Why 1 Million People Live in Cold War-Era Bunkers Under the Streets of Beijing

iStock.com/Wenjie Dong
iStock.com/Wenjie Dong

In Beijing, anywhere between 100,000 to one million people live underground in old bomb shelters. Dubbed the shuzu, or "rat tribe," these subterranean citizens occupy a cramped, musty, and windowless world located dozens of feet below the bustling streets of China's capital city. This extensive network of largely illicit bunker housing is unlike anything found in any other major metropolis in the world.

The roots of Beijing's invisible underworld were laid during what could be called the other Cold War. In 1969, tensions between China and the Soviet Union escalated, with the two communist-led countries clashing at the Sino-Soviet border. When Chinese troops ambushed Soviet border guards that year at Zhenbao Island—a disputed territory located in the middle of the Ussuri River separating northeastern China from Russia's Far East—the hostilities turned bloody, prompting both countries to prepare for a possible nuclear attack. In China, Chairman Mao Zedong advised his cities to build nuclear bomb shelters. Beijing responded by constructing approximately 10,000 bunkers.

By the late 1980s, China's government had started to liberalize and tensions with the Soviet Union had cooled, leading the Office of Civil Defense to lease these shelters to local landlords, who in turn began leasing the spaces to desperate migrant workers and young people. For many, living dozens of feet underground in a windowless bunker was the only way to chase their dreams of scaling the social ladder. That remains true today.

It’s a familiar tale: The cost of living in Beijing is high and still rising. With more than 21 million people now calling the city home, it is among the world’s most expensive places to live. The rising cost of rent far outpaces the average person's income, yet people continue to flock to the area because it brims with social and economic opportunity. “[W]ith limited access to public, affordable housing, nuclear bunkers are one of the few feasible options for migrant workers,” Ye Ming writes for National Geographic. A small, shared dorm in a concrete bunker can cost as little as $20 per month.

For many, the central location makes these bunkers worthwhile despite the lack of space and sunlight. As Annette M. Kim, an associate professor of public policy at USC, writes in the academic journal Cities, “[T]he priority for the lower-income, often migrant population in Beijing is for rental housing located in the central city. The ability to walk and/or bike to jobs as well as low rents, both of which allow for the possibility of accumulating savings, is worth making the choice to live in small underground rooms.”

As you might expect from a converted nuclear fallout shelter, the spaces have some of the basics—plumbing, sewage, and electricity—and very little of anything else. There’s no natural light, there's very little ventilation, and most amenities, such as kitchens and bathrooms, must be shared with neighbors. And while Ming reports that local law requires apartments to have at least 43 square feet per tenant, that rule is clearly not enforced. Some apartments might as well be closets.

But as Kim explains, super-dense housing conditions aren't unique to Beijing. “[T]his is not an idiosyncratic situation. History shows that immigrants coped by living in crowded basement units as well as tenements during the west’s rapid urbanization.”

The question is whether that trend should—or will—continue in the future. In 2010, the city announced a ban on residential use of nuclear shelters, but the decree has done little to stop people from making their homes there. “If it is desirable to not allow people to live underground, we are challenged with the task of finding other spaces for roughly a million people,” Kim writes.

For foreigners, it can be difficult to gain access to this underground shelter city. In 2015, the Italian photographer Antonio Faccilongo managed to sneak below, capturing life in the bunkers for a series entitled Atomic Rooms. For a look inside, you can view his work here.

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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Remembering Sara Little Turnbull, Whose Bra Cup Design Became the N95 Mask

Design innovator Sara Little Turnbull.
Design innovator Sara Little Turnbull.
Photo Credit: © Center for Design Institute

The coronavirus pandemic has made something of a celebrity out of the N95 mask, a particle-filtering face covering that’s long been used to protect wearers from inhaling or exhaling pathogens. (The “95” refers to the fact it can block 95 percent of airborne particles.)

Like most nondescript and pervasive products, not many people stop to think about where it came from. Now, owing to the attention placed on it as a key tool in the health care professional’s fight against coronavirus, the woman behind the mask has come to the forefront. Her name is Sara Little Turnbull, and she designed what would become the N95 based on the shape of a bra cup.

A design consultant, Turnbull was working with the 3M company in 1958 in their gift wrap and fabric division when she was exposed to Shapeen, a non-woven material made of polymers and used for decorative ribbons. Turnbull was fascinated by the molded version of Shapeen and devised the first-ever pre-made bows for gift wrap.

Turnbull didn’t stop there. She saw endless possibilities in Shapeen and assembled an audience of 3M executives to present a number of ideas she had for products—more than 100 in all—using the material. At the presentation, which she titled “Why,” she impressed 3M with the scope of Shapeen's potential. The company quickly enlisted her to work on a design for a molded bra cup.

But Turnbull had another, arguably more important notion. At the time, she was taking care of three ailing family members who were under the care of doctors. Turnbull was often in a medical setting and noticed health care workers were constantly adjusting thin masks that tied in the back. She returned to 3M with the idea of using that same molded material to make a mask that would fit more comfortably on the face.

Again, 3M saw potential in Turnbull’s idea. By 1961, they introduced a non-woven lightweight medical mask based on her concept, with elastic bands instead of strings, an aluminum nose clip, and a form-fitting "bubble" shape. (The bra patent was approved in 1962.) Though innovative, the mask couldn't block pathogens for medical use and was marketed for dust filtration instead. An improved respirator hit the market in 1972 that was suitable for other industrial purposes. As the mask’s filtration evolved, so did its usefulness. In 1995, the N95 respirator was introduced in the health care field, fulfilling Turnbull's original ambition.

Though Turnbull had been relegated to a nondescript part of 3M, she had an extensive background in design, graduating from the Parsons School of Design in 1939 and later becoming the decorating editor of House Beautiful magazine. After Turnbull wrote an article taking companies to task for not designing products suitable for the end user, she was hired by 3M. As a consultant, she also collaborated with Corning, Revlon, General Mills, and Ford, among others.

After Turnbull died in 2015, the Sara Little Turnbull Center for Design Institute was formed, which offers information to the public on the value of design and supports the efforts of disadvantaged women's design education. Turnbull's vast archive of material is available to view by appointment. A foundation in her name also provides educational grants. The “Little,” incidentally, was in acknowledgment of her height. At 4 feet, 11 inches tall, Turnbull wasn’t terribly physically imposing. But her contributions were gigantic.

[h/t NPR]