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Based in Beijing

CHINA’S “RAT TRIBE”

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    “Big Rain," 21, a KTV lounge worker, decorated his basement room with balloons. He lives in room A12 of a basement beneath Beijing’s north Third Ring Road. Originally from Heilongjiang in China’s northeast, he’s been in Beijing for the past year.
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    In a central Beijing basement room he shares with two others, He Bing, 23, who recently arrived from Chongqing City, tries on his new shirt and borrowed suit and tie the night before a examination to become an insurance salesman.
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    Liu Jing, 21, from the central province of Henan, works as a pedicurist in east Beijing. She comes back to her bed two floors below ground level to sleep before returning to work in the morning.
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    Jiang Ying, 24, a waitress, shares this basement room in central Beijing with her girlfriend Li Ying, 23, an office worker. They have lived here for one and a half-years and made the room their own by plastering on bright pink wallpaper.
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    Pedicurist Zhuang Qiuli, originally from Guangdong Province, and her hair-stylist boyfriend Feng Tao, from Sichuan, have both been in Beijing for more than five years. They have been living in basements over the past two years. Their current home is two floors beneath a posh condominium in east Beijing.
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    Niu Song, 33, and his wife Zhao Ansheng, 32, both chefs at a Yunnan restaurant are home between 2 and 5pm daily to rest in their basement room near Beijing’s north Third Ring Road.
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    This basement room, barely the width of a double bed, is home for Xiao Si, 23 years old. Although he has to deal with mold and mildew on his clothes and bedding during Beijing’s humid summers, he is happy to save on rent for now.
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    Master Yan, middle, puts his students Song Zhifei, right, and Li Guoqiang, left, through the paces in the Chinese martial art of wushu, in his basement training room in west Beijing.
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    This closet-size room, barely wider than a single bed, has been beautician Zhao Dan’s home in Beijing for the past year. At 350 yuan a month, the rent is just ten percent of her income, but she chooses to stay here because renting an apartment would cost at least three times more.
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    Bao Ruixi, known as Elva, plays the game Fruit Ninja on her iPad in her basement room beneath a hotel in central Beijing. The 20-year-old, who shares the 400 yuan-a-month room with her boyfriend, is originally from Inner Mongolia and is studying hairdressing in a salon about half an hour away by bus.
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    Zhou Limei, 30, breastfeeds her eight-month-old baby, Zhao Qingxuang, in her basement room beneath a huge condominium complex in West Beijing.
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    Through a webcam, Xie Ruanjun, 26, chats with her mother who is in their hometown in Guangdong, southern China.
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    Seamstress Shang Lanlan, 27, shares room A18 in this basement near Beijing’s East Second Ring Road with her husband who sometimes works too late to come home. They have left their five-year-old son with her parents back in their native Shandong Province, in eastern China.
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    Deng Lixia, 24, graduated from university in Qingdao, eastern China, in June of 2011 and came straight to Beijing to do an internship at an IT company testing software. Her boyfriend, who is also in Beijing and working at a supermarket, shares room A32 in this basement.
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    Retired car mechanic Wu Guocheng, 53, moved into this 12-square-meter room, which he rents for 650 yuan a month, after getting a divorce from his wife.
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    Li Xihui, 21, surfs the Internet just before dinner time in her 400 yuan-a-month room. She has lived in this basement in the far west of Beijing for the past six months.
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    Construction worker Ren Liang, 22 with his back to camera, enjoys a home-cooked dinner with two friends visiting from his hometown in Hebei, northern China. Ren has lived in this basement room for the six months he has been in Beijing for.
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    Ji Lanlan, 25, and her three-year-old daughter, Yu Qi, enjoy a game on their computer in one of the largest rooms in this basement in west Beijing. Ji, from Henan Province in central China, is an office worker and has lived in this basement room for the four years that she has been in Beijing.
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    Sun Kuangda, 29, and his son Xiang Song, 8, watch a television program inside their seven-square-meter room in a basement in west Beijing.
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    Home after work, Zhang Yinfeng, 18, a supermarket worker, plays on her mobile phone and snacks. Most nights, she reads novels on her mobile phone, lying on her bed two floors underground. Mafia stories are her favorite. She left her native Chongqing for Beijing straight out of middle school, two years ago, because she “really wanted to experience something new.”
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    Zhang Hao, 26, an electrician, and his wife Xiang Qigui, 23, a beautician, are home in their roughly 85 square-foot basement room after another long day at work. They have a two-story house of their own back in their home province of Henan, complete with a 29-inch TV set. They have left their one-year-old son with their parents. Zhang Hao says: “We don’t want to stay here forever…but we have endured a few years in Beijing, so we have to go on, otherwise we would have come in vain.”
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    Ji Jia, 20, a salesgirl in a clothing store from Hebei Province, shares this room in a basement in west Beijing with a co-worker and friend. Ji Jia says it was the “most horrible” basement she had stayed in. “I do not even dare to go to the bathroom; it’s so disgusting. At first I thought our room was cool, because here we have a lot of space for two. But I think I might stay a month and no longer, then I'll find something new.” She earns 3,500 yuan a month and likes to buy clothes and eat.
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    Watching football on television alone is how Zhang Jun, 24, an animal beautician, spends many weekends. He had studied International Trade and his parents had hoped he would become a successful entrepreneur. But he just loves being with animals all day, he says, shampooing and massaging cats and dogs, and dyeing their hair and cutting their nails. He says: “Those who live down here should not complain. But my mother complains all the time on the phone. She keeps asking ‘do you still live down there?’“
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    Xie Jinghui, originally from Jiangxi, born in 1987, sometimes does some weightlifting in his basement room. He used to live in a more central location within Beijing's 3rd Ring Road, but one year ago the house was torn down. He says: "Everybody thinks that living in the basement is only a temporary thing but then people end up staying much longer... For my generation it's difficult to stay at home but it is also difficult to live away from home in big cities."
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    Cheng Lijuan, 25, an insurance assistant from Hubei, shares this room three floors beneath a condominium in central Beijing with her husband. Living in a basement has its advantages. It’s cool in the summer and warm in the winter, she says.
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    Manager Mr. Ma takes a cigarette break from his online game to pass time in the basement room, which is among the largest in the air raid shelter he and his family operate, renting out some 20 rooms to migrant workers. He is angry that the authorities might shut them down soon, having put in tens of thousands of yuan to renovate the basement.
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    At a condominium complex in west Beijing, a migrant worker carries her son as she walks through the entrance to a basement hostel. An estimated one million migrants live in basements and air-raid tunnels in the Chinese capital.
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    At a condominium compound in west Beijing, a migrant emerges from underground at the entrance to a basement hostel.
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    A condominium compound in west Beijing stands tall above a warren of basement tunnels and air-raid shelters where hundreds of migrant workers live.
China’s “Rat Tribe”

The evening sun sits low in the smoggy Beijing sky. Beneath a staid, maroon apartment block, Jiang Ying, 24, is stirring from her bed after having slept through the day. Day is night and night is day anyway, in the window-less world she inhabits three floors below ground.

Pint-sized and spiky-haired, Jiang Ying is among an estimated one million migrant workers who live beneath this city. Like millions of Chinese who come from across the country with dreams of making it big in the capital, she had travelled to Beijing from her native Inner Mongolia three years ago, and now works as at a hip bar in the heart of Beijing’s nightclub district. But even so, she can barely make ends meet.

Faced with sky-high property prices, living underground is often the only option for this legion of low-waged migrant workers, who make up one-third of Beijing’s estimated 20 million people.

Waiters, karaoke hostesses, hairdressers, chefs, security guards, domestic workers and kitchen helpers, these basement dwellers are the backbone of Beijing’s service industry. But they have been unkindly dubbed the “rat tribe” for making a home in Beijing’s 6,000 basements and air raid shelters — about one-third of the city’s underground space.

They pay monthly rents of 300 to 700 yuan ($50 to $110) for partitioned rooms of seven to eight square meters, or sometimes, a closet-like space barely wider than a single bed. Some 50 to 100 rooms often share a single bathroom and several toilet cubicles. A chilly draft filters through the tunnels, which are also often dank and moldy in the summers.

But it may now be a matter of time before the basement dwellers face eviction. The government, which had leased the basements out for use since the 1990s, and even liberalized rules in 2004 to make them more accessible and hugely popular as homes to migrant workers, is clamping down.

In mid-December of 2010, the authorities issued new regulations contradicting earlier ones, effectively stopping basement leases from being renewed. Over the next three years, the authorities will gradually shutter the underground homes, which are now deemed “unsafe, dirty and chaotic,” a civil defense officer said.

That might improve Beijing’s image, but doesn’t help the low-wage migrants. Sooner or later then, Jiang Ying and her counterparts will have to move out — and up, or simply go home. For now, the basements of Beijing hold the hopes and dreams of many migrants who seek their fortune in the capital.

To me, they tell the broader story of a China on the move, of the world’s biggest tide of migration, and of a generational shift to an urban income and lifestyle. Curious about this underworld, I started photographing it in 2010. If I went into it hoping to document the tough and musty lives these migrants lead, I’ve also been inspired by their spunky fighting spirit and life-affirming aspirations.

As Zhuang Qiuli, 25, a pedicurist, puts it: “There is no difference between me and the people who live in the posh condominium above. We wear the same clothes and have the same hairstyles. The only difference is we cannot see the sun. “In a few years, when I have money, I will also live upstairs.”

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