Watching the underground city of District 13 in [The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1](movie:446261) seemed like a bizarre futuristic place. There was just something about thousands of people living and sleeping underground that made me incredibly nervous, one thing is for sure, there's absolutely no way I could ever comprehend living in a place like that. Unfortunately though, living underground is a reality for around one million Beijing residents who have been dubbed the 'rat tribe.'
Fearing an attack from the Soviet Union during the Cold War period, Chairman Mao built an enormous network of 20,000 underground bunkers. When Deng Xiaoping took over after Mao's death, this defensive tactic was sidelined and an enormous network of caves were left unused under the city.
Seeing an opportunity, many entrepreneurs then turned the underground rooms into hostels, and in the mid-90s the government themselves began letting out the rooms for profit. Some rooms go for as little as $48 a month, making them a far cheaper alternative to the overprices and overcrowded houses above ground.
The low costs of rent in China's second largest city are why the underground rooms have become so popular, allowing people like Zhang Xi, an aspiring actor from Mongolia to live in Beijing while he pursues his dreams. However its clear that this is far from the ideal living situation. In a short film about the the 'rat tribe' Xi said:
When my father came to visit me he cried when he saw where I lived. He said, "Son, this won’t do." 'But I told him: "When I go out and meet people I always look very presentable. Who's going to be able to tell that I live in a basement?"
Despite the strange way of living, the inhabitants are happy and thankful for their living space, though most of them do eventually want to move onto bigger things in the future, and of course life above ground.
In 2010 officials announced a crack down on health and safety in Beijing, however plans to wipe out the system in 2012 failed, so perhaps for now the affordable housing underground will remain, though its long term future is far from stable.
Watch a video about the 'rat tribe' of Beijing here:
Could you ever live in an underground bunker?