European and Chinese photographers captured images inside the housing complex also called “Dungeon”, built as a network of bunkers during the Cold War over an area of about 48 square kilometers. In 1969, Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong called on the people to “dig deep tunnels, store food and prepare for war.” Over the next ten years, about 300,000 people, mostly civilians, built the underground network of 10,000 bunkers, warehouses, factories, but also restaurants, entertainment venues and sports facilities. The government has estimated that all six million residents of the capital could be housed here. The tunnels have been arranged over the years by local communities as hotels or spaces for various commercial activities.
The parts now used as living quarters were leased to private owners in the 1980s. In 2010, due to unsafe living conditions and the negligence of the hosts, China banned them – some were evacuated, others were allowed to stay because they have nowhere to go.
Most of its current population, estimated at about one million, are migrants, students and young people from rural areas who have arrived in Beijing in hopes of a better career and life. The living space is cramped, with some rooms so small that they only contain one bed. Kitchens and bathrooms are common, and the lack of adequate ventilation makes the air cool and humid. Although there is electricity, plumbing and sewerage, people live here who cannot afford a surface rent – some are only here temporarily, others, especially families, stay here for decades or a lifetime.
Although they are everywhere in Beijing, foreign access is forbidden by law – Italian photographer Antonio Faccilongo managed to sneak into a bunker during a mass break for guards after trying to gain official access and was refused. “Of the about 150 people I spoke to, only 50 allowed me to photograph them. Some of them were afraid of not finding out their families – who knew they had good jobs and lived in apartments, in good conditions “.
One of the residents told Al-Jazeera that he lives in an apartment of about 90 square meters with 9 other people.
“I am doing well because I am afraid of poverty. Many of my colleagues live on the surface, but I think it’s too comfortable. This place forces me to work harder, “Wei said.
Annette Kim, a professor at the University of Southern California, explained that bunkers are an alternative to affordable housing away from the city and that residents prefer them to a long commute.
“Certainly no one would prefer to live underground, but they prefer the location in the city. In many parts of the world, affordable housing projects are far from the city, where land is cheaper. ”
Some bunkers have been transformed in recent years into community centers – a dining room, billiard and karaoke rooms, as well as a calligraphy school.