Why People are Living in Underground Nuclear Bunkers of Beijing?
One of the ten largest cities in the world, and a hub of business and culture.
Home to most of China’s largest companies and with more billionaires living there than any city in the world, it’s one of Earth’s greatest metropolitan centres.
But below the city, there’s another city- one with over a million people living in conditions that couldn’t be further from the surface.
Welcome to the underground bunker metropolis of Beijing.
It all started in the Cold War – as many things did.
China was a powerful, nuclear-armed nation in the 1960s, but its role in the geopolitical conflict was dwarfed by that of the rival superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.
Many in China were worried that the tensions between these two powerhouses would boil over into nuclear war – as it almost did during the Cuban Missile Crisis – and Chinese leader Mao Zedong was determined to do something about it.
He ordered major Chinese cities to begin the process of building bomb shelters that could withstand a nuclear bomb.
Beijing in particular went to work.
After all, how many bomb shelters is too many for a city?
How about ten thousand?
The city was ready for the inevitable – but the inevitable never came.
Nuclear war never happened, and tensions rose and fell as the Cold War eventually ended with a whimper rather than a bang in the 1980s.
But as the Soviet Union faded and eventually collapsed, China’s economy was growing, and more people from the outside world were starting to look at the country as the next big world power.
All of a sudden, China’s vast network of underground bunkers started to look less like a necessity.
And for some enterprising businessmen, they looked like an opportunity.
Today, Beijing is a thriving city of over twenty-one million people.
During the day, they all mill around the surface, going about their day for work, school, and recreation.
But the city’s housing market is highly competitive and rates are high, and many people can’t afford even the smallest apartment.
So as night falls, roughly five per cent of the city’s population simply disappears from the city surface, going to find their home in a very unconventional place.
They’re about to enter Beijing’s secret underground city.
In the 1980s, as tensions ebbed and China’s leadership turned their eyes to their economy, many of these underground bunkers were leased by the defence department to private landlords, who converted them into low-cost apartments.
They’re mostly used by migrant workers and students who are far from home, seeking a low-cost place to live.
There’s just one problem – housing laws in China are strict, and living underground has been illegal since 2008.
That hasn’t stopped many people from seeking refuge underground, as the government is rarely able to police the massive network of underground bunkers.
So what is it actually like to live in a Cold War bunker?
The bunkers are far from view and kept very secretive, so it’s not easy to find out.
In fact, it may be hard to even see where one is located.
They can be found through unobtrusive entrances in standard buildings, and it’s common for them to be guarded by security.
But stories of this vast network of underground residents spread around the world, and one
Italian photographer was determined to uncover the truth.
His name was Antonio Faccilongo, and he was ready to enter China to find the truth.
It wouldn’t be easy.
The bunkers were everywhere in the city – but entirely out of reach to an outsider.
Faccilongo searched the city, but everywhere he went, they seemed to be blocked off by security guards who sent him away brusquely.
It was clear he wouldn’t be able to get in by asking, so he submitted a formal request with the government – which was promptly denied.
Breaking into government facilities in China can be a risky move, but he had come too far.
So he cased one bunker and waited for the guards to take a lunch break.
He was in.
And what he found inside was a whole other world.
While laws in Beijing require a minimum living space of 43 square feet per tenant, the underground living spaces are often shockingly small.
The bunkers were built with the basic amenities needed for extended survival –
including electricity, plumbing, and a waste disposal system.
But livable doesn’t mean comfortable, and living deep underground doesn’t lend itself to great air.
The underground city is poorly ventilated, and the air can be filled with mould spores
– which can lead to health issues for residents.
So it’s basically a small apartment, but underground?
Not exactly – most apartments at least have their own bathroom.
The bunkers were designed to get as many people into a small space for emergency living after a nuclear strike, so comfort wasn’t a forefront concern.
Shared bathrooms and kitchens can often have long waits, but it’s better than living on the streets.
But what about the private living quarters?
As Faccilongo explored the underground bunkers of Beijing, he found that many of the residents were secretive.
Many refused to speak to him or let him into their quarters, and those who did were hesitant to be photographed.
Of course, this made sense as these apartments were illegal – although the laws are poorly enforced.
But many more didn’t want their faces to become public because they were embarrassed about where they lived.
Many had told their families that they had full apartments on the surface.
Faccilongo found an apartment that contained a man, his mother, and the man’s two small children under four years old.
The floor space was so small that the bed
– for all four residents – nearly covered the entire surface.
And it wasn’t a place for quiet contemplation, either – the larger space next door was used as a parking space for motorcycles, with people coming and going frequently.
But there was one thing going for these apartments – cost.
Small living space means small rent, and these tiny units could be had for as little as forty dollars a month for a family living space, while larger rooms that could house communal groups often could only cost twenty.
That made these underground cities a less-than-ideal, but effective choice for people in need of somewhere to live.
And it’s certainly appealing when looking at the rents on the surface – with the average apartment going for at least $1,500 a month in US dollars.
And for those living in the underground, a strange new life becomes normal.
While living spaces are close, the residents don’t keep to themselves.
It’s common to see members of dozens of different families mixing in the common area of the bunker.
The smells of cooking fill the air, conversations and televisions can be heard in the background.
Those who venture outside their apartments can find a second family among the many people in similar situations in the underground.
And while the living quarters aren’t comfortable, they’re usually safe and kept clean by the residents.
But what brings people to this underground?
The vast majority of residents of the underground cities often called Beijing’s “Rat Tribe” after an article by Chinese photographer Sim Chi Yin, are young.
A mix of students and workers who have come to Beijing to try to make their fortune, they view the underground city as a transition stage in their lives, hoping to get a higher-paying job and save money while living there.
They plan to be out of their current situations and into a high-rise Beijing apartment within a few years, and many have well-paying jobs while living there.
But for others, the reality is very different.
As the cost of living in Beijing increased, the salaries didn’t always increase with them.
Many people with stable jobs, ranging from waitresses to tech workers, found themselves slowly priced out of their surface-level apartments as the real estate market skyrocketed.
Unable to pay their rent and facing homelessness, they were forced to downsize to a bunker apartment, living alongside the many short-term residents.
But even in underground cities, there are often two worlds – many of these more stable, older residents can afford slightly larger living spaces, and it’s not unusual to find their bunkers neatly decorated and looking more like a studio apartment.
And the increase of residents from all classes has led to a surprising transformation.
The underground bunkers often have unused rooms, and some bunkers don’t have residents at all.
These spaces often get converted by residents or outside groups into community centres – with Faccilongo travelling the network of bunkers and finding entertainment facilities hosting billiard tables and karaoke machines, along with dining rooms, and even schools where people learn the ancient art of calligraphy.
And that has led to people in Beijing and elsewhere realizing something about their cities.
There is a LOT of space underground.
While not all cities have the massive underground network of bomb shelters that Beijing and other Chinese cities do, many have significant tunnel networks used for other purposes.
The most common underground networks are used for subways.
While most people just pass through quickly to get on their train, many cities are outfitting their most popular subway stations with a collection of stores and restaurants, hoping to get people to stick around a little before or after their commute.
And while underground areas may not be the most colourful, they do have another major appeal.
In many cities, it can get very hot in the summer and freezing in the winter.
That can put a major damper on tourism – if people have to be outside.
Chicago, notorious for its bitterly cold winters, created the Chicago Pedway, a network of four underground tunnel systems covering more than ten blocks.
These not only connect the most popular tourist attractions in the city without people having to walk the streets, but they’re full of businesses that make them into something like a massive underground mall.
There are tunnels everywhere – even in the happiest place on Earth.
If you’ve ever gone to Disney World, did you wonder why you never see anything unusual that doesn’t fit in with the theme of the park?
You never see staff out of costume or character, you never see any first-aid stands or security guards.
That’s because Disney’s theme parks have a network of tunnels underneath them, allowing the cast members to come in without being seen by guests, and allows the park’s massive security network to operate in complete secrecy.
All in the name of preserving the magic for guests.
Of course, it’s not a surprise that one of the most secure places on Earth would have an underground system to match.
The United States Capitol Complex, holding the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Library of Congress, is at the heart of Washington DC.
Holding hundreds of the most important people in the country, the building is open to the public – but the massive network of tunnels and underground walkways underneath is not.
They allow the representatives and staffers to head between buildings easily, as well as providing an easy escape route in an emergency.
And for those representatives who may have held their seat for a VERY long time, the underground network even has several small trains that can transport them to their destination.
For many cities, as urban development gets harder to fit into crowded cities, the future involves looking down.
But for the residents of the underground cities of Beijing, things are still uncertain.
Hukou, the Chinese housing system that has been in effect since the Cultural Revolution, is considered outdated and ties the support the person gets from the government to their living situation.
That means that China’s fast-growing economy means many new arrivals – and even long-term workers – need to find unconventional living opportunities.
And the legacy of the Cold War, buried deep below the urban centre, is always welcoming new arrivals to its unusual city beneath a city.