Eyesores or Heritage? Shanghai’s Ubiquitous Laundry Racks
Newcomers to Shanghai might be taken aback when they first see the large clothes-drying racks that jut out from the sides of high-rise apartment blocks, particularly in older residential communities. Filled with brightly colored items, these racks can often resemble the flags fluttering outside a United Nations building.
It’s a simple design: A fixed rectangular frame about 3 meters by 2 meters stretches from a balcony or window; the clothes are arranged on long poles, which are then carefully balanced on the frame. The poles — traditionally bamboo, but now mostly made of steel — can be long enough to dry three or four bed sheets at once. For Shanghai people, who are known to prefer efficiency, that’s better than even a tumble dryer.
On a sunny day, the scene created by layers upon layers of these racks can be quite spectacular. However, with this approach, privacy and modesty go out the window, literally, as residents think nothing of putting all manner of garments — even underwear — on display for all to see.
Walk around any corner in Shanghai and you will likely see these clothes racks, especially outside traditional lane houses and high-rise condos built in the 1990s. A quick search on Taobao, the online marketplace, shows that almost all of these products are shipped from the city.
In the runup to the 2010 Shanghai Expo, the city government deemed these ubiquitous drying racks eyesores that risked soiling Shanghai’s image as a modern metropolis, and decided to ban residents from hanging laundry outside windows on many main roads. However, some locals argue that this age-old practice should be regarded as intangible cultural heritage.
One thing that’s not up for debate, however, is how difficult it can be to actually use these racks. The steel poles can be as long as 2 to 3 meters, and can be extremely heavy when laden with clothes, sheets, or even quilts. Residents need to demonstrate expert precision, trying not to touch the dirty window sill, all the while maintaining their balance. Holding onto one end of the pole while trying to fit the other into a semi-circular metal ring at the top of the frame, to keep it in place, can be akin to an acrobatic performance.
Anecdotal evidence shows that accidents are not unheard of. At a residential community on Qinchun Road, in Minhang District, a drying rack attached to the fourth floor of a building was blown down in strong wind, damaging the glass ceiling of a ground-floor conservatory. Several people across the city have also fallen from windows while trying to fix the poles in place. As a result, some residential communities are now banning the use of this classic rack design.
When and where exactly did these drying racks first start to appear? Despite a wealth of historic materials and anecdotal evidence from native residents, it’s hard to find a definite answer. “What’s for sure is that it was the industrial workers who first began using this method,” says Ma Shanglong, a Shanghai writer, who adds that the racks likely first appeared in a residential community built purposely for “model workers” in the 1980s and 1990s.
In Ma’s opinion, the drying racks that emerged in Shanghai stemmed from necessity. “First of all, the humidity in Shanghai is relatively high. Despite moving from alleyways to apartment buildings, Shanghai people still retain the habit of drying clothes outdoors,” he says. “Secondly, the living space in Shanghai has always been very limited.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, a one-room apartment was only 13 to 15 square meters. A couple with a child, plus furniture, would almost fill a room to capacity. “So, many families had the idea of sealing their balcony to increase the interior space. As this left no place for clothes to dry, people had drying racks attached to the buildings just outside their windows,” Ma says.
Another Shanghai writer, Ji Bisou, made his own wooden rack for drying clothes. “In the ’80s, when the clothes racks became popular, they were all hand-made by residents,” he recalls. The prevalence of the racks was closely related to Shanghai people’s sensitivity toward living space, a trait Ji calls “space hunger.”
Zhou Liyuan lived in a lane on Huanghe Road, Huangpu District, for several years in the ’80s. Recalling those days, what impressed her most was the sight of her mother-in-law fighting for territory to dry clothes. Early in the morning, this diminutive but sturdy woman from Ningbo, a city in the eastern Zhejiang province, would run out with seven or eight large bamboo poles to occupy all the sunny places in the alley. This naturally led to regular quarrels with their neighbors.
“That scene could be really intense. As someone who’d married into the family and moved there, I didn’t dare to go out like that.” Zhou says. “Now, when running into old neighbors, they still joke about my mother-in-law and say that she was valiant.”
Pan Yuhua, who lives in an apartment block in the central Jing’an District, says that the south-facing balcony and large clothes-drying rack in her apartment were what led her to decide to buy the place. “Now, many new neighborhoods use retractable drying racks (not traditional clothes poles), but they only stretch about 1 meter when you push them all the way out. That’s not so convenient for hanging laundry,” she says.
Reported by Li Xinxin.
(Zhou Liyuan is a pseudonym.)
A version of this article originally appeared in SHerLife. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Eunice Ouyang; contributions: Chen Yue; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.
(Header image: Clothes-drying racks in Shanghai, Feb. 8, 2024. Wang Gang/VCG)