The Great China Divide: No Heat For You!

Chinese-heating.jpgI laughed – laughed! – at the poor fools. Images of a crowd of Chinese standing there on the banks of the Yangtse cursing their northern neighbors who sat toasty warm in their centralized heating watching The Best of CCTV. The shivering swarms swearing generational damning profanity while praying the schizo-aircon unit that worked intermittently throughout the scorching furnace of a summer would now breath new heat into their homes.

This was the short theatric that passed through my brain up in Dalian when I was told that China’s heating system was none-too-scientifically based on geography rather than actual temperatures. Basically, urban centres north of the Chang Jiang are provided with a massive centralized heating system that pipes hot water from local heating stations into the radiators in people’s homes. South of the river… three letters and they rhyme with “less coal hell”.

At the time places like “Shanghai”, “Hangzhou”, “Nanjing” and “Suzhou” seemed the locales of faerie tales … and certainly no places I’d ever end up living. But here I am, joining the ranks of that chilly crowd and practicing my Chinese cursing.

All through the Autumn I reveled in my decision to move down here from the chilly barren north. The steam that rises from my toilet bowl as my body-warmed water mixes with its near-frozen cousin below has me thinking otherwise.

Suzhou reached 0-degrees this morning and my apartment has gone with it. The living room, kitchen and bathroom are all now only-as-absolutely-needed zones – with the lone island of refuge being my somewhat heated bedroom. It’s ‘somewhat heated’ because there is a heater doing its best most hours of the day to make it so. It should be noted that this heater was not-too-long ago also trying (desperately) to produce cold air to beat summer heat, which, if you ask me, is a lot to expect from a cheap Chinese appliance.

The thing that amazes me is that geographically Suzhou is quite far south… think Mexico/California, Texas, North Africa. The climate seems not to care about this at all. Here’s a little chart displaying the average temperature of Suzhou as compared to Toronto and London during the winter months (both of which are considerably more ‘northern’ than this little city of canals and gardens).

Suzhou Toronto London
low high low high low high
Dec. 2 10 -4 2 5 9
Jan. -1 7 -7 -1 3 7
Feb. 0 8 -6 0 4 8

It’s true, much of my current discomfort is because I live in a cheap, school-supplied apartment and I’ve already made plans come March (when the lease runs out) to find new digs. However, this doesn’t really account for the complete lack of solid heating technology that one would think might have been made available here. Sure, apartments don’t really cater to massive furnace units, but baseboard heaters are nothing new.

Proper insulation and weather-proofed windows would also go a long way in making sure the heat stays in during the winter and out during the summer… but they are both noticeably absent from every apartment I’ve lived in since coming to China.

Now, I was forewarned about this Suzhou chill-factor in my rather meteorologically optimistic post by a comment from Connie … to me saying there’s no way Suzhou could ever be colder than Dalian she replied that I should ‘hold my toes and wait’… well, I’ve lost touch with my toes, and my figures are likely next. So, please be kind with my spelling in posts from now until March… I may be typing with my nose.

15 Responses

  1. Having taken the plunge and bought my own place in Hangzhou this is (as it hasn’t been fitted out yet) hopefully the last winter I have to endure the fact that:
    a) Air conditioning sucks at keeping an apartment warm and
    b) This is made even worse when the air conditioning keeps being switched off to save money (and not by me)

    Not trying to make you jealous but…my new apartment will have it’s very own gas fired central heating, radiators in all of the rooms (including the bathrooms). Amazingly it’s actually been built with double-glazed windows – the first apartment building I’ve ever seen with double glazing in China.

    I’ll wish you luck now with your search for newer, better and warmer digs. Unfortunately, you’ll need lots of it. You might want to invest in several layers of undergarments in the short term.

  2. I seem to remember going to a museum in Beijing many moons ago that boasted new insulation and building materials that would make buildings in China much more energy efficient. I think this had something to do with cleaning up the environment and making Beijing not so poisonous. Most of it was in Chinese, and this was my second day in country, so I could be flat wrong. It’s a nice thought, though. Is it possible such things went straight from drawing board to museum without ever actually being used?

  3. I’ve still never been through a winter China, but man, when people in Shanghai told me they had cold winters, I laughed out loud. I’m from Michigan (South Canada) and we know cold. Crazy China!!

  4. Great line: “It should be noted that this heater was not-too-long ago also trying (desperately) to produce cold air to beat summer heat, which, if you ask me, is a lot to expect from a cheap Chinese appliance.”

    As a large mammal from a cold climate, I generally do okay in the chilly Beijing winter…it’s the summers that kill me.

  5. I know exactly how you feel. I am currently sat at the computer wrapped in my duvet. Have suffered Nanchang winters for a good few years now and they are much worse than anything up north. Last winter my wife and I went to Beijing to visit friends. On her mother’s advice she packed shed loads of clothes and refused to listen to me (note her mother had never been to Beijing at that time – I’ve visited every winter for the past 6 years) that although it might be cold outside it was a dry cold and didn’t get into your bones and that inside pretty much everywhere would be toasty warm. Needless to say after the first day she started to complain that she was too hot (allowing me a rare “told you so” moment). That being said i still haven’t won the war. We have our own apartment here in Nanchang and, like most places south of the Yangtze, no central heating. The mrs. refuses to buy air-con for the apartment cos it’s two-storey so all the cold/heat will be lost, then complains when i drag the duvet from bed to computer to sofa that it’ll get dirty. Think i’ll just have to go out regardless and buy the air-con units, and risk the wrath. If i’m going to be in the dog house i might as well be warm!

  6. @Ambling: Yeah, I’m jealous.
    @J: I complain about the heat in the summer just as much as I complain about the cold in the winter.

    The thing is, I’m no scrawny little Aussie that’s idea of winter is a cool breeze. I’m a stocky Canadian for Mao’s sake. There’s just something ridiculously core chilling about humid winters with borderline sub-zero temperatures and very little escape from it upon arrival home.

    What I’ve discovered as my salvation though comes in the form of Swiss Miss… man, I don’t think I’ve had hot chocolate since I was a kid, but I’m quickly becoming a fiend for it now. Chocolate (good), boiled water (good), hot (good)… all good.

  7. You will find double glazing on the windows of many of the houses inhabited by Koreans in Suzhou, not only double glazing but hot water pipe heating in the floors too (but they are paying approx 10000rmb/month in rent).

    Snag yourself some Korean private tuition customers and you too can bask in warm heat for a few hours a day. But beware, some of them are a little bit overzealous with their hospitality and will have the heating up so high that you almost pass out in class.

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  9. Ryan.
    Having lived through Jiangxi winters since 2003 I concur with everything you’ve said. At least it hasn’t killed your sense of humour or powers of perception. Try making Ludou soup, or better still Yam soup – both are sweet, hot and ‘good for your healthy’, as the students say.

    Yes I understand what you are saying, I come from a cool place too and was a little surprised at how numb the Chinese winter left me even though it was warmer than winter at home, but the difference in this part of the world is that it is cold inside as well as outside, 24 hours a day, every day of the week. The only place you can be sure of escaping it is in bed at night. In your country [and my home country] you have the option of getting inside a heated building when it gets too uncomfortable.

  10. I lived for a short period north of the Changjiang in Jiangsu (Nantong) and we didn’t have government-provided heating (instead purchased a pricy electric radiating heater with an attachment for providing water vapor, an electric blanket, and had a padded fleece quilt made at the market). 🙁 I didn’t miss it much at the time as I had become bitter about government heating during my time as a student in Harbin — although we had heating, the drafty windows et al meant that most of it was lost in the end.

  11. @Matt: Good advice, I’ll see if I can line up some Korean tutoring – and wear shorts.

    @Flotsam: “Good for your healthy”… classic. And yeah, I second that comment to Jason. I balked it too when I heard Shanghai was cold… and I’m living it first hand now.

    @Therese: Thanks! I was hoping this post my generate some more information about this arbitrary line that the government uses for where there is and isn’t centralized heating. I looked tirelessly (ok, max 10 minutes on Google) for some solid evidence, but everything pointed to the Chang Jiang being the divide. My problem with centralized heating is that I often get 7th fl. apartments and the hot water for the rads just never seems to want to make the climb.

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  13. I’ve lived a year in Xiamen and now am into a year in Shanghai. The theme for the Shanghai 2010 World Expo is “Better City, Better Life,” so what’s up with the heat? This heating dictum of who gets it and who doesn’t is an artifact of a starving China and a command economy. Times have changed what with one of the best subways on the planet, the Maglev and all sorts of booming industry. Yet, even rich parents let their kids (to say nothing of their teachers) sit shivering while in school, robed like Eskimos inside and out. It’s the Chinese propensity to “take it and shut up about it,” that has always played into the hands of the leadership and stymied rational change. It’s the 21st Century for Pete’s sake, even cavemen knew enough to light a fire.

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