The "rat tribe" shelters were built in the '60s under Mao Zedong and were converted to low-cost housing in the late '90s

By Alex Heigl
Updated January 27, 2015 03:15 PM
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Credit: Andrew Rowat/Getty

Beijing is home to 23 million residents. But underneath the city, in a series of bomb shelters built during Maoist China’s 1969 border conflict with the then-Soviet Union, there’s another million or more migrant workers who have developed residences there. They’re known as “the rat tribe.”

Photographer Sim Chi Yin spent five years photographing and interviewing members of the “tribe” in collaboration with Al Jazeera America.

Most of the occupied “apartments” are technically illegal per a government decree, but where there’s a will, there’s a way – and a gray area to be exploited. After the government formalized a law mandating bomb shelters to also have an economic use in 1996, agencies began contracting the spaces to private individuals who manage them for a profit. The underground spaces are far cheaper than anything aboveground, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t money to be made from them.

Besides their affordability, Beijing’s climate helps make the spaces attractive as well: The city is extremely arid except for the humid summer months, which makes the underground dwellings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Plus, they’re quiet, a huge advantage over aboveground units.

But admittedly, there are drawbacks that go beyond the obvious. Some units have signs discouraging residents from sunning themselves or airing out laundry aboveground, a reminder that as migrants to Beijing, they occupy a lower caste within the city.

Zhang Xi, an aspiring actor, told Al Jazeera that his father cried when he first saw where his son was living during a visit. “He said, ‘Son, this won’t do.’ ”

But Zhang Xi, who has made his basement home as comfy as he can, says, “I do not want my parents to pay for me. I just want to work things out for myself bit by bit.”

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