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.

These Modern, Minimalist Cremation Urns Double as Planters

C.C. Boyce
C.C. Boyce

Cremation is becoming an increasingly common end-of-life plan, but many have lamented the lack of options when selecting an urn to store their loved one's ashes. Many of these vessels take the form of drab-looking vases that, for some people, serve as reminders of a painful event.

That’s why C.C. Boyce stepped in. The Los Angeles-based designer and woodworker created a collection of “planturns”—urns that double as planters—to fill a gap in the market.

“A while back a friend’s father passed away and they couldn’t find a cremation urn that they liked, so they asked me to make something, and I did, thinking this would just be a one-off custom job,” Boyce said in a video uploaded to Kickstarter. “But when I posted the final product to Instagram, I was flooded with messages from people all across the death care industry—people who took care of pets as well as people.”

Plant urns
C.C. Boyce

Some wanted an urn with a more modern aesthetic, while others wanted a subtler piece that would effortlessly blend with their household decor. The symbolism of death fusing with new life has not gone unnoticed, either.

Boyce spent a year experimenting with different designs and settled on two styles: one that comes in speckled maple, and another that comes in a two-toned walnut and sycamore. All of the vessels have two parts that attach via magnetic pull, so even if the planturn gets knocked over, the ashes will still be safe and sound.

The bottom part contains a hand-waxed muslin bag to store your loved one’s cremated remains, and the top part features a glass or ceramic holder for your plant of choice, whether it’s a succulent or air plant.

They come in three sizes, which will vary in accordance with the amount of ashes you want to store. A small planturn is suitable for small pets, while a large can hold the ashes of a person. Get it on Kickstarter for $225 to $500, depending on the size.

Attention Aspiring Astronauts: Arlo Skye Now Has Space-Themed Luggage

Arlo Skye
Arlo Skye

While some travelers are preoccupied with getting their luggage through airport security, the designers at Arlo Skye are thinking bigger. As Condé Nast Traveler reports, the brand's new line of suitcases is inspired by space travel, with high tech features and a sleek, futuristic look.

Arlo Skye was founded in 2016 by alumni from Louis Vuitton and Tumi Inc. They set out to create luggage that emphasized design, with luxury polycarbonate suitcases available in trendy colors like rose gold and custom monogramming.

The company's Space Collection may be its most stylized line yet. It comes with a removable, 10,050-milliamp-hour charger with USB C and A ports for charging phones and other devices. The chrome-colored case is 22 inches tall, 9 inches deep, and 14 inches wide and weighs 8.5 pounds empty.

Space Collection suitcase from Arlo Skye
Arlo Skye

Depending on what type of space traveler you are, you can get one of three designs laser-etched on the bottom of your luggage. There's Moon Shot, Team Human, and Occupy Mars; each engraving comes with a short ode to space and a small picture of its respective celestial body. Like other suitcases made by Arlo Skye, these bags are zipper-free and made from polycarbonate with an aluminum frame.

Whether you're a globetrotter or an aspiring astronaut, the Space Collection from Arlo Skye makes a great travel companion.

Buy it from Arlo Skye for $450.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER