The Devil’s Air Conditioner and Other Tales of Woe

Sometimes life in Beijing is like one of those Japanese game shows where they see how much torture people are willing to endure for surprisingly mediocre prizes. Picture the following and you’ve more or less got it:

“Mr. Ishihara, for a new desktop dumpling fridge you’ve been strapped naked to a hospital gurney in the burning sun for twelve hours. You’re pinking up nicely. Do you wish to continue?”


“Then it’s time to raise the bar! Here comes a team of lingerie models to glue Gabonese fire ants to your testicles!”

“I can take it! Must…have…tiny…fridge!”

“Great! While they prepare the ants, let’s watch this secretly recorded video of you confessing erectile dysfunction at last week’s office drinking party!”

That’s us on the gurney. We’re all in it for the rush and the dubious prize while an oddball assortment of it-could-only-happen-here, Rube Goldberg discomforts repeatedly jabs its three-fingered cartoon glove into our sensitive bits. As long as you can take it, you live in Beijing. When, like Popeye the Sailor Man, you can’t stands no more, you pack up and head for more congenial shores. With a dumpling fridge, if you’re lucky.

This weekend’s finger to my sensitive bits involved the air conditioner in my apartment.

Let me tell you a bit about my apartment. Nominally in a “luxury” development, it’s horrendously expensive and situated in one of Beijing’s most fabulous areas. The amenities are good. There’s even a French bakery in the courtyard. But construction-wise it’s less luxury and more like what would happen if you got a pack of wild monkeys just drunk enough on Snow Beer to almost read a blueprint and fenced them into ten hectares of land with a pile of grade-B residential fittings and free-flow concrete. The caulking wanders off in random directions, the hot and cold indicators on the faucets are reversed, the “hardwood” flooring buckles in weird places, the towel racks droop, and when the wind blows, a majestic assortment of Jurassic aromas billows from the drains. There’s more, but you get the idea.

Still, I was hardened by a year in Shanghai, so in most ways I consider it pretty good as Chinese apartments go. The worst that can be said of the landlord is that she’s totally disinterested, which is way better than totally venal, which is always a possibility here. The landlord situation reminds me a bit of the shopworn parable about Confucius, the widow and the tiger:

One day the Master came upon a woman weeping at a grave. He said, “You weep as one afflicted by great sorrow.”

The woman replied, “It is true. My husband’s father was killed here by a tiger, and my husband also. Now the tiger has killed my son.”

“Why do you not leave this place?” asked the Master?

The woman replied, “The government here is not cruel.”

Replace “government” with “landlord” and it’s still more or less valid.

But the air conditioning problem is serious. Our apartment is hot and stuffy year round. Even in Beijing’s Siberian winter we pick up so much waste-heat from the neighboring apartments and poorly insulated piping that we often end up running a fan in our bedroom at night. As for summer, well, if you haven’t experienced August in Beijing you can simulate it by tying yourself to a burning coal stove and then having your friends hurl you into an open sewer. If you actually try this, put it on YouTube so everyone can benefit from your sacrifice. That’s how knowledge is born.

Anyway, we rely on our air conditioner. This sucks for us, because it is an enormous, fiddly contraption that looks like what might happen if Lockheed Corp. and Hubei People’s Steam Propulsion Systems Factory No. 182 jointly bid on air conditioners for TEPCO. This model, which is standard in our apartment complex due, one can only assume, to graft, is approximately the size of a 1968 Volkswagen Camper, and takes up the entire balcony outside my son’s room. Unlike a Volkswagen Camper, it uses water as a coolant, making it complex and prone to breakdown. But it does have the Camper’s woeful lack of power and tendency to choke in the face of modest demands.

In a masterstroke of engineering, our air conditioner also manages to combine the worst attributes of central and split air conditioning. Like central air conditioning, it has to be switched from “heat” mode to “cooling” by the property office, which puts us at the mercy of the government rather than the climate. The switchover involves one big button and just enough fiddling with valves to be complicated, but the good news is that regardless of official dates the property office usually folds in the face of a little hectoring.

Like a split aircon, however, the compressor draws on our household electricity (our breaker box emits an alarming buzz every time it turns on), and coolant pipes run through the ceiling to the vents in all the rooms. In our previous apartment, in the same complex, the pipe over the kitchen dripped condensation. During summer it reliably shorted out the gas leak detector in the kitchen ceiling about once a month, usually at three in the morning (we ran the aircon at night), triggering an electronic shriek that could curdle the fluid in your eyeballs. I would deal with this problem by blearily jamming a screwdriver into the alarm until it shut up, and then having the property office replace it. If we’d ever had an actual gas leak, the sparks created by my screwdriver surgery would have blown us all into the courtyard like Ed Norton’s furniture and condiments in “Fight Club.”

The compressor unit on the balcony is wired to a set of high-tech thermostats, all of which insist that every room in the house is always 25C regardless of actual temperature. When the sun expands into a red giant and incinerates the Earth a billion years from now, these thermostats will insist it is 25C right until the moment they evaporate. Whether you set the thermostats to 30C or 5C (which is where ours are all set), you get the same anemic trickle of semi-cool air from the vents.

But we take what we can get. Spring in Beijing is a season of hot days and cool nights. And dust and fuzz and pollution. The apartment warms up during the day and stays warm pretty much all night, forcing us to run the air conditioning even though the outside temperature has dropped. Any cooling is better than no cooling.

At 2AM on Saturday night I woke up bathed in sweat. The outside temperature was a crisp 12C, but our room had crept up to a broiling, humid 28.5C. The aircon vent was cheerily pumping out a stream of toasty, warm air.

Well, you say, turn it off and open the windows, genius. And in many places in the world this would be sound advice. But on Saturday night the air pollution AQI reading was 212. In China an AQI of 212 counts as “moderate,” but in the rest of the world it’s more like, Holy Jesus, Martha, it’s the apocalypse! Get the kids into the fallout shelter while I shoot the dog! You don’t really want to sleep in it. What’s the point of having $3,000 worth of Swedish air filters (yes, really) in the apartment if you’re just going to throw open the windows and let the scuzz in?

We let the scuzz in, at least for a while. But that led to another problem. Our previous apartment faced the courtyard from the 7th floor. Other than the occasional raving drunkard or 160db Phil Spector wall-of-sound throat-clearing hawk, it was reasonably quiet. On the rare clear-air nights we occasionally slept with the windows open just for the hell of it (although always with the risk of waking up to find the loess plateau in our bed).

Our current apartment faces the road between our complex and the neighboring ultra-mall. This road is small, but punches way above its weight in terms of congestion, perma-honking and random cacophony. To add insult to injury, when they built the mega-mall they somehow neglected to design in a loading dock. The result is that all deliveries to the mall are made at the entrance to the parking lot, which is just below our 16th floor apartment. This happens at the only time when they can partially block the road, which is the middle of the night. For a mall that sells a huge amount of really expensive stuff, these deliveries are not gentle. They often sound like someone backing a flatbed truck with busted shocks and a full load of plate glass and live hogs over a row of two-by-fours.

As long as our hermetically-sealing, double-paned windows are buttoned up, the noise doesn’t bother us. And, anemic as it is, if the air conditioning is working, we can keep the windows closed. But if the air conditioning fails, our choices rapidly dwindle to dying of heat exhaustion in our own bed, opening the windows and admitting the din and miasma of Satan’s workshop, or suicide.

At two in the morning, suicide doesn’t look all that bad, but we resisted. After my wife went out and poked futilely at the buttons on the compressor for a while, we went for heat exhaustion, turning off the compressor but keeping the windows shut. On Sunday morning the property office showed up, declared that we had somehow switched the air conditioning unit to “heat,” switched it back, and left. On Sunday evening the aircon ran refreshing and cool, as much as it ever does. Maybe it was our fault, I thought. Maybe we did something wrong.

And then Sunday night at 2AM we woke up bathed in sweat again. With a flashlight I went out to the balcony where the Beast lives and examined the controls. Outside it was pleasantly cool. The air conditioner had switched itself to “heat.” I switched it back to “cool.” The mechanics might be complex, but the controls are simple. There are only three buttons: On/Off, Heat and Cool, and an LED that displays “HE” or “CO” and the coolant temperature. It ran in “cool” mode for a minute or so. I watched the coolant temperature drop. And then it switched itself back to “heat.” I repeated this five times. Every time the air conditioner switched itself back to “heat.”

On top of all its other problems—the fiddly complexity, the anemic output, the buzzing breaker box—this cursed thing apparently thinks it’s smarter than us. When it’s warm outside, in the early evening or right at dusk, it chugs along merrily in cooling mode. The moment the temperature outside drops too much, it figures we must be freezing in our booties, and spontaneously switches itself into heat mode. Damn the thermostats (25C), full speed ahead!

Or, worse, it’s actually trying to kill us, like the possessed laundry press in the old Stephen King story, “The Mangler.” It wants to roast us to death in our sleep and let the cats feast on our remains, just for the sheer sport of it. I don’t know what happened to the previous tenant in our apartment. I do know that he left a fair amount of his stuff behind when he “moved out.” Coincidence?

I just made the last rent payment on our current contract. In about two months, we have to decide whether to move or to stay in the same place and accept the inevitable rent increase. On the one hand, the apartment is expensive and noisy and the air conditioning unit is apparently possessed by Satan and determined to destroy us all.

On the other hand, there are croissants downstairs and the government is not cruel.

It’s a tough call.

Note: This post originally published on the defunct group blog

But it's refreshingly cool!

But it’s refreshingly cool!

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