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Revealing the faces of Beijing's 'Rat Tribe'

Thursday 9th February 2017

Photographer Sim Chi Yin documents the people driven underground by the Chinese capital's housing crisis.


Zhuang Qiuli and her boyfriend Feng Tao sit on the bed in their basement apartment in Beijing.
Zhuang Qiuli and her boyfriend Feng Tao sit on the bed in their basement apartment in Beijing.

Photo: Sim Chi Yin / VII / Redux / Headpress

The first underground apartment Sim Chi Yin was welcomed into belonged to Qiuli, a pedicurist who lived with her boyfriend in the basement of a middle-class condominium in Beijing.

“She was a very friendly girl from southern China - Guangdong,” the documentary photographer says.

“We went down this long tunnel, past where the bicycles were parked, and then we went two or three stories into the ground.”

Walking through a long tunnel with little doors on either side, they reached Qiuli’s room.

“Her room was, I guess, about three to five square meters and the ceiling was not very high. She had stuff all over the place … and her boyfriend was still in bed.”

Then Sim took photos of the couple that would be the beginning of Rat Tribe - a collection of portraits taken over four years of mostly young migrant workers living below ground as they try to get ahead in China’s booming capital.

From next week, the photos will be on show in Wellington as part of the Photival photography festival.

Zhang Xinwen, who dropped out of university to become a make-up artist in Beijing.
Zhang Xinwen, who dropped out of university to become a make-up artist in Beijing.

Photo: Sim Chi Yin / VII / Redux / Headpress

The name of the project was taken from a description used in local newspapers, who compared the apartments to warrens and their residents to vermin. Sim’s aim was counter to the way they were portrayed: “I wanted to humanise the people who lived in the basement,” she says.

In the city of 22 million people, she believes that at least 1 million people are living in basements and subterranean bomb shelters. A room in an underground apartment in Beijing’s urban centre typically costs 300-700 yuan (NZ$60-140) per week, compared with 1000-2000 yuan (NZ$200-400) or more for a room in shared apartment above ground.

Sim says when researching the project she’d been befriending “anybody and everybody” after being told about migrant workers renting out underground apartments. “I became fascinated with the idea that there was a universe beneath our feet.”

She went to hole-in-the-wall restaurants, hair salons and pedicurists trying to find out more about. “I just asked service staff where they lived and quite often they would say ‘I live in a basement’,” she says. “I would be really thick-skinned and invited myself, and ask if I could see their home.”  

The apartments are small, stuffy and, of course, sunless. In winter they are dry, but come summer they get very, very moist, she says. “A wet towel will probably grow green moss by the morning.”

Documentary photographer Sim Chi Yin on assignment.
Sim Chi Yin on assignment.

Photo: Sim Chi Yin / VII

They are also illegal, with authorities cracking down on the dwellings due to population pressure, though some local officials turn a blind eye to landlords who have long term leases.

If someone was evicted from their underground apartment, Sim says, the alternative would be an illegally partitioned apartment, where what may have been built as a three-bedroom dwelling would be divided into 10 little rooms.

Most of the residents see their underground living situation as temporary. They’re working towards a better job, more money and a more comfortable place to live, or saving to buy a house back in their hometown. Sim says they have a philosophy of short term discomfort in the hope of achieving a better future.

“I wanted to put a face to the population and show people that they’re just like you and I.”

Jing Ranming in his underground apartment.
Jing Ranming in his underground apartment.

Photo: Sim Chi Yin / VII

*Photival is on in Wellington from February 18 - March 4. Here’s the full list of exhibitions.




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