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.

This Ingenious Hanger Makes Hanging Pants a Breeze, No Clips or Folds Required

Hurdle Hanger
Hurdle Hanger

Get ready to clean out your closet. No, we don’t mean going all Marie Kondo on your clothes. There’s a new type of clothes hanger that promises to change the way you store your clothes, taking the headache out of hanging up your pants.

The Hurdle Hanger, which has currently raised more than $33,000 on Kickstarter, calls itself the “one-second pants hanger.” Rather than relying on cumbersome clips or requiring bulky folding techniques, the hanger design employs one very simple change: It hooks into the belt loops of your pants.

The angular hanger is open on one side so that you can slide the bar through the belt loops of your pants, letting you secure your pants in one smooth motion rather than struggling with the pant clips that will just wrinkle your waistband anyway.

A person slides the Hurdle Hanger through the belt loops of a pants to hang them.
Hurdle Hanger

Just slide the hanger bar through the belt loop (or loops) farthest from you, then hang the belt loop closest to you from the hook. There is another hook midway across the bar that secures the middle belt loop, keeping your pants from drooping while they hang. In another subtle touch, you can use the same hook to hang smaller items, like belts or hats, off the side.

The Hurdle Hanger is an example of smart design at its finest—the kind of idea that, when you see it in action, makes you think, “Wait, how did no one think of this before?” It takes a once-cumbersome task and makes it seamless, eliminating at least some of the burden that may be keeping you from accomplishing the chore of hanging up your clothes. No more messing with clips or trying to shove pants through the cramped hole in the hanger to fold them over.

There are already open-end pants hangers that make it easier to slide a folded pair of slacks into your closet, but the belt loop hooks take the Hurdle Hanger to another level. You might even get inspired enough to start hanging your jeans.

A 10-pack of hangers is $20 on Kickstarter—though anything that makes you actively excited to organize your closet is priceless.

Finally: These Women’s Jeans Are Designed With Pockets Deep Enough to Actually Hold Your Stuff

Radian Jeans
Radian Jeans

An investigation last year revealed what half the population has known for a while: Women’s pockets really are smaller than men’s. About 48 percent shorter and 6.5 percent narrower, to be precise.

This has long been a sore spot among women who would rather not lug around an oversized purse all day. While many of the top fashion labels are still making jeans with teeny, tiny pockets, a few entrepreneurs are giving the people what they want.

One such option, Radian Jeans, is now available for preorder on Kickstarter. These ultra-stretchy jeans come in two styles (skinny and straight fit), four colors (indigo, light blue, black, and white), and nine sizes (0 to 16). Best of all, the patent-pending pockets are big enough to fit your entire hand or phone inside, yet subtle enough to conceal the bulge. There are also interior flaps designed to prevent the contents of your back pockets from spilling out onto the sidewalk, or worse, into the toilet.

A pair of Radian Jeans with diagrams showing what can fit in the pants' front pockets
Radian Jeans

The jeans were designed by a husband and wife who both decided to pursue an education at MIT. Ahmed Malik is a current student at MIT’s Advanced Functional Fabrics of America’s Entrepreneurship Program, and his wife, Wardah, graduated with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science.

This technical know-how came in handy when they decided to make the jeans stain-resistant and temperature-regulated. In particular, a nanotechnology-based fabric treatment was applied to the white jeans to help repel stains. So if you’re the type of person who constantly spills wine or drops spaghetti sauce onto your lap, these may be the jeans for you.

A woman models Radian jeans
Radian Jeans

In addition, some of the jeans are outfitted with COOLMAX All Season Technology, which provides insulation on cold days and redirects moisture away from your body on hot days. As a finishing touch, a floral print on the pant leg interior lets you make a style statement by cuffing your jeans.

To snag a pair for $69, check out the Kickstarter page. Tailor-made sizes are also available for a more personalized fit.

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