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Story Publication logo February 23, 2015

The Bowels of Basements in Beijing


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Living beneath Beijing's skyscrapers and residential blocks are an estimated 1 million migrant...

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Wei Kuan, an insurance salesman, says that he lives in a basement apartment because he wants to save money for other things. He recently bought himself a tailor-made wool suit and hopes to save enough to buy a car. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2014.

Knock knock

"Hello, I'm a photographer. May I have a chat with you? May I make a portrait of you in your room?"

Quite often, the door is then shut in my face.

To those who hear me out, I explain: "The Chinese press have called residents here 'rats'. I'm trying to take as many portraits of you all as possible to show them you are hardworking migrant workers with great aspirations in life too."

Sometimes I am invited in. Other times I'm told it's "not convenient."

Over the past five years, intermittently, I go down to the bowels of basements beneath Beijing's high-rise blocks to take pictures of some of the so-dubbed "rat tribe"—migrant workers living in tiny partitioned rooms carved out of air raid shelters.

When I first heard about underground living in the busy, crowded city where I have lived for seven years, I was fascinated by the thought of a universe beneath our feet. I gradually made contacts with basement operators and residents and started to build out a series of portraits on the community from late 2010. This latest set of images and interviews was photographed late last year (2014).

There are an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people living underground in Beijing, a city of over 20 million residents and bursting at the gills. As writer Ian Johnson explains in his introductory essay, they are usually young migrants recently arrived in Beijing to pursue a dream—the dream of making it in the capital city.

The community is often a transient one—so much so that sometimes by the time I print up the portraits and take them back to give them to each of the subjects, they have moved on. I have remained in touch with a number of them, through the phone, and WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp.

Over the years, I have photographed some 70 rooms and their tenants all over Beijing. With time, it has become increasingly difficult to access the basements. The announcement of Beijing government's plans to shutter the basement homes gradually has made operators very nervous and suspicious of outsiders and anyone who might cause them trouble. But sometimes, persisting in knocking on doors yields friendly faces and migrants willing to have their stories told—convincing me that their dreams are no different from those of the people who live upstairs.



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Migration and Refugees

Migration and Refugees

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