With his tidy two-piece suit and over-gelled, gravity-defying hair, Wei Kuan looks like any other young Chinese office worker coming home to a high-rise apartment compound in downtown Beijing. But rather than enter through the building’s front gate, Wei took a long flight of stairs located through an external doorway connected to an apartment block, descending two stories deep into an underground maze of cells that he calls home.
Wei, 27, is an insurance salesman by day. By night, he is a member of the so-called rat tribe, a derogatory term used to describe those who like him are unable to afford apartments in Beijing. They number one million in a city of 21 million and live deep beneath Beijing’s streets: in basements under skyscrapers, hotels, and residential blocks. Those who have never interacted with these people living underground sometimes think of them as low-lifes and criminals who dwell in chaos and squalor, but the basement-dwellers are often simply migrants who throng to Beijing in the hopes of attaining the Chinese dream.
The idea of the Chinese Dream is often associated with President Xi Jinping who, in 2013, addressed the country’s youth and called upon them “to dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams, and contribute to the revitalization of the nation.” For most urban Chinese, this dream might entail attaining an upper middle-class life, or getting a prestigious job or education. For migrant workers who flock to the capital to find jobs, this dream often means making enough money to return home, build a new house, put their children through school, and sometimes, set up a small business.
A migrant worker carries her son as she walks through the entrance to a basement hostel in Beijing, August 20, 2011.(Sim Chi Yin / VII)
For these underground dwellers, at least for the time being, the dream is much simpler: make a life for themselves and find a place to eat and sleep, even if it means living in small, often dank rooms. As the cheapest housing in all of the city, at 400 to 800 renminbi (roughly $64 to $128) a month, rooms are often around 160 square feet,
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