If you think your living situation leaves a lot to be desired, spare a thought for the estimated one million people in Beijing living underground.
A new study has revealed the surprisingly large number of low-income or migrant renters who are opting to live underground in a bid to be closer to the city centre.
Known locally as the “rat tribe”, these people forego natural light and other creature comforts in order to score a prime location for $US70 a month or less.
According to the research from Annette Kim, an associate professor at Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, anywhere from 200,000 to two million people could be living in these underground basements, but one million is the most reasonable estimate.
The permanent population of Beijing is approximately 23 million people, so it can be estimated that nearly 5 per cent of them are living a subterranean existence.
The median size of these underground dwellings is 9.75 square metres – on the smaller side compared with Beijing’s mandated minimum of 10 square metres and the overall Beijing average of 28.8 square metres per person.
Of the 3400 underground apartment listings Ms Kim analysed, many offered wireless internet, hot water, a television and furnishings, while just under half had heating for the freezing Beijing winters.
“The living conditions vary quite a bit,” Ms Kim told The New Daily.
“There was one terribly unsafe and unhygienic case. The surprising thing was that there were about three pretty nice situations too, relative to living standards in China for workers.”
These homes boasted an elevated entrance that would block any water into the underground, a brightly lit and clean room, bathrooms, showers and kitchens in good working order and an abundance fire extinguishers.
“They are definitely cramped but most situations allow privacy: one person to a room or maybe two people to a room,” Ms Kim explained.
“Humidity is a problem and in some places, mold was growing on the walls.”
The big drawcard of these dwellings, however, was their proximity to the city centre, with most inhabitants able to walk to their workplace within 15 minutes.
Why so many basements?
Thanks to a series of policies over the last 60 or so years, Beijing has an unusual amount of underground space compared to other cities.
Under legislation, all new buildings must feature underground spaces and these spaces must provide infrastructure such as electricity, water, and sewerage.
Ms Kim found the two main types of underground housing in Beijing were regular basements and air raid shelters, both of which were converted to housing during the 1990s with the government’s approval.
However, since 2010 legislation has been in place to prevent these spaces being used for housing, a law members of the rat tribe are breaking in an effort to be closer to the city centre.
While other migrants live in “urban villages” on the outskirts of Beijing, the lengthy commute time is not appealing to the rat tribe, who wish to save money and time when getting to work.
However, “I wouldn’t say people like living there,” Ms Kim told The New Daily.
“This is not the ideal living situation – most people are not staying or intending to stay there long-term.”
The people of the rat tribe
Despite the nasty connotations of their moniker, members of the rat tribe are typically young, driven migrants looking to make it in the big city.
Unable to obtain the country’s official resident permit, known as the “hukou”, they are locked out of low-cost government housing and must find other alternatives.
According to photographer Sim Chi Yin, who photographed and filmed many of them for a documentary, the rat tribe are just regular people living in unusual conditions.
“They are actually pretty funky people, most of them are kind of young and all of them have aspirations to move up the social mobility ladder,” she told CNN.
“The living space might seem pretty pathetic to us and maybe I went in with this pitying attitude as well, but what I found was the people make the best of their lives down there.”
Sadly, however, Ms Kim said she found the rat tribe lived in relative segregation from those above ground.
“The people above ground preferred to be as separate as possible and that built up fear of who these people are,” she told CNN.
Watch Sim Chi Yin’s short documentary on the ‘rat tribe’ below: