Cramped, cold and underground - the meagre existence of Beijing's 'rat tribe'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2011, 12:00am

Yu Hang's small basement room, two floors below a new high-rise neighbourhood in Beijing's Haidian district, seems cosy enough but the chill still cuts through a down overcoat and scarf. Then there is the stench from the shared bathroom.

'If you live in places like this for seven years, you get used to it,' said Yu, from Baoding, Hebei .

Yu, 24, shares the nine-squaremetre room with his wife and works as a barbecue chef at an upmarket buffet restaurant a few blocks away.

He is a member of what mainland media have labelled the 'rat tribe' - some one million young, low-paid migrant workers who find shelter in crammed basement rooms while carving out a living in Beijing.

Yu came to the capital for a job as an apprentice chef at the restaurant after dropping out of senior high school seven years ago. When he first arrived, he shared another basement room with three co-workers.

He now works 101/2 hours a day, six days a week, for about 2,800 yuan (HK$3,320) a month. His basement room, stuffed with a double bed and a few basic items, including a television set, costs him 400 yuan a month.

Yu said he could find a flat or a bigger farmhouse on the capital's outskirts for the same price, but he has to work late into the night, when there is no public transport.

'I don't have much to spend on things like rent and, anyway, it's just a place to sleep,' Yu said.

He said he is thinking of saving up for a house back in Baoding and may start a small business there. But he is reluctant to make long-term plans about things like starting a family.

'I don't really know and I can only live a day at a time given the life I have now,' Yu said.

Basements attached to residential buildings, designed as wartime shelters, have been approved for commercial rental nationwide since the 1990s, when migrant workers began to flood mainland cities in search of better lives.

But their subterranean existence went largely unknown until the second half of last year, when the Beijing municipal government launched a crackdown on basement leasing in an attempt to control the city's ballooning population.

Liu Kai, who rents out a basement in Chaoyang district, says most of his tenants are low-paid migrant workers in the hospitality and catering industries, shop assistants in nearby supermarkets and shops, or street vendors from outside Beijing. About a fifth had lived in the basement for at least four years.

Liu, who manages 96 rooms in a 1,000-square-metre basement, said basements were usually equipped with ventilation and central heating, but his tenants had voted against central heating because it could cost them up to 100 yuan extra a month.

Liu lives in the basement with his wife and daughter. He says the 'rat tribe' label is an insult to his tenants, although he admits it rings true as a description of the stark reality of their lives. 'Of course, nobody wants to live in a basement. But everyone's got to lead a life they can afford,' he said.

Cui Liquan , a 25-year-old security guard who shares a Chaoyang district basement room with three colleagues, said it was stuffy and wet in the summer, but was provided by his employer free of charge.

Cui, who came to Beijing from a rural village in Zhoukoudian, Henan, said he earns 1,200 yuan a month but more than half of that goes on meals.

Asked what he planned to do if the basement was forced to close, he said he might have to find a better-paid job if his boss could no longer cover his accommodation.

Cui left home to join the army when he was 17 and came to Beijing three years later. He does not want to go home. 'I know little about farming but you know how little people earn from farming, don't you?' he asked.