Archive | January, 2019

Return of the Chinese Landlord – Mike Chen’s AirBnB

4 Jan Mike Chen's Kitchen

I have been travelling with AirBnB for several years, and have made the obligatory good and bad experiences. But sometimes life still surprises me with a kick so low that it is more entertaining than hurtful. This is one of these stories, and I take it as occasion for a thorough review of Mike Chen’s AirBnB situation in Toronto, Ontario.

Personally, I don’t have high expectations when it comes to cheap lodging. All I really want is a place to cook my meals, a place to consume them, one to rest my weary body, and safe shelter for my stuff. My needs actually boil down to a clean kitchen and a clean bed room. As simple as that might seem, Mike Chen was able to disappoint on all accounts.

Mike Chen's AirBnB Rental

It looks continuous, but every store front signals one separate building. One of these five buildings is Mike’s rental place.

The Room

Let’s start with the room, because it’s the most obvious and least accessible flaw of this adventure. The mid-sized bedroom was relatively well maintained, and although both the fake hardwood floor and the old mattress were a bit squeaky, the general set up was neither uncomfortable nor out of the ordinary. The panorama was somewhat squandered by the old dresser-drawer with one out of three drawers missing. The absence of an actual dresser, and its replacement with a slightly worn display case increased the impression that the furniture was either hauled in from various yard sales, or had been acquired by a very skilled dumpster diver. Surprisingly, none of the furniture was actually dusty, except for the top shenves. You know – the places Chinese people can’t reach.

The shear fact that the heating vent in the ceiling was bisected by a hastily painted dry wall made it clear that this room had been added as an afterthought. The Chinese landlord also had also inserted a drywall ceiling, so as to block the sky light which would otherwise have provided a natural light source for my dark and sterile cell.

These general circumstances could have made my stay dull and solemn, but luckily the neighbouring house featured a constantly playing radio. Not loud enough to make out words, but sufficiently loud to recognize any song that you know. The radio literally never stopped playing, and it is only due the loud heating vent in the ceiling that I enjoyed times of relief from enforced radio play. The single small window of the room led out to the hallway, so not only could I hear all the other tenants passing by my room, I was also able to partake in their cooking efforts without ever getting up from my gnarly old chair.

Mike Chen bedroom

This bed room is not great. It’s also not unusual, or bad. Just normal, windowless Chinese rental.

Bath Room

Mike Chen Bath Room

A layer of dust, carbonate, and soap covers most surfaces to varying degrees. The top shelves in particular, because Chinese arms cannot reach there.

As in any other Chinese rental the bath room was plastered with notes, printed in surprisingly good English. One note asked “guests” to avoid flushing toilet paper down the drain, which provides you with a pretty accurate idea of the state of the draining power of said toilet. It also tells you something about the olfactory features of the bathroom: when you toss used toilet paper into the garbage bin, it is bound to develop a characteristic odour, reminiscent of any unsanitary Porter Potty or Forest Loo. Luckily, everyone ignored the paper warning.

However, in order to soil toilet paper with your rectal waste products you first have to find some, because the Chen House is one of those bring-your-own-paper rentals (which, obviously, you are not informed about upon booking). Needless to say that the bath room did not come with soap, towels, or any other kind of toiletries. The only gifts offered by management are two carbonate-encrusted drinking glasses on either side of the sink, so you could disgust the hell out of your tooth brush, if need be.

The absolute highlight of the bath room was the note on the inside of the door, saying “please help keep this bathroom clean”. A laudable notion, only betrayed by the crust of calcium carbonates covering the walls of the shower, the layer of grime on both of the cup boards, the dirt that freely floated across the floor, and the various pale greys that seemed to cover both waste bins AND the sink itself.

Mike Chen's Toronto Bath Room

Except for the floor very few surfaces in this bath room get cleaned regularly.

Cooking time

To me the ability to cook my own meals represents a vital part of the AirBnB experience. I always carry a set of bamboo cutlery, but for the actual process of food preparation I need to scout for rooms that feature a fully functional kitchen. I can’t afford to go out for three meals a day, so, yes, the kitchen matters.

Hood Fan cover at Mike Chen's

Someone actually tried to clean the cover of the hood fan. Why did he/she give up after 30% completion? Did the cleaner die or despair? We may never know.

Admittedly, Mike Chen’s place offered the most elementary equipment, such as microwave, fridge, stove, and a variety of utensils. The state of those items, however, was more than sketchy. The stove was functional, and after a quick clean-up it was ready to oblige my wishes. Yet, finding the appropriate utensils, even to cook up ordinary oat meal involved a laborious journey through the house, because the many shelves of the kitchen were nearly empty, and what little utensils were available, needed to be cleaned in order to avoid at least the most common diseases and infections.

Overall, the second floor contains six bed rooms and two kitchens, and I had to search both kitchens to collect enough equipment to start meal preparation. After finishing my breakfast I stored the pot, the plate, the chipped ceramic bowl, and the metal spoon (the single available piece of cutlery on the ENTIRE SECOND FLOOR!) in my room, so that I would not have to invest the same cleaning efforts before starting my next cooking adventure.

I don’t even want to talk about the greasy microwave, or the grimy fridge. The photos I took of the kitchen should be sufficiently scary to put you off food for a while, and induce a month-long diet on freshly trimmed tree bark. And if you lack the ability to see with your eyes, be assured that the smell of the fridge easily signals its willingness to spread diseases that the Western world has deemed extinct since the dawn of penicillin.

The general ambient of unease was artistically underlined by a variable mixture of dust, grease, and brown sauce that covered the shelves and doors of all cup boards. All this invites the general viewer to give the kitchen a thorough scrub, but with only two cleaning cloths and one towel available this effort would be rather limited in its scope, especially since all three of these rags are rather rigid, indicating that the cleaning cloths themselves have not undergone laundry for a little while.

Mike Chen's Kitchen

The remaining shelves of the kitchen are emptier than these. All are dusty and greasy, though.

Smelly Time

Talking of odours, there are a few rather uncomfortable issues to mention. Firstly the heating vent appears to feature a mediocre amount of dust, and after every heating cycle the room smells like an old sack.

The ancient hole in the wall, containing the aforementioned switch and fuse box, added to that problem. The space between the walls smelled of cold, old smoke, like a pre-war casino that has recently been unearthed by the world’s least ambitious archaeologist.

My hosts did not leave the place unsanitary, though. At least once a week someone came around, swept the floor, and infused some part of the common area with an unhealthy load of bleach. Given the choice between cockroach and airborne carcinogen I would not quite know which way to lean, but note that one can clean a bathroom without making it stink.

Now, all of that would be alright, if you could open a window, and swap the dusty, smoky, bleachy air from indoors with the dusty air from the street. But since my only window went out to the hallway it rather conflicted my nose further with the smell of cooking. At least most of the other tenants used the hood fan when they fried their morning beef, so the overall mixture was never overwhelmingly terrible.

Mike Chen hallway

During summer tenants can slouch on this dusty sofa, and stare at the twenty year old TV across the hallway. Why my room did not incorporate the rest of that sky light is beyond my understanding.

Been there, haven’t done that

Fridge filled with decaying stuff

This fridge does not contain the food of two AirBnB guests. This fridge is the result of at least half a year of ignorance.

 “Hold on!” I hear you screaming. (A remarkable feat, considering that I am writing this blog in your absence.) One might actually be inclined to believe that all of these flaws result from a temporary lack of enthusiasm regarding the health and safety of this Chinese rental dive. However, one would incline the wrong direction – the depth and extent of the dirt covering nearly every surface of the common space indicates that neither kitchen nor bath room have seen any domestic cleaning in half a year or longer.

Back when I lived in Calgary, Alberta, I supervised a house that had long-term tenants as well as AirBnB guests. From that experience I know what effort is involved in maintaining a house, and what it takes to keep its tenants happy. Ten minutes of cleaning every day already suffice for keeping most grime out of the common area. And even if you’re too lazy for that, one hour a week will keep kitchen and bath room in good shape.

My kitchen was always stocked with utensils, dishes, and a huge load of pots and pans. When someone didn’t have time to clean a bowl right away, or broke a plate, or lost a spoon, that accident never impeded on anyone else’s ability to cook, because there were always enough utensils left on the shelves, and those were always clean. Even today you can purchase a box of kitchen utensils for $10 at thrift stores or yard sales, so even IF your guests steal some cutlery, you still have plenty left.

Furthermore, having basic toiletries and cleaning equipment readily available under every sink makes it much easier for your guests and tenants to remove any dirt that threatens to destroy their comfort. The absence of buckets and clean rags made it impossible for me to give the dirty surfaces the scrub that they needed. The general state of Mike Chen’s AirBnB rental showed that little to no effort had been spent over the past year to relieve any surface of its unsanitary load.

Goemon's kitchen in Calgary

This was my kitchen back in Calgary. Mark the absence of grime, and the availability of clean equipment.

 

Chinese Paranoia

The signs of sketchy accommodation were visible from the beginning. When I told Mike via AirBnB about my potential arrival time on Saturday evening he did not reply to my electronic message. Instead, I found his front door locked and unattended. If it hadn’t been for a friend helping me with my luggage, I might have stood in the cold in front of that building for hours, because it took several phone calls to get someone to open the door for us. It is always problematic, if the landlord does not actually live at the premise, and does not have a suitable person to safeguard the front door in his stead.

It is also rather unusual for an AirBnB host to demand payment of a $100 security deposit, particularly if this is not mentioned in the online description. But it did not even stop there. When Mike’s mom finally arrived at the premise, and handed me the keys, she asked me to fill in a guest book with personal information, such as passport ID and phone number. I’m surprised she didn’t ask for my SIN card! When I asked if I could take a photo of the “guest book” she did not even hesitate to open it again, thus revealing a page filled with the personal information of a long train of other “guests” in her house. If anyone needs phone and passport numbers of international visitors to Toronto, give me a call, and we can strike a deal!

Cleanliness is not a Chinese invention

The whole affair is colourful and smelly. Much like this microwave.

Chinese Rental

Imagine you just got off the airplane, after six hours of flight and one hour of travel through a foreign city. When you arrive at your chosen dormitory you find it locked and in the dark, and without door bell. So you call up the land lord, and for twenty minutes you wait in the tea house next door for the arrival of keys. When the Mistress of Keys arrives she asks you to sign a contact sheet that contains the phone and passport information of various other tenants, and she has no issue with you photographing it. Your room features slightly broken furniture, and a whole in the wall that a house keeper needs to access infrequently in order to restore power to some rooms. When you try to relieve yourself of the burden of a long journey you suddenly realise that the toilet comes without paper, and somehow you need to clean out your crevices without leaving the unsanitary bathroom or clogging up the toilet drain. When you waddle back to your room, to carefully claim the soap from your luggage, so as to clean your welting fingers, your gaze falls upon brown pots and plates that suggest nobody has taken care of this property since at least the winter before. Welcome to Mike Chen’s Toronto!

In conclusion, the whole set-up of the house screams “Chinese Landlord Trap”. The building looks like it was built as a restaurant, but the new Chinese owners then employed drywall and a bucket of paint to compartmentalise each floor into rentable rooms. They did not quite maximise the use of space, which I am thankful for. I know Chinese landlords who would have cracked another two or three rooms out of that second floor.

In good Chinese tradition the landlord does not actually live near the property, and maintenance visits are so infrequent that you should be thankful to enjoy clean floors, and a continuous supply of warm air and hot water. Anything else would require the occasional wet cleaning cloth getting rubbed over dirty surfaces, but that is already too much to ask of someone who really just wants to make money off a property. The front of the building does indeed feature a shop of some sort, but for the entire duration of my stay I only saw the shop open when one of the tenants moved in or out.

As a result you receive living space that barely scratches over the minimum requirements of any Health & Safety inspector. There are no bed bugs or related vermin, and I guess the accessibility of emergency exits does not matter as long as you avoid setting the house on fire. But for my understanding of comfortable housing this residence falls a few miles short of its target, just about out of sight of anyone who likes to cook, or breathe deeply, or who sleeps uneasily, or people who don’t want to remove the soggy hair sieve from the bath tub to drain water from the shower.

Encrusted pot at Mike Chen's

Crusty black bottom line: the terrible state of Mike Chen’s rental place is not a temporary accident. It’s the result of considerable neglect.

PS.: As a matter of completeness I should mention that the floors of the house were relatively clean, and no bugs or related parasites could be sighted. Unsurprisingly, considering the weekly force of bleach that was employed on key aspects of the house. However, why the person who wiped the floors lived in complete ignorance of the rest of the house is beyond my comprehension.

Also, the host was readily approachable (via digital message), and when I asked for a one-day extension of my stay it was granted within twenty-four hours. My damage deposit was returned without hesitation, and the web camera that was mounted in the kitchen made me feel a limited amount of security.

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