghai.

The movement of migrant workers to Shanghai increased significantly when the city lifted its restriction on non-resident children attending schools here.  The school system is much better in Shanghai than in most of the provinces and the opportunity to give your kids a good education, and hopefully a better chance at a good job, is a big incentive for migrants to move.  However, those migrant children who go through the Shanghai school system are out of luck when it comes time for their University placement test, unless they get the much coveted, and really hard to get, residency permit (or Hukou).  That is because Shanghai has not lifted the requirement that you must take the placement test in the province where your Hukou was issued at your birth.  Since the best universities in China are in Shanghai and Beijing, it is beneficial if you can get a local Hukou, but it’s not likely.

Tracy and Michael also introduced me to a family that had recently moved out of SanQiao and into an apartment complex nearby.  The Zou family had come from Jiangsu province and like many migrants that move to SanQiao, they aspired to move up and out, which they eventually did, after approximately 8 years.  The apartment has 2 bedrooms, a living area, kitchen and eating area and 9 family members live there — grandma and grandpa, their 2 daughters, their husbands, and 3 children.  The living conditions in the apartment would be considerred 3rd world by many Americans, but in Shanghai it is a step up from the migrant village and in appearance is actually more 2nd world.  There is running water and electricity, though no heat.

The Zou family mother and a daughter, with Michael and Tracy, in their apartment

The Zou family mother and a daughter, with Michael and Tracy, in their apartment

The Zou’s were able to move from SanQiao because the daughters found work as ayis for Westerners, while their husbands found jobs in Shanghai.  Many ayis who work in foreign households live in migrant villages, which is the reason there is an ayi room and bathroom in most houses in Western developments such as ours.  It is often just off the laundry room and gives the ayis the opportunity to take a hot shower and wash and iron their clothing, which they often can’t do at home.  Nowadays, many of the ayis and their families, like the Zou’s, have moved out of migrant villages and into better, more modern environs.

And then there is 1st world Shanghai.  Most Westerners in their developments have pretty big houses, but they pale in comparison to some of the new developments built or being built for wealthy folks here.  As the Chinese have benefited from economic reform, everyone at every level has moved up the ladder, including the very wealthy (Chinese and non-Chinese alike).  Some of the new developments being built here have houses that are off the hook (and they don’t let scooter driving, picture taking Westerners like me in them).  The houses are massive and have interesting Western-style design labels, such as Tuscan Italianate and Elizabethan Windsorite, and look as freaky as they sound.  But the newly wealthy Chinese need to live somewhere.

Picture of a house to come in a Chinese development that just got underway -- wish I could live there

Picture of a house to come in a Chinese development

Shanghai is also a luxury goods paradise, and clearly there are people here with the money to buy them.  There are two big malls in downtown Pudong — IFC Center ( and Super Brand Mall ( — that are ridiculously upscale.  When you walk into the IFC, the first 8 stores you encounter are as follows:  Prada, Miu Miu, Salvatore Ferragamo, Dolce Gabbana, Burberry, Tiffany, Cartier and Louis Vuitton.  The two malls are both bigger than the Somerset Collection in Troy, MI (or the Beverly Center in L.A.) and sit right across the street from each other, though that’s clearly not a problem as both are packed on the weekends.  According to a 2012 report, spending by the Chinese on luxury goods exceeds that of any other country.  Living here amongst it, that comes as no surprise to me.

Cassidy back lit in front of Tiffany sign at IFC mall

Cassidy backlit byTiffany sign at IFC mall

So it’s like China is 3 different countries, and on any given day I can pass through all 3 of its worlds in Shanghai.  It’s both exciting and disconcerting to move through this dynamic city and see the wealth and poverty that live side by side.  What amazes me most about the Shanghainese is that no matter which world they come from – 1st, 2nd, or 3rd – they have a common goal.  Upward mobility is an aspiration that many Chinese share, especially when it comes to their children.  A better life is something the present generation of Chinese will give to the generation that follows.

The ladies in the heart of the migrant village

The ladies in the heart of the migrant village

5 thoughts on “Living Large in a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd World Town

  1. “A better life is something the present generation of Chinese will give to the generation that follows.”
    Unfortunately with a bad toxic aftertaste that accompanies the economic development fueled by burning fossil fuels. But you can’t have it all 😉

  2. Hi Howard, Karen and girls….I am sitting here reading your blog as Alan is recovering from back surgery. He is doing well, but it HURTS!!! So your blog was just what the nursemaid needed. I love your tales of the city and all your adventures in learning about it, and enjoying it. Glad you had a Michigan Christmas. The snow is falling in small squalls and the grass is covered in white. And then there are the piles of plowed snow that line the roads here. I am still amazed at the job the crews do in clearing the roads (in the middle of the night??).

    I particularly liked reading your feelings about the poor/wealthy living side by side. It is sad, but each time I have been back to Chongching, there is more new, and less poor. Where do the poor people go? It seems to change overnight. Amazing. When I saw your picture of the outdoor kitchen, I began to appreciate my electric stove here in Dearborn.

    Our best wishes to you all in 2013. Hope to see you soon in Shanghai. Take care of each other and keep enjoying the journey. Best…Nicki

    • Nicki, so good to hear from you. Keep an eye on your patient, he may want to move around sooner than he should! Glad you enjoy the blog and hoping to see you sometime soon on this side of the world. Take care of yourself and your patient and best to the family.


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