China´s “Rat Tribe”: the hidden world of one million migrants

posted on February 22nd 2015 in Documentary & Photography & Social with 0 Comments

The evening sun sits low in the smoggy Beijing sky. Beneath a staid, maroon apartment block, Jiang Ying, 24, is stirring from her bed after having slept through the day. Day is night and night is day anyway, in the window-less world she inhabits three floors below ground.

Pint-sized and spiky-haired, Jiang Ying is among an estimated one million migrant workers who live beneath this city. Like millions of Chinese who come from across the country with dreams of making it big in the capital, she had travelled to Beijing from her native Inner Mongolia three years ago, and now works as at a hip bar in the heart of Beijing’s nightclub district. But even so, she can barely make ends meet.

Waiters, karaoke hostesses, hairdressers, chefs, security guards, domestic workers and kitchen helpers, these basement dwellers are the backbone of Beijing’s service industry. But they have been unkindly dubbed the “rat tribe” for making a home in Beijing’s 6,000 basements and air raid shelters — about one-third of the city’s underground space.


Meet some members of the Rat Tribe:

  • The granny who cleans the subways

    Chen Laxiu knows one thing about living in Beijing: It’s better than farming. The 50-year-old comes from the coal-mining town of Liupanshui, in Guizhou province. There, her family had a little over an acre of land but three sons — not enough to support all of them once her children married. A few years ago, her youngest son moved to Beijing, and early last year, Chen and her husband followed him and haven’t looked back.06-ChenLaxiu-01.jpg

  • A modern Van Gogh

    Ever since high school back in Hubei province, Zhang Xinwen has called himself Fan Gao — Mandarin for Van Gogh. For a young man from a poor background, he says, the attraction was obvious: “I like Van Gogh very much because although he was poor all his life, he had the spirit of persistence for art, which I really respect… Although he was from a poor family, he persisted in doing what he liked all his life. I am the same. Although my family circumstances are not good, I just want to do what I want to do.”13-XiaoGao-ZhangXinwen-02.jpg

  • Underground fisherman

    Li Yang trained as a car mechanic but is living in a basement, hoping to be something else: an authority on fly fishing. Unlike most residents of underground units, he is from a Beijing suburb — Tongzhou, 20 miles from the city’s urban center. He worked odd jobs near the family farm but over time became passionate about fly fishing. In 2012 he won a fishing contest and met the editors of a Chinese television channel about fishing. Since then he has been writing for the channel, but hopes to make his living in the future writing books on the subject.

  • King of the rats

    Guo Xiaolong has traveled China working at a sequence of not-too-salubrious nightclubs and the karaoke bars known locally as KTV parlors. Now 40 years old, he is the manager of a basement in Beijing’s eastern suburbs on Line 6. He is in charge of 72 rooms and about 100 inhabitants.08-GuoXiaolong.jpg

Faced with sky-high property prices, living underground is often the only option for this legion of low-waged migrant workers, who make up one-third of Beijing’s estimated 20 million people.

They pay monthly rents of 300 to 700 yuan ($50 to $110) for partitioned rooms of seven to eight square meters, or sometimes, a closet-like space barely wider than a single bed. Some 50 to 100 rooms often share a single bathroom and several toilet cubicles. A chilly draft filters through the tunnels, which are also often dank and moldy in the summers.

But it may now be a matter of time before the basement dwellers face eviction. The government, which had leased the basements out for use since the 1990s, and even liberalized rules in 2004 to make them more accessible and hugely popular as homes to migrant workers, is clamping down.

In mid-December of 2010, the authorities issued new regulations contradicting earlier ones, effectively stopping basement leases from being renewed. Over the next three years, the authorities will gradually shutter the underground homes, which are now deemed “unsafe, dirty and chaotic,” a civil defense officer said.

That might improve Beijing’s image, but doesn’t help the low-wage migrants. Sooner or later then, Jiang Ying and her counterparts will have to move out — and up, or simply go home. For now, the basements of Beijing hold the hopes and dreams of many migrants who seek their fortune in the capital.


Meet more members of the Rat Tribe:

  • Earning her son´s dowry

    There’s been one thing on Du Xiuyan’s mind since she got to Beijing two years ago to make dumplings, wash dishes and cook dough soup at a restaurant serving northeast Chinese cuisine: Will she have enough money to get her son a good wife?


  • Cheated right on arrival

    Almost as soon as Chang Wanle got off the train from his home in Anyang, a city in Henan, last year, his dreams of the great capital city took a beating: The driver of an unlicensed taxi charged him almost 10 times the usual fare. That gave him a “lousy” first impression of Beijing, he says.21-ChangWanle-02.jpg

  • Photographer of a hollowed-out city

    Above Liu Hao is a middle-class apartment complex, where residents go to Starbucks for coffee and shop at upscale Japanese department stores like Muji. Behind it is a small shed with a door. Open it and you descend into the world of Liu Hao — budding writer, poet, photographer and filmmaker.18-LiuHao-02.jpg

  • Xu Junping, Zhou Hailin, Zhou Zhengdi: The simpler life

    For Xu Junping, both Beijing and her temporary basement home are sanctuaries of sorts. The 46-year-old, who came here from Shanxi eight years ago, likes the quiet of the underground and the simpler life in Beijing. Unlike back home in her village, she is free to come and go as she pleases, without having to worry about neighbours or relatives. She’s also become a devout Buddhist since moving to the capital and earns a living selling Buddhist sutras, incense, statues and charms in a crowded market. At night, the underground basement is her refuge.14-XuJunping-02.jpg

To me, they tell the broader story of a China on the move, of the world’s biggest tide of migration, and of a generational shift to an urban income and lifestyle. Curious about this underworld, I started photographing it in 2010. If I went into it hoping to document the tough and musty lives these migrants lead, I’ve also been inspired by their spunky fighting spirit and life-affirming aspirations.

- Sim Chi Yin, the photographer

As Zhuang Qiuli, 25, a pedicurist, puts it: “There is no difference between me and the people who live in the posh condominium above. We wear the same clothes and have the same hairstyles. The only difference is we cannot see the sun. In a few years, when I have money, I will also live upstairs.”


Liu Jing, 21, from the central province of Henan, works as a pedicurist in east Beijing. She comes back to her bed two floors below ground level to sleep before returning to work in the morning.



Pedicurist Zhuang Qiuli, originally from Guangdong Province, and her hair-stylist boyfriend Feng Tao, from Sichuan, have both been in Beijing for more than five years. They have been living in basements over the past two years. Their current home is two floors beneath a posh condominium in east Beijing.



Niu Song, 33, and his wife Zhao Ansheng, 32, both chefs at a Yunnan restaurant are home between 2 and 5pm daily to rest in their basement room near Beijing’s north Third Ring Road.



Zhou Limei, 30, breastfeeds her eight-month-old baby, Zhao Qingxuang, in her basement room beneath a huge condominium complex in West Beijing.



Zhang Hao, 26, an electrician, and his wife Xiang Qigui, 23, a beautician, are home in their roughly 85 square-foot basement room after another long day at work. They have a two-story house of their own back in their home province of Henan, complete with a 29-inch TV set. They have left their one-year-old son with their parents. Zhang Hao says: “We don’t want to stay here forever… but we have endured a few years in Beijing, so we have to go on, otherwise we would have come in vain.”



At a condominium complex in west Beijing, a migrant worker carries her son as she walks through the entrance to a basement hostel. An estimated one million migrants live in basements and air-raid tunnels in the Chinese capital.


References: Al Jazeera, VII Photo.

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