Why 1 Million People Live in Cold War-Era Bunkers Under the Streets of Beijing

iStock.com/Wenjie Dong
iStock.com/Wenjie Dong

In Beijing, anywhere between 100,000 to one million people live underground in old bomb shelters. Dubbed the shuzu, or "rat tribe," these subterranean citizens occupy a cramped, musty, and windowless world located dozens of feet below the bustling streets of China's capital city. This extensive network of largely illicit bunker housing is unlike anything found in any other major metropolis in the world.

The roots of Beijing's invisible underworld were laid during what could be called the other Cold War. In 1969, tensions between China and the Soviet Union escalated, with the two communist-led countries clashing at the Sino-Soviet border. When Chinese troops ambushed Soviet border guards that year at Zhenbao Island—a disputed territory located in the middle of the Ussuri River separating northeastern China from Russia's Far East—the hostilities turned bloody, prompting both countries to prepare for a possible nuclear attack. In China, Chairman Mao Zedong advised his cities to build nuclear bomb shelters. Beijing responded by constructing approximately 10,000 bunkers.

By the late 1980s, China's government had started to liberalize and tensions with the Soviet Union had cooled, leading the Office of Civil Defense to lease these shelters to local landlords, who in turn began leasing the spaces to desperate migrant workers and young people. For many, living dozens of feet underground in a windowless bunker was the only way to chase their dreams of scaling the social ladder. That remains true today.

It’s a familiar tale: The cost of living in Beijing is high and still rising. With more than 21 million people now calling the city home, it is among the world’s most expensive places to live. The rising cost of rent far outpaces the average person's income, yet people continue to flock to the area because it brims with social and economic opportunity. “[W]ith limited access to public, affordable housing, nuclear bunkers are one of the few feasible options for migrant workers,” Ye Ming writes for National Geographic. A small, shared dorm in a concrete bunker can cost as little as $20 per month.

For many, the central location makes these bunkers worthwhile despite the lack of space and sunlight. As Annette M. Kim, an associate professor of public policy at USC, writes in the academic journal Cities, “[T]he priority for the lower-income, often migrant population in Beijing is for rental housing located in the central city. The ability to walk and/or bike to jobs as well as low rents, both of which allow for the possibility of accumulating savings, is worth making the choice to live in small underground rooms.”

As you might expect from a converted nuclear fallout shelter, the spaces have some of the basics—plumbing, sewage, and electricity—and very little of anything else. There’s no natural light, there's very little ventilation, and most amenities, such as kitchens and bathrooms, must be shared with neighbors. And while Ming reports that local law requires apartments to have at least 43 square feet per tenant, that rule is clearly not enforced. Some apartments might as well be closets.

But as Kim explains, super-dense housing conditions aren't unique to Beijing. “[T]his is not an idiosyncratic situation. History shows that immigrants coped by living in crowded basement units as well as tenements during the west’s rapid urbanization.”

The question is whether that trend should—or will—continue in the future. In 2010, the city announced a ban on residential use of nuclear shelters, but the decree has done little to stop people from making their homes there. “If it is desirable to not allow people to live underground, we are challenged with the task of finding other spaces for roughly a million people,” Kim writes.

For foreigners, it can be difficult to gain access to this underground shelter city. In 2015, the Italian photographer Antonio Faccilongo managed to sneak below, capturing life in the bunkers for a series entitled Atomic Rooms. For a look inside, you can view his work here.

Want to Repurpose Old or Damaged Books? Turn Them Into DIY Wall Art

Svitlana Unuchko/iStock via Getty Images
Svitlana Unuchko/iStock via Getty Images

Many bibliophiles see their books as more than just reading material. Whether they're color-coded, stored backwards, or stacked around the house in teetering piles, books can double as decorations that add coziness and character to a space. This interior design trend spotted by Today pushes this concept to new heights by transforming old books into pieces of sprawling wall art.

Erin Kern, the Oklahoma designer behind the blog Cotton Stem, first had the idea to make books into DIY art in 2015. Her concept works with any books you have at home that you can bear to part with. Just grab a staple gun, secure the book covers to the wall you wish to embellish, and then use staples, glue, or tape to arrange the pages of the book however you like them. You can keep the book open to your favorite page or use some clever craft work to make the pages look like they're frozen mid-flip. As you expand the piece, you can add single pages or pages without their covers to vary the design.

Kern and other designers who've created their own versions of the project often combine old books with other types of wall decor. You can nestle framed prints of literary quotes or tuck air plants among the pages. Ana Ochoa of the blog Fiddle Leaf Interiors used hanging books as a makeshift canvas for a larger-than-life painting.

If seeing books stapled to a wall makes you cringe, rest assured that no one is suggesting you buy brand-new books to use as your crafting materials. This project is a great way to repurpose old books you never plan to read again—especially books with tears and missing pages that are too damaged to donate.

Looking for more literary design inspiration? Check out these pieces of furniture made out of books.


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[h/t Today]

Who Invented the Cardboard Box?

Feverpitched/iStock via Getty Images
Feverpitched/iStock via Getty Images

Few inventions have blended as seamlessly into our daily living routines as the humble cardboard box. We get excited to see piles of them near our front door. We stuff them with papers. Our cats love to claim them as their private living rooms. Yet we rarely stop to consider how much more convenient they are than a burlap sack. Who do we credit for this marvel of simple but indispensable ingenuity?

In the 1st and 2nd century BCE, the Han Dynasty of China was busy pioneering the use of paper. During the same era, sheets of bark from the Mulberry tree were used to wrap and protect food, one of the earliest examples of a sturdy, wood-based product being repurposed for packaging. But what we’d come to recognize as the earliest form of the cardboard box as we know it today didn’t appear until the early 19th century, with the 1817 German board game The Game of Besieging being the oldest example. Throughout the 19th century, companies began using the boxes as a means of storage and transport for cereals and even for moth eggs used by silk manufacturers.

But an additional twist—or pleat—was needed in order to turn these carriers into the cubical wonders we know today. In 1856, top hat peddlers Edward Allen and Edward Healey used a stiffer paper made with a fluted sheet in the middle of two layers to provide stability and warmth to the lining: It was a precursor to corrugated cardboard.

The real breakthrough, however, came in 1879. It was then that Robert Gair, owner of a Brooklyn paper factory, figured out that he could both score a single sheet of cardboard and then have his printing press cut it at the same time, eliminating laborious hand-cutting. When the flat pieces were folded together, the cardboard box as we know it was born.

Gair sold consumer product companies on this handy new form of storage, eventually scoring a 2-million-piece order from the cracker czars at Nabisco. Snack foods could now travel without the danger of being crushed, and, pretty soon, the cardboard box was migrating from kitchen cupboards to anywhere a cheap, effective form of packaging was needed. In the 1930s, the Finnish government even adopted the boxes as part of a take-home maternity package for new mothers who may not have been able to afford cribs. Babies took their first naps in the confines of the mattress-lined box—a practice that continues today.

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