The Air-Raid-Shelter Apartments Under Beijing

In the New York Times, Edward Wong reports from the apartments that have been built for migrant workers in air-raid tunnels underneath the city:

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 who make up perhaps as much as a third of ’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.”

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