The devil wears Prada and won’t rent me an apartment

Imagethief hates looking for an apartment. Once I am comfortable someplace, I’ll tend to stick with it unless there is some external factor that forces me to move. That could be a raise that lets me upgrade, the relocation of my office, a crack house opening downstairs (if it was noisy) or, just for example, moving to another city.

A few months ago I briefly looked at apartments in Beijing before ultimately bargaining my rent down and staying put. After that experience, I wrote a post (rant, really) that summed up my feelings about apartment hunting in China. My major complaint was that Chinese landlords are unchallenged in their ability to select the worst, tackiest, ugliest possible furniture for any given apartment.

So I was understandably staggered when just a bit over a week ago I walked into a rental apartment in Shanghai that had some of the nicest furniture I had ever seen. The apartment was gorgeous, with a tasteful paint job, reasonable lighting (another rarity in a country obsessed with colored fluorescent tubes and baroque chandeliers), simple moldings and truly elegant and comfortable furniture. It was on Julu Rd., a ten minute walk from my office, and near a wet market and several pleasant restaurants and cafes. It was quiet and had a big balcony. To top it off, the rent was reasonable. Its only drawback was a microscopic, Hong Kong-style kitchen. But Mrs. Imagethief and I figured we could live with it if we kept our elbows in.

There was, naturally, a complication. I have cats. I had warned the agent beforehand that I have cats. “I have cats,” I said, to minimize confusion. “I don’t want to waste time. Make sure any apartment we look at doesn’t mind cats.” This instruction, along with several others of lower importance, like my budget range, was ignored.

As we looked at the apartment I asked the agent, “How does the owner feel about cats?”

“There are some concerns,” he said.

Undaunted, I said that I was interested. He said he would look further into the cat issue and let me know.

The next day I was requested to appear at the apartment along with my cats so the landlady could evaluate them. I explained that the cats were still in Beijing and an introduction would be somewhat impractical. A compromise was struck. Could I bring photographs instead?

I had Mrs. Imagethief send me the most cuddly, harmless, nauseatingly cute, aw-shucks photograph of the cats that she could locate (see below) and I printed it out in color. What I didn’t point out is that the reason the cats are so serene is this photo is that they are in shock from being transported from Singapore to Beijing and spending 48 hours in Chinese animal impound. In a spectacular piece of extra-credit work, Mrs. Imagethief also shot a digital video that convincingly shows that the cats will energetically scratch a scratching post but cannot be enticed to sink their claws into the sofa. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get that video into a portable format in time to take with me.

I arrived at the apartment at the designated time and waited along with the agent. When the landlady swished in I knew I was in trouble. She was immaculate. From the perfect hairstyle down to the tiny pair of sparkly, silver shoes, she was a picture of high-fashion perfection. She also radiated a brittle arrogance that I associated immediately with one or two of my particularly fabulous ex-colleagues, a trademark of those Chinese women that have painstakingly and fastidiously elevated themselves above the long-underwear dowdiness that still pervades so much of the country.

She did not, in short, appear to be the kind of person well-disposed to a dusting of cat hair on every surface.

She was also not the landlady. She was the landlady’s good friend. The landlady herself was pregnant in Hong Kong, and this woman had been entrusted with the task of vetting potential tenants. It was a responsibility she took seriously. Where did I work? How long had I been in China? Was I single? Did I absolutely have to keep the cats? Wouldn’t stuffed cats do just as well?

Still, she was supportive in her own way. “I can see that you have good taste,” she said with the deadpan sincerity with which you might compliment an extremely simple third-grader, “because you like this apartment.”

You see, she explained, the concern is that the furniture is all imported. The bed alone, I was warned, was worth some RMB 20,000. And it was nothing against animals in general. She had a dog, after all. (I could picture it — something microscopic and high strung. A colicky cotton ball with a diamond collar, protruding eyes and an angry snarl.) Dogs stay on the floor. But cats, well, they like to jump on top of things. And her friend, I had to understand, was her colleague from Vogue, and she was very serious about the condition of her apartment.


I had watched “The Devil Wears Prada” a week or two before and had laughed off the attitude as Hollywood hyperbole. And yet here it was in front of me, big as life. They reallyare that self-consciously fabulous. I am the product of a bookishly unstylish bloodline and I have no experience dealing with this sort of person. It was like being in the presence of an extremely fashionable space alien. I mean, what common ground do you really have?

Well, she had heard of my company. I guess that was something.

She said she would go back and discuss it with her friend. She also suggested that they would put a list of all the furniture and its values into the contract (actually a sensible idea). Then she turned to the agent and in Mandarin laid down the bottom line on rent. It was incrementally higher than I wanted to pay, and I was slightly annoyed that she didn’t say it directly to me. But it didn’t matter. I had already written off the apartment.

Even if her absent friend had agreed to my tenancy I had mentally abandoned it about the time I was indirectly complemented on my taste. The world is full of imperfect and obsessive landlords, but the thought of having a phalanx of neurotic fashionistas riding shotgun on my tenancy was more than I could tolerate. It wasn’t just the cats. I’m big, klutzy and drop things. I sit on the couch after sweaty workouts. Mrs. Imagethief and I cook smokey, spicy things that stink up the house, and then eat off the coffee table while we watch TV. I drop my underwear on the bedroom floor. Mrs. Imagethief and I would have made noisy, spring-rattling whoopee on that expensive, imported bed. There is a reason why leases have “normal wear and tear” clauses, and that reason is me.

And I have enough stress in my life without having it transmitted at me by a landlady who’s going to worry if I sit on the couch in riveted Levis, let alone do any of the things above.

The next day, even before we heard back from the landlady’s friend, I called the agent and told him to forget it. That was probably exactly what the owner was hoping for, but it spared us all the uncomfortable last dance.

I defaulted to my second choice. It’s in an uglier building and it’s a tattier apartment. The couch looks like it was lifted from a frat house yard sale and the dining room table is so hopeless I told the agent to get rid of it. But the place is big, nicely painted, and has an enormous kitchen and an unobstructed view of the entire eastern half of the city. It’s a five minute walk from the office.

And the landlord doesn’t care about cats. For that kind of serenity, I’ll go downmarket.

Would you trust them on your couch?

Would you trust them on your couch?

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