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Kai Ryssdal: The hottest primetime soap opera on the air in China right now has some of the things you might expect. Infidelity? It's got that. Crooked business deals. Check. But a housing bubble? Yeah, it's got that too. Because that is the issue on the streets in much of China where home prices, as compared to how much people make, may be highest on the planet. From Shanghai, Marketplace's Scott Tong reports.
SCOTT TONG: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl to dirty politician. Boy screams. For about six months now, the hit prime-time series "Snail House" has delighted audiences around China. There's adultery, bribery, a healthy portion of melodrama. But what the characters really chase in this show is money to buy a home.
In this scene, a 30-something urban professional bemoans to her husband their itty-bitty rented studio. She wants to own her own place.
Xu ZHOU: You have to in China, you know.
That's Snail House viewer Xu Zhou.
ZHOU: It's like rules you have to follow. It's not write down in books, or in laws. But it's rules, rules of life.
To get hitched in Shanghai, men without property need not apply.
ZHOU: Her parents will ask you, hey, do you have a house in Shanghai? You should buy one.
Private property ownership in socialist China may sound offkey. These masses who defeated the bourgeois landowners in a revolution 60 years ago now all aspire to be bourgeois landowners.
But financial journalist Huang Shan explains the new home economics.
Huang Shan: I call it ridiculous, but why do so many people buy property? It's because Chinese have limited investment options. Stocks are risky. But real estate can grow 10,000 fold.
Debate rages here if there's a housing bubble. Last year, Shanghai housing prices rose a stunning 65 percent.
In the TV show, the plot gets busy when our poor, struggling renter gets an envelope with five grand. It's from her sister. She's been cheating on her boyfriend, and sleeping around with a rich, crooked communist party member.
Song Siming is the political sugar daddy. He seems the obvious villain. But viewers like Guan He, they love him.
Guan HE: Song Siming is really attractive. He's a middle-aged man, full of wisdom and you know, full of power.
Even as he takes bribes from property developers, this dirty politician is soft and romantic. He dials up his mistress, to piano accompaniment.
Yang Junlei teaches comparative cultures at Shanghai's Fudan University.
Yang Junlei: The show's hit on a very relevant problem in China today: infidelity, mistresses. Pop culture doesn't reflect much of this yet. But "Snail House" really nails it. It's hot.
Too hot, perhaps, for Chinese censors. Last month "Snail House" suddenly went off the air on a few stations. But some channels still air it. And middle-class Chinese still watch, chasing homes of their own, just like the characters.
Again, viewer Guan He.
HE: I think everyone needs a house. But the problem is whether we can. If I face the same difficulty like the sisters, I may choose to go back to my hometown.
She may quit her dream of making it in Shanghai, on account of unaffordable housing. In the end, the soap opera ends badly, too. Karma catches up to our two-timing cadre, and he drives his car into an oncoming truck.
A foreboding image for a show about China's housing prices -- also potentially veering out of control.
In Shanghai, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.