Beijing’s network of defense tunnels become cheap homes, maze for thrill-seekers

By Ren Yaoti Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/21 18:58:39

Beijing has 12,217 underground civil air defense facilities as of 2013

Qianmen area is home to one of Beijing's biggest and longest section of civil air defense tunnels

Many of these old underground fortifications still have revolutionary slogans and pictures of Chairman Mao on their walls

A section of Beijing's civil air defense tunnels in the Qianmen area. Photo: CFP

A section of Beijing's civil air defense tunnels in the Qianmen area. Photo: CFP

Beijing is building an extensive, complicated network of underground metro routes to accommodate the growing demand for cheap, convenient travel between the city center and its outlying suburbs.

However, few people know that there is an even bigger, more intricate parallel underground world beneath the city, its civil air defense tunnels.

First built in the 1950s, this labyrinth of tunnels is a result of the deteriorating relationship between China and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, and they were designed to offer shelter for the capital's residents in the case of sudden air attacks or even nuclear strikes from the country's former socialist big brother.

China, at that time, had weak air forces compared with the Soviet Union, and therefore was afraid of being unable to defend itself from an attack. Under such conditions, building underground tunnels in major cities was seen as the best solution for the country.

In December 1972, under Chairman Mao's slogan "Dig deep tunnels, store enough food and never seek hegemony," the number of civil air defense tunnels in China rocketed.

The same year, China decided to spend 600 million yuan - a gigantic amount at that time - annually on building these underground cities, with 400 million yuan covered by the central government, and the other 200 million yuan mainly coming from the local government and enterprises.

Ordinary people were asked to join in building these vast defense works, and due to the huge demand for hands, even primary students joined the army of diggers.

Decades later, some underground tunnels have been turned into businesses, or even rented out as homes, while many more have become dilapidated warrens enjoyed by those seeking out the city's forgotten depths.

The slogan

The slogan "People's war" written in Mao Zedong's handwriting is seen on the wall of an air defense tunnel. Photo: CFP

Memories of childhood

Dashilar, an ancient commercial street adjacent to the Qianmen area just south of Tiananmen Square, is home to the biggest and longest section of underground civil air defense tunnels in Beijing.

Located 8 meters beneath the ground, the civil air defense fortification connects Wangfujing and Tiananmen. In addition to its 70 water sources, it also has 2,300 ventilators and even an underground hospital, movie theater and barbershops. It's exactly true to its name, the Underground City of Beijing.

However, these mysterious underground structures were not just military fortifications but were also a playground for many people born in 1960s.

A Beijing local surnamed Feng, born in 1963, often thinks back to her memories of playing in these bunkers when she was a child.

"Because these tunnels are deep beneath the ground, they are very cool inside especially during the summertime," Feng told the Global Times.

"At that time, it was rare for families to have air-conditioners, so kids loved playing in them to escape the summer heat," she continues.

"One time we got lost after entering an underground tunnel, our teachers and parents were very worried and searched for us for a couple of hours, and then we were forbidden to play in these air defense works," Feng explained.

A worker dismantles a makeshift wall built inside the air defense tunnel that was used as illegal makeshift rental housing in Beijing. Photo: CFP

A worker dismantles a makeshift wall built inside the air defense tunnel that was used as illegal makeshift rental housing in Beijing. Photo: CFP

Paradise of urban exploration

After the threat of bombing passed and people stopped visiting or maintaining them, most of the tunnels became derelict and virtually forgotten.

Though they have fallen out of the mainstream public consciousness, these dark underground fortifications have become a paradise for urban explorers.

Hui, 37, is a self-employed resident of Beijing. He is the organizer behind the Chi Hou urban exploration team, who mainly explore these "red ruins."

According to Hui, he has been thinking about visiting this underground world since he was a primary school student. He said that despite thinking that these dingy underground passageways are depressing, they always aroused great interest in him.

"We mainly visit old civil air defense tunnels outside Beijing, because the old ones in Beijing have been rebuilt or demolished, many big enterprises have their own underground bunkers that are not open for public visits," Hui told the Global Times.

Many of them were built deep in the mountains which ring Beijing and most of them are hard to find, Hui said, explaining the team usually collects information about their location on the Internet before preparing equipment and communication methods.

Though they work as a team, exploring these dilapidated underground mazes is sometimes very dangerous. Once, while exploring a military fortification, they almost fell off a 20-meter-high cliff hidden in the darkness, and they also met spooky skeletons and preserved organs in an abandoned underground hospital.

Hui told the Global Times that the team's members are carefully selected and they use highly specialized equipment to secure their safety.

He recalled that the most impressive place he has explored was an underground radio station frozen in time where all the equipment, such as its microphones and tapes, were well-preserved and the production date of the machines was still easily readable.

Many underground fortifications Hui visited are like time capsules, with slogans on the walls encouraging people to build more underground air defense works and pictures of Chairman Mao on the wall.

Some of these places on the geographic periphery of the city have become home to people who are also at the edge of society.

"Though I haven't met anyone in person while exploring underground tunnels, I've seen the marks left by people who lived in there, some of them might be drug addicts for I saw their gear," Hui told the Global Times.

Lacking any systematic organization, teams like Chi Hou are working individually in different cities that also have similar ruins. Though fewer and fewer "red remains" are left, more and more people are getting interested in exploring them.

"Every time I see ruins or remains of demolished houses, I try to recall their histories, try to feel the prosperity it had, to feel its life and death, its happiness and sorrow," Hui said.


Underground business

Fortunately, none of the underground tunnels have yet had a chance to fulfill their air defense role as no Chinese city has been bombarded from the air since 1949. Some well developed and maintained tunnels are merely used for air-raid drills.

Despite decades of peace, Beijing has continued to build these civil defense facilities. All residential real estate developments are required to include underground air defense spaces and must have a floor space proportional to the above-ground space. According to figures released by the Civil Protection Agency of Beijing, as of September 2013, Beijing has 12,217 civil air defense facilities, most of them disused.

After reform and opening-up began, when the country shifted its focus onto economic development, some of these underground fortifications were rebuilt and repurposed.

The Beijing authorities at first encouraged the public usage of such tunnels. However, as housing costs kept rising in the capital, many communities turned these underground spaces into low-rent apartments for the millions of migrant workers in the city.

Landlords divide these underground rooms into small apartments and rent them out to low-paid workers who are not able to afford a nicer home in the city.

According to the Beijing Civil Defense Bureau, over 1,000 civil air defense bunkers are rented out in the city and they are home to over 200,000 people, reported the China Times in 2015.

Though the city government has forbidden renting out these spaces to individuals since 2011, these illegal lodgings are still popular due to their rock bottom rents.

The construction of some subway lines in Beijing used part of the air defense tunnels.

In other cities like Ji'nan, Shandong Province and Chongqing, some air defense tunnels have been used as warehouses, wine cellars and even restaurants.

Dong Mu came to work in Beijing in 2009 and lived in an underground apartment when he first arrived in Beijing.

He shared his experience on Zhihu, a Q&A website, saying that he never knew if it was day of night outside when living three floors beneath the ground, and couldn't stand the noise and the smell of the adjacent public toilet.

Though his rent was only 650 yuan per month, Dong still decided to move out of the world beneath the ground.

Newspaper headline: City under the city


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