Turning would-be survival bunkers into homes by choice and economics, Beijing residents are moving into Cold War-era structures, paying half the rent of their aboveground counterparts.

Pay $20 per month in exchange for living in a room barely big enough for a bed. It’s the deal of the day for Beijing residents who opt to live in concrete bunkers, originally designed to be bomb shelters under Chairman Mao. The residents, numbering about a million at one point, share bathrooms and kitchens and see the sun only when they leave for work. In 2010 efforts began to evict these rent-paying residents from their illegal homes. Many still reside underground, dreaming of the day they can afford an aboveground home, but the majority are accepting of their living conditions.

Did You Know?

  1. Mao had the tunnels built in the late 1960s to protect residents from nuclear fallout.
  2. At the height of this effort, some 10,000 bunkers were constructed throughout the city.
  3. As times changed, private landlords took over the spaces, turning the bunkers into tiny apartments.
  4. Cramped spaces cost a fraction of the rent of aboveground options—from $50 to $80 per month.
  5. Some residents are reluctant to tell friends or family where they live, embarrassed by the less-than-stylish domiciles.
  6. Many of the residents are migrants, unable to obtain welfare services because they can’t provide the huko (registration) needed.
  7. The government called for the “rat tribe” to be evicted fully by 2012 but thousands still live underground.
  8. One underground community, Dixia Cheng, was closed for repairs in 2008 but has yet to reopen. It’s likely it never will.