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Picture Story: Beijing’s Basement Dwellers

By David Walker


Sim Chi Yin Rat Tribe Beijing China
© Sim Chi Yin/VII Photo Mentor Program
Jiang Ying, 24, and her girlfriend share this basement room in Beijing. To see more images from the series, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

A social consequence of China’s rapid economic growth is a mass migration of young people from the provinces to Beijing, Shanghai and other commercial centers. The working and living conditions of those migrants have been the subject of much media coverage. But photographer Sim Chi Yin’s portraits of migrants crammed into makeshift quarters in the basements and air-raid shelters of Beijing tell the story in an unusual and intimate way.

Sim titled her story “Rat Tribe,” after the derogatory label given to the underground residents. It is comprised primarily of environmental portraits of those residents in their tight quarters, which are hardly bigger than a jail cell. There are no windows, only artificial light, and the air stagnates. Mold grows in the summer. But residents liven up their spaces with photographs, posters, balloons and other décor that conveys their personalities, aspirations and youthful optimism. And they all dream of a day when they’ve saved enough money and worked their way up to better jobs so they can afford to move out.

“I’ve had a long-term interest in migrants and migration,” explains Sim, who was a foreign correspondent for Singapore’s English daily newspaper The Straits Times until a little over a year ago and is now part of the VII photo agency’s Mentor Program. When she moved to China in 2007, she worked on a story about child trafficking. “I chanced upon a guy who operated a basement residence in Beijing,” Sim says. “I was quite taken with the idea that there were migrant workers living beneath Beijing’s posh condominiums, office blocks [and] hotels.

“I’d been thinking about how to document China’s migrant workers, and I thought the migrants in the basement was a good way to slice into the topic.” The basement dwellers are mostly service workers—waitresses, chefs, shampoo girls—who keep Beijing running. The underground quarters are all they can afford, and most white-collar workers don’t realize they’re living there, Sim explains. Because the basement residents are labeled “rats,” and the authorities are now taking steps to shut basement residences down, Sim says, “I felt more of a purpose in shooting their portraits and their living environment.

“I thought [by] documenting them to show people above ground they’re not ‘rats,’ but just as cool and centered and ‘normal’ like all the rest of us, it could help people understand them, see them as equals.”

Her original plan was to shoot portraits and record video of her subjects telling their stories, and then produce the project in a multimedia format. She collected some video interviews, but explains that Marcus Bleasdale, her mentor at VII, “saw an early version of [the] work and suggested [I] do it as straight environmental portraits. I went with that.”

Sim says her biggest challenge was getting access. The authorities are starting to shut the basement residences down because of their reputation as dank, disgusting places, so the operators don’t want to attract attention. But Sim managed to find willing subjects by asking around. “I’d go for a haircut and chat with the young migrants in the salons and quite often some of them live in basements,” she says.  

Sim also asked around for names of the basement operators—the superintendents—who might let her in to take pictures. Through friends of friends, she found contacts, and a few were willing to give her access. “Sometimes I asked for permission to roam around a basement and then simply went door to door to see if I could shoot,” she says.

Sim explained to residents that she wanted to photograph them to show what their life underground was like. She won their trust by hanging out, visiting and phoning them a couple of times, and bringing photos back to them after her first visit.  

“Some questioned what the point was and took more persuasion and chatting. With most it was relaxed and just chitchat,” Sim says. “I look local and speak Chinese, so it’s easy to chat.”

She ended up photographing about 30 subjects in all, using only ambient light and three lenses—mostly a 24mm, but also a 35mm and 50mm. In addition to shooting the bedroom portraits, she documented other aspects of underground life, including the maze of corridors, and the communal kitchens and bathrooms.

“I probably went into the project with the quite stereotypical idea of, ‘Oh, how pitiful they are living in the dark, dank place with no sun,’” she says. “Sure, that’s the case to some extent, but I was also pleasantly surprised by what I actually found: the karaoke guy who decorated his room with heart-shaped balloons and who does his hair at a salon before work every night; the Tai Chi master who has a training gym in the basement he runs; the young hair stylist who wants to grin and bear it, living for a few years where he gets mold on his back in the summers just to ‘make it big’ in the capital city.

“After a few shoots, I felt less pity for them, and more inspired by them instead.”

Sim’s most memorable subjects, she says, included a pedicurist named Lili and her boyfriend. “Their story is so archetypal,” she says, explaining that they both grew up poor and came to Beijing to “make it.” Sim also mentions a couple from Yunan who work as chefs. “[They] have a giant poster of a Western man and woman making out over their bed. They do cross-stitch and watch TV right under it, with no sense of irony at all.”

Sim finished shooting the project last fall. Her images have since appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Life & Style magazine in Mexico.

More images from the project can be viewed at viiphoto.com.

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