The Air-Raid-Shelter Apartments Under Beijing

Discussion in 'China' started by Oracle, Apr 24, 2011.

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    Oracle New Member

    Mar 31, 2010
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    Bangalore, India
    The ‘Mouse People’ of Beijing

    He Bing, who lives within the warren of air-defense tunnels under Beijing.

    In the far west of Beijing, in a neighborhood called Apple Orchard, there is a small concrete bunker with a green sign at its mouth that says, “Air-Defense Basement.” Down three flights of stairs into a tunnel lighted only by the occasional fluorescent bulb, the air gets cold and musty, and as you walk through here, it’s impossible not to think that hideous things could happen without anyone ever knowing. Eventually you come upon a doorway with a white air-lock portal, which opens onto another corridor that splits off in two directions. At the end of one branch, there is a metal door framed by red paper banners, one of which reads, “May good things you want to happen come to pass.”

    This is where Wang Xiuli lives with her husband and 16-year-old son, in two rooms that together add up to about 215 square feet, one of the largest apartments available in this warren of tunnels. Thick pipes protrude from the ceiling, and a window in the front room opens onto nowhere, just another gray tunnel wall beyond it. A blue plastic table and bright pink, orange and green chairs, meant as a play set for children, serve as the family’s dining table. There is no heating, and the day I visited, Wang’s husband, who works as a deliveryman for a hip clothing company called Vancl, lay sick in bed. The ruddy-cheeked Wang herself stood bundled in a red down jacket, stuffing plastic bottles into a clear trash bag. A full bag, sold to a recycler, could fetch about 40 cents. Her son stood by watching.

    They pay less than $80 a month to a landlord who has a long-term lease from the city on this set of tunnels. “It’s hard to save money,” Wang told me, “but we want to spend as little as we can so we can send our son to a vocational school.”

    In the city above them, Louis Vuitton stores and Ferrari dealerships and soaring European-designed glass edifices mark China’s dizzying economic ascent. Wang and her family are among the legions of migrant workers who make up perhaps as much as a third of Beijing’s estimated 20 million people. In a city where the average rent for an apartment is now more than $450, there is no place for them to go, no space anywhere — except underground. The migrants began settling in the shelters in the late ’90s, when the government started leasing the tunnels to landlords. No one knows for sure how many people live in Beijing’s 5,500 shelters and other subterranean domiciles, but estimates go as high as a million. These are the janitors and waiters and salesclerks and laborers and delivery people who are the gears and pistons of the economic engine churning above. In Beijing they are known as “the mouse tribe,” which some find demeaning.

    Down the hall from the Wangs’ apartment, a 44-year-old construction worker named Jiang Jinzhi squats in a room where two twin beds are pushed together. A co-worker lies smoking on one of the beds, as Jiang stirs a pot of potatoes on an electric plate. In the evenings, all manner of food smells waft down the corridors — stir-fried pork and tofu and greens. Despite the smells, the tunnels are tidy. The landlord pays cleaners who come daily, and there is a dingy shared washroom where residents can clean their belongings. For personal hygiene, Wang and her family go to a public bathhouse in the neighborhood.

    Recently, city officials, citing a growing concern about the potential for deadly fires, have talked of clearing out the tunnels. Signs posted along the hallway walls tell people to be alert to possible gas poisoning and to be watchful of electric blankets and other fire hazards. “They come to inspect it all the time,” said the manager of this block of apartments, who gave only his surname, Wu. “If the government tells us to go, we have to go,” he added. “It’s not like he” — the landlord — “can afford to have an opinion.”

    Wang is used to the vagaries of government decisions. Home for her was once a frigid patch of Inner Mongolia, just below Siberia, until the government demolished her building to make way for a road project. The family received $300 in compensation, closed a convenience store they ran and rode 30 hours on a train to Beijing. Wang now sells maternity clothes at a shop that is an hour’s bus ride from her neighborhood.

    Before I left, her son, Cao Peng, led me into his room, filled with the kinds of things found in teenage bedrooms the world over: a pair of Rollerblades on the floor, a small laptop with an Ethernet cable, which allowed him to play World of Warcraft online. Bundles of clothes were strewn all over the floor. He said the family was planning to move out of the tunnels and into a new apartment that would cost them more than $100 a month.

    “It’s smaller than here,” Cao Peng said, “but at least you can breathe some good air, and there’s a bit of sunshine.”


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