In Beijing, Three (or Eight) Roommates Is Not a Crowd

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Ng Han Guan / AP

Chinese fans of the American TV show Friends watch an episode at Beijing's own Central Perk

It's business as usual at Central Perk. On the plush, brightly colored couches, fashionable 20-somethings lounge around on their lunch breaks, sipping lattes and chatting with friends. Behind the counter, Gunther cleans the gaudy, oversize mugs and puts them away.

It's a scene comfortably familiar to any fan of the long-running '90s TV show Friends. But this is not mid-'90s Manhattan; this is Beijing, mid-2010. And the couches are peopled not by hip New Yorkers but by upwardly mobile Chinese young professionals who come in search of the easygoing Friends lifestyle that is increasingly hard to find in Beijing's stressed housing market.

China's Central Perk, a painstakingly detailed reconstruction of the TV original, is tucked away in a corner of a downtown Beijing office tower. It is the brainchild of Chinese businessman Du Xin, who gave himself the English name Gunther in honor of the show's long-suffering barista. "Friends is very popular among Chinese young people because it fulfills a need they have for friendship," says Du. "Beijing is such a big city, it's very easy for you to feel lonely. I think there should be a place where you feel safe and comfortable and can hang out. I wanted to build such a place for my customers."

For many of the young professionals, China's property boom is translating into a decidedly untelegenic lifestyle. As government stimulus funds and eager investors flock to the real estate sector, rents across the nation are soaring. In Beijing, where the average monthly salary is roughly RMB 3,700 ($545), the monthly rent for a typical one-bedroom apartment was about RMB 2,900 ($427) as of June, according to Homelink Real Estate. That leaves many with no choice but to find people to share their home with. More and more, flatmates are sharing small, cramped apartments with several other people — a lifestyle less reminiscent of Friends than of another TV favorite of Chinese youth, Prison Break.

A generation ago, workers in Beijing were from Beijing, and most lived with their families or in company dorms. Today sharing apartments in big Chinese cities, where most people now migrate to, has become the norm. Landlords and rental agents are increasingly willing to rent more expensive apartments to several tenants at once rather than leave a flat empty while they wait to find a wealthier tenant or family, and young professionals are squeezing into smaller and smaller spaces. Until recently, Jennifer Xie, who is three years out of college and works in administration, shared a small suburban apartment with her boyfriend and six others. "Altogether, there were eight people — four couples — living in a three-bedroom apartment," Xie says. "One couple slept in the living room." When Xie became pregnant a few months ago, they moved into their own place, a change that has hurt the young couple's wallets but left them with few regrets. "It was much too crowded," Xie says. "We had to take turns to cook. We all shared one small fridge and one line for drying laundry ... I don't miss that time."

The shortage of affordable housing is not exclusively a Beijing problem. Housing prices across the country have been soaring in the past 18 months, leaving both renters and first-time buyers gasping for air. From Shanghai to Guangzhou, prices in the past year have risen by double digits. In the city of Haikou, on the southern island province of Hainan, the average house price has gone up 50% in the past 12 months. Back in the capital, as things have become tighter, there have even been tales of young office workers taking off to country villages in the hills outside the city, willing to endure a two-hour commute to work each way for the reward of cheaper rent and their own place.

An official crackdown on real estate speculation that was started early this year, coupled with new regulations to promote the construction of more affordable housing, should lower prices and bring some relief to Beijing's beleaguered house hunters. There are signs that the measures are already having some effect, but what changes do come will inevitably come slowly. House prices in Beijing fell just 0.4% in June, month on month.

For now, many of Beijing's young professionals will have to put up with cramped accommodations and a shortage of personal space. Wang Xiyuan, a 27-year-old Beijing office worker sitting on Du's faithful replica of Central Perk's iconic orange couch, was unable to afford her own place until recently. Before, she and a friend were sharing a cramped two-room flat in which the only communal space was a tiny kitchen. "What attracted me most about Friends was the friendship between the roommates," Wang says. "But it's not easy to live with a friend. Americans have different habits than Chinese. They are more open and direct. Chinese people are sometimes too shy to tell you what they really think. They just get madder and madder at you, but don't tell you."

Tense roommate relations is apparently good news for Du. He wants his coffee shop to become like a living room for the city's young professionals — with $3.70 lattes for sale. "I wanted to create a place where friends can come and hang out in comfort," he says, as the Friends theme song plays softly from the nearby TV that's screening reruns. "That's why I opened this café."