Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Beijing's Underground City

If you live inside Second Ring Road -- particularly near Chang'an Jie -- it's likely you walk atop an extensive underground city that at one time could house nearly half the city's population (so, about 5 million in those days) and had basketball courts, recreation centers, storerooms, etc. (all built with bricks, concrete and plaster, so not all that homely, but it's the idea that counts).

Last Friday and Sunday, I descended into one of these underground cities -- "bomb shelter," if you will -- as part of a documentary shoot with Beach House Pictures. Thanks to producer Lillian Chen, I was able to experience one of these much-ballyhooed but rarely seen tunnels, and ended up writing this for the Beijinger. Excerpt:

It was damp, chilly (18 degrees Celsius, as all the tunnels are) and, at some points, very wet. A warren of narrow hallways fed into rooms with mossy furniture, or dead ends with piles of trash, or bunkers that have never housed a soul. We found a washroom with urinals and troughs that aren't unlike what you'd find nowadays in a public bathroom on the outskirts of the city; we stumbled upon a staircase that led to a locked metal door, on the other side of which was probably a person's home.

People built all this with their hands. That was what kept going through my mind. And they had thought of everything: ventilation, trap-door escape routes, showers and wells for fresh water. It made you realize that China really does have a long history of engineering miracles, from the Great Wall to the Bird's Nest and everything in between.

Many of my relatives helped dig these tunnels. They were middle-school students back then. After the morning period of Daily Reading (of Mao's Red Book, of course), the rest of their classes would often take the form of excavating dirt, or digging out the shelter walls, or making bricks by gathering yellow dirt and molding them using wooden shoeboxes. It was tedious, labor intensive and at times painful -- my uncle described popping blood blisters until his hands could no longer get calluses; my mom said her feet bled through her socks -- but no one complained. There was no alternative. The zeitgeist of the time demanded absolute devotion to the cause, and the cause was building tunnels because Mao decreed it would be so.

Each underground segment took two to three years (or more) to complete. When it was done, kids would crawl inside to play hide-and-seek, or -- as a family friend put it -- "take a dump." To locals, it was never the relic that we might consider it today. Maybe that's why the government is so blasé about sealing it all up, content to let it disappear.

But to me, especially after learning about the human toil that went into this massive undertaking, the Underground City is a bit of living history that's as unique as Xian's terracotta warriors, as worthy of preservation as this city's hutongs and the Old Beijing gates of Deshengmen and Zhengyangmen. Hopefully I'm not guilty of wishful thinking.

Then again, as long as the Chinese live, they will build and demolish and rebuild, and rebuild again without thinking twice about what was lost. Perhaps that's the enduring lesson here -- anything is possible, even the construction of an underground world wonder that everyone seems content to never let see the light of day.

There are lots of images on the site, so go over there and check it out if you're interested. Here are some bonus pics:

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