From the age of 7, Li Qiao moved between Beijing and Eugene, Oregon, savoring the differences in lifestyle between East and West. One of the elements of American culture that she feels benefited her the most is the sorority that she joined in college. Now in her 30s, Li is introducing the concept to the growing number of young, unmarried professional women in Shanghai — but taking it beyond universities.
Though Hollywood movies often link sororities with elitism, racism, and wild parties, Li feels sororities have the capacity to serve as powerful and supportive networks of like-minded women. More and more Chinese women are highly educated, well-traveled, financially independent, and remaining unmarried into their late 20s or early 30s — but they face the stigma of being “leftover women” in a society where vestiges of patriarchy persist, even as the movement toward gender equality becomes more mainstream.
For a generation of women born during China’s one-child policy, a sorority offers an experience of sisterhood that many have never enjoyed. “They need a community where they can get emotional support and help one another deal with the pressure [to marry] from society and their parents,” Li tells Sixth Tone at her office in Shanghai.
Li’s company, Sorority China, collaborated with Shanghai-based real estate company Harbour Home for over a year to develop Harbour Sorority, a residential community for women only. The six-story apartment building officially opened on Dec. 21, 2016. The sorority also hosts and promotes events on issues ranging from female entrepreneurship to sex and relationships.
Though Harbour Sorority targets professionals rather than students, it aims to create the same sense of camaraderie among its residents that Li discovered as an undergraduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, living in a sorority house with 100 or so sisters. “A house is like the glue that sticks women together,” Li says. “When they live in the same house, it’s more likely they’ll participate in activities and grow together.”
The two-child policy came into effect at the beginning of 2016, but most Chinese women in their 20s and 30s are only children. As a result, many don’t know how to relate to their female peers. “It’s not something you can learn through a course,” says Li, who has a biological sister herself. “Rather, it’s something you have to experience by living and sharing with other women.”
Living in a community-oriented, women-only apartment can also bring a sense of security to young, single women, especially the many migrants from across China or abroad who come to Shanghai on their own.
Yao Jiawen relaxes on the seat of her apartment’s bay window in Shanghai, Jan. 7, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
Yao Jiawen moved into Harbour Sorority over Christmas, becoming one of the first tenants in the building. The 22-year-old from Jiangyin in eastern China’s Jiangsu province had taken a job offer in Shanghai after graduating as a public relations major from a U.S. college in May 2016.
“Sometimes it’s lonely living in the big city by myself,” Yao tells Sixth Tone. “Living here not only offers me a warm home but also gives me the opportunity to explore the city with other girls,” she adds while relaxing on the seat of her bay window — her favorite spot in the apartment.
Designed by women for women, each of the 56 apartments in the building features a spacious room with a walk-in closet, modern bathroom, and simple kitchen with Japanese, British, or Scandinavian décor. The building also has large, bright common areas including a gym, yoga studio, fully equipped kitchen, roof garden, and a café where sorority events are usually held.
Clothes hang in the walk-in closet in a sample apartment at Harbour Sorority, Shanghai, Jan. 7, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
However, the cost puts the sorority out of reach for working women in lower-paid positions. Rent at Harbour Sorority ranges from 3,800 to 8,400 yuan ($550 to $1,200) per month, which is about average for one-bedroom apartments in the city center. But Shanghai’s minimum monthly wage — though the highest in China — was just 2,190 yuan in 2016, while the average monthly salary for new positions in the city was around 8,600 yuan in 2015, according to data collected from recruitment postings. A growing gender pay gap means that average women’s salaries are likely even lower.
Yao’s sunny, south-facing sixth-floor apartment costs 7,100 yuan per month, which she can’t yet afford on her own as a new graduate. Her parents have paid her entire first year’s rent for her. Li explains that although the sorority is targeting women who are financially independent, they don’t want to rule out girls like Yao, because the most important thing is that the sisters share the same values.
But currently, only 30 of the building’s apartments are occupied. Li says they expect to reach full capacity in a couple of months. When the building fills up, Harbour Sorority intends to convert the apartment block next door into a women-only complex as well, one floor at a time.
As yet, the sorority has no rules on whether male visitors are allowed to stay overnight or long-term in the apartments. Li says it’s up to the sisters. “We are flexible about this. Once the majority of the sisters move in, they can vote and make the decision themselves,” she says.
Yao, too, encountered American sororities while studying in the U.S., but she found the recruitment process very exclusive and the atmosphere unwelcoming. “All the members were Americans, and they spent most of their time shopping, chatting, and having afternoon tea,” she recalls. “It was more like a community for debutantes.” Yao hopes that in Shanghai, she’ll experience the sisterhood she didn’t find in the U.S.
Other residents hope to find more than friends to hang out with. Yin Jie, originally from Nanjing in Jiangsu province, has just started her career in musical education after completing a master’s degree in the U.S. She believes the sorority community will provide her with advice on female entrepreneurship and leadership, and that the women will support one another in their careers.
“I love the idea of a sorority,” Yin says. “[Women] need to stick together to become even stronger.”
With contributions from Yin Yijun.
(Header image: Women attend an event hosted by Sorority China titled ‘How to Be Single,’ Shanghai, August 2016. Courtesy of Li Qiao)