phantom stories – mammoth // building nothing out of something

phantom stories


[Homes on the outskirts of Shanghai, via Google Maps.]

A recent report in the New York Times which looks at global marriage patterns from an economic perspective contains the following fascinating excerpt, which indicates that China’s one-child policy, “combined with a cultural preference for sons and technologies that permit selective abortion”, has indirectly produced a proliferation of phantom third floors on Chinese houses:

…evidence suggests that young Chinese women and their families have in fact become much more selective in recent years.

They appear, for example, to focus more critically on the earnings potential of prospective mates. Because house size is often assumed to be a reliable signal of wealth, a family can enhance its son’s marriage prospects by spending a larger fraction of its income on housing. (Other families can follow the same strategy, of course, but when all families do so, the resulting homes are still reliable indicators of relative wealth.) Such a shift appears to have occurred.

For example, when Shang-Jin Wei, an economist at Columbia University, and Xiaobo Zhang of the International Food Policy Research Institute examined the size distribution of Chinese homes, they found that families with sons built houses that were significantly larger than those built by families with daughters, even after controlling for family income and other factors. They also generally found that the higher a city’s male-to-female ratio, the bigger the average house size of families that have sons.

Mr. Wei reports that many families with sons have begun to add a phantom third story to their homes, one that looks normal from the outside but whose interior space remains completely unfinished.

“Marriage brokers are familiar with the tactic,” he reports, “yet many refuse to schedule meetings with a family’s son unless the family house has three stories.”

This — a kind of architectural extension of ritual courting displays — could be read as an odd corollary to the American predilection for viewing the home primarily as an investment strategy, which mammoth has previously written about.  In both cases, the home’s function as shelter (or machine for living) is subsumed by its financial potential, whether it serves to display wealth or produce it — and it would be quite interesting to learn if this shift in the function of the home has had the kind of bizarre side-effects in China that it has had in the States.

One Response to “phantom stories”

  1. [...] phantom storiesMr. Wei reports that many families with sons have begun to add a phantom third story to their homes, one that looks normal from the outside but whose interior space remains completely unfinished. “Marriage brokers are familiar with the tactic,” he reports, “yet many refuse to schedule meetings with a family’s son unless the family house has three stories.”(tags:social ) [...]