In Beijing, an estimated hundreds of thousands of people live in dark and unsafe underground dwellings, like disused bomb shelters, car parks and service tunnels that were never meant for permanent human habitation.
The causes of this trend date back to 2008. In the run-up to the 2008 summer Olympics, Beijing experienced an unprecedented amount of construction and urban development, beyond anything seen during the previous decade of economic snowballing. The sudden injection of hotels, shopping districts and luxury apartments caused property prices to soar and created a quick need for human resources.
Encouraged by Beijing’s promise of riches, students and young professionals have migrated to Beijing from all over China, hoping to secure their fortunes. Many of them have taken accommodation in cramped subdivided dorms in densely populated areas on the city’s outer ring. Because of these dwellings and their furiously hard-working nature, the young migrants have become known as “the Ant Tribe”.
At the other end of the spectrum, hundreds and thousands of unskilled service and industry workers have also flocked to Beijing. As they tend to work closer to the city centre, where property values have skyrocketed, they must be willing to make even bigger sacrifices if they want to find housing. Thanks to the high demand and low supply of housing, many landlords have profited from renting out underground homes to migrant workers. These migrant workers have become known as the “Rat Tribe”.
Unlike the Ant Tribe, whose dwellings are found in poor or deprived semi-suburban areas, Rat Tribe homes are found all over Beijing and are often in stark contrast to their locations. Recently, VICE Japan visited one such underground home – a former air raid shelter that was four storeys below a luxury apartment block in central Beijing. Where the cost of an apartment is about £300 a month, a typical underground room only costs £50.
Because underground homes exist in spaces that were never designed for permanent human habitation, they lack decent ventilation and proper safety infrastructure – basically, it's unhealthy and dangerous to live in these spaces. For this reason, there has been a government clamp down on Rat Tribe homes, and several spaces have disappeared in the last couple of years.
VICE Japan’s new documentary “Ant and Rat Tribes in Beijing” takes an investigative look into the subterranean living conditions of the new entrenched social classes born out of China’s rapid economic growth and migrant culture.