This Is Why More Than 1 Million People In China Are Living In Cramped, Cold War Bunkers

An exorbitant number of people in Beijing live where no one can see them — underground. But why are they living there? And what is it like living in these “apartments”? Learn some shocking details about these subterranean dwellings and the conditions these people must endure on a daily basis. It’s hard to believe the government only requires each tenant to have 43 square feet of living space.

There Are Over 10,000 Bunkers In Beijing Alone


During the Cold War, countries around the world feared nuclear fallout and tried to prepare and protect their citizens for various scenarios. In China, Chairman Mao spearheaded the construction of apartments with bomb shelters during the late ’60s and ’70s. The goal was to protect people from a nuclear blast. In just Beijing, authorities built 10,000 bunkers for the people. Fortunately, China did not have to use the bunkers for their intended purpose and in the ’80s, the defense department decided to profit off the existing bunkers by leasing them to private landlords. As a result, the landlords turned them into residential homes.

More Than 1 Million People Live In These Tiny Apartments


What makes these bunkers so fascinating is that they are invisible to the world above. They house more than 1 million people, many of whom are migrant workers and students from rural sections of the country. They make their homes in these underground dwellings, whose entrances are in plain sight and scattered throughout the city. An Italian photographer named Antonio Faccilongo heard about these bunkers and was curious about their construction and inhabitants. In December 2015 he decided to travel to China to learn more about them and photograph the homes and the people who live in them. Finding the bunkers was easy, but getting access was more challenging as you will learn.

This Is One Of Many Bunker Entrances


The existence of these bunkers isn’t exactly secret, but China doesn’t want foreigners inside of them. When Faccilongo tried to get access to them, neighborhood security guards prevented him from entering. They explained that there’s a law that keeps non-Chinese from going into these nuclear sanctuaries. But Faccilongo was not deterred and decided to petition the local government in order to get access. He sent an official request but was denied. Even though he tried to find a legal way to enter the bunkers, he realized his only chance to see them up close and personal was to sneak inside while the guards were taking a lunch break.

Many Residents Are Embarrassed By Their Bunker Homes


After Faccilongo made his way into the bunker he realized that his project was going to be much more difficult than he anticipated. Many of the inhabitants were distrustful of his intentions and others were embarrassed and didn’t want to be photographed. It was clear that not everyone was proud of their living arrangements. “I met around 150 people, and only 50 gave me permissions [to photograph them],” Faccilongo told National Geographic. “Some of them are afraid because they told their families [back home] that they have good jobs and are living in good apartments.” These apartments are not exactly luxurious.

People Must Share Cramped, Unsanitary Spaces


Don’t forget, these bunkers were built for an emergency scenario. They were not meant to be long-term homes, so they do not offer many creature comforts. They do feature electricity, plumbing, and a sewage system — basic necessities for any home. While they would be a godsend for people trying to avoid a nuclear fallout, they also have many problems. The ventilation system in the bunkers is not very good, so the air is stale. The area is also a breeding ground for mold. Inhabitants are also forced to share kitchens and bathrooms and overall, the spaces are often very small and unsanitary.

Families Barely Fit Any Furniture Inside Their Dwellings


In the United States, a typical home is about 980 square feet, but the size of newly built U.S. homes averages a whopping 2,679 square feet. In the Beijing bunkers, the law requires each tenant have a minimum of 43 square feet. However, this law is frequently broken. Faccilongo photographed a boy named Jing Jing, 4, who lived with his father, brother, and grandmother in a space that was so tiny that only a bed could fit inside. A larger space next door was used as a parking lot for motorbikes. “This is one of the poorest places I went to,” Faccilongo revealed. While many hope this type of living situation will only be temporary, lots of tenants believe this is the only place they will ever be able to afford to live in.

If They Didn’t Live In The Bunkers, Many Would Have Nowhere Else To Go


China realized that the bunkers were hazardous and that landlords weren’t properly taking care of their residents and the spaces they were renting. In 2010, authorities tried to crack down on these nuclear shelters and storage spaces by banning people from living in them. The goal was to clean them up and make them safer; however, it’s been challenging to improve them and little work has been done to upgrade the living conditions. The biggest issue is that the people who live in these bunkers are there for one reason — they have nowhere else to live. They would be homeless without this type of shelter.

Housing Prices In Beijing Are Exorbitant


Beijing has been consistently ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. The biggest problem is that housing prices in Beijing have been steadily increasing over the past few decades. It is not easy for the average person to rent or buy a space in the city unless they have a really good salary to cover the costs. Typically, a small one-bedroom apartment will cost around 元12,548, which is nearly $2,000.

While this might not seem all that expensive to some, consider the fact that the average salary in China is just $10,220 compared to the average salary in the U.S., which is $84,300. That makes the bunkers attractive to those who can’t afford these exorbitant prices. Millions of people from rural areas have moved to Beijing to find a better life and make more money.

Dormitory-Style Rooms Cost Just $20 A Month


Migrant workers do not make much money, and it’s difficult to find affordable housing in the city. As a result, nuclear bunkers are one of the only places they can live. According to Faccilongo, a tiny space in the bunker can be rented for as little as $40 a month. And for those who can’t afford that, they can rent a room in a dormitory-like space, which can hold as many as 10 people, for about $20 a month. Many young people live there and consider it a temporary residence. They plan on eventually making enough money to rent a place with windows.

An Underground Calligraphy School Is Open To All

Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic
Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic

But these bunkers aren’t all bad. Over the years, several organizations have attempted to convert some of the spaces into community centers that everyone in the area can use. Some have been made into dining rooms, while others have been used for activities such as karaoke and calligraphy. These areas are not just for the residents. Everyone in the community is welcome to use them, which allows members from different social classes to intermingle. Faccilongo saw these shared spaces as a way for “both poor and rich” to gather. While often social classes are separated, these community spaces break down the barriers.

This Rental Apartment Cost Is Just $108


In 2015, there were approximately 277.5 million migrants working in China. By 2025, it’s estimated that another 243 million migrants will be moving to large cities in China, increasing its urban population to nearly 1 billion. The big question is: where will all these people live? These underground bunkers are very attractive to migrant workers because they are much more affordable than above ground housing. Plus, they really don’t have many other options. Unfortunately, low prices usually go hand in hand with low living standards. As a result, many of these people must endure severe, small, and unsanitary spaces.

Many Know They’ll Spend Their Whole Lives In These Bunkers


While many of the young residents of the bunkers are hopeful that their time at the nuclear shelters is limited until they make more money and find better places to live, other people that Faccilongo spoke to are more realistic about their living conditions. And they don’t see themselves moving. “When you stay with young people, they show you a positive point of view for the future,” Faccilongo explained. “When you spend time with families, they know that they’ll live all their lives there. It’s sad.” Faccilongo spent about one month in Beijing and visited 30 bunkers for his photography project.

The Air Is Stale & Mold Is Common


Faccilongo was able to photograph people doing all sorts of things in their tiny apartments. He captured a little boy watching television, men drinking beer and having a good time with one another, and several students belting out songs at a karaoke bar. Despite these everyday, normal, and healthy activities, Faccilongo could feel an oppression brought on by the cramped spaces with little ventilation. No matter the distraction, he noted that one could escape the reality of their living conditions. “You can’t forget that you’re down there,” said Faccilongo. “The air is strange—you can’t breathe in the humidity.”

Appearance Is Very Important In Chinese Culture

Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic
Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic

A man named Yi Zhon was photographed lying in bed while watching a television show on his smartphone. He lives in the Nong Ying atomic shelter in the Weigongcun district. According to Faccilongo, appearance is very important in Chinese culture. And while Yi Zhon lives in a bunker, people may not know that because he is able to afford a smartphone. Status symbols such as smart devices and designer clothing make a person appear more successful than they are. As a result, some people will spend less on their homes and more on their accessories in order to look wealthier than they are.

China Continues To Build Bomb Shelters & Basements

Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic
Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic

Another reason why these bunkers are so appealing is that they’re practically in endless supply. China continues to build underground spaces, so there are many available to those who are desperate for homes. In 2013, Annette Kim, a professor at the University of Southern California whose expertise is urbanization, spent time in Beijing to study the underground housing market. “Part of why there’s so much underground space is because it’s the official building code to continue to build bomb shelters and basements,” Kim told NPR. “That’s a lot of new, underground space that’s increasing in supply all the time. They’re everywhere.”

There Is A Stigma To Living Underground

Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic
Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic

Those who live underground in basements and bomb shelters face a bit of a social stigma, according to Kim. When she talked to those who lived in homes and spaces above ground they knew very little about the people who resided directly below them. “They weren’t sure who was down there,” Kim explained. “There is actually very little contact between above ground and below ground, and so there’s this fear of security.” Plus, housing laws changed in 2010 making living underground illegal. People don’t want to be associated with those who are breaking the law and doing their own thing.

These Real Estate Agents Live In A Bunker In Weigongcun

Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic
Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic

In addition to migrant workers, a variety of people in the service industry also live in the nuclear shelters. They are often hard-working individuals who simply can’t make enough money to afford a place above ground with a window. “They’re all the service people in the city,” Kim revealed. “They’re your waitresses, store clerks, interior designers, tech workers, who just can’t afford a place in the city.” She noted that the apartments run the gambit in regards to their conditions. While some are dirty and dark, others are obviously well cared for and include nice decorations and designs. In some bunkers, there are even underground community barber shops, dance classes, and more.

A 3-Year-Old Living In A Bunker, Which Also Serves As An Online Bookstore

Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic
Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic

Sim Chi Yin, a photographer based out of Beijing, has also taken photos of the people who live underground. Surprisingly, people don’t complain too much about the lack of sunlight. Instead, they struggle with the summer humidity, which causes problems with their belongings. “The air is not so good, ventilation is not so good,” Sim explained. “And the main complaint that people have is not that they can’t see the sun: It’s that it’s very humid in the summer. So everything that they put out in their rooms gets a bit moldy because it’s just very damp and dank underground.”

An Underground Barber Shop

Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic
Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic

While people live quite close to one another, they get used to the living conditions. Even though they can hear each other performing various activities such as cooking and cleaning, it’s tolerable. It’s better to have a loud home than to have no home at all. “At dinnertime, you can hear people cooking, you can hear people chit-chatting in the next room, you can hear people watching television,” Sim said. “It’s really not so bad. I mean, you’re spending almost all your day at work anyway. And you’re coming back, and all you need is a clean and safe place to sleep in.”

An Underground Dance Class

Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic
Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo, National Geographic

Annette Kim from USC believes the people who struggle the most in the bunkers are the older residents, some of whom have lived there for many years. They know there’s a better life available, and they hope that their children will be able to move up and out and find better homes. “They’re hoping that their next generation, their children, will be able to live above ground,” Kim explained. “It’s this sense of longing and deferring a dream. And so it makes me wonder how long this dream can be deferred.” And yet people keep moving into these spaces because they have nowhere else to go.

A Florida Town Has A Cold War Secret Underground

The Cold War era left behind secrets that are still being uncovered, both above ground, and hidden deep below. After tensions had passed, the largest fallout shelter in America was uncovered in Mount Dora, Florida, funded and built by 25 local families who feared devastation during the Cold War. Looking inside this bunker, you’ll see just how fearful the American people were after WWII, especially Florida residents during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Mount Dora: Residents On The Front Line

Located in Central Florida, Mount Dora hugs the freshwater of Lake Dora and sits nearby the coast. Despite its beauty, the small town was a scary place to be during the Cold War. Faced with the threat of the town being leveled in a nuclear fall-out, it was common for residents to plan out how they would protect themselves and survive such a catastrophic event. Many residents of Florida began designing fallout shelters in their backyards. President John F. Kennedy also spent a great deal of time in Florida, and had his own bunker 10 minutes offshore on Peanut Island just before his death.

Cold War Tensions Escalate

In 1962 the Cold War was in full swing. The world was a very dangerous place, as missiles were regularly put on display. The nuclear attacks from World War II were still in near-memory, and you’d have had every reason to fear the inevitable confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, particularly with a whole pack of Soviet missiles located just 110 miles off-Florida-shore in Cuba. With fears like these and the realities of nuclear conflict, wealthy families in Mount Dora began planning an elaborate fallout shelter to escape to.

Wealthy Residents Hatch A Plan

Americans took the threat seriously, and wealthy residents of Mount Dora started discussing how they could protect their families in a time of nuclear threat. Dr. James Hall, who was the Lake County Health Director at the time, banned together with his fellow Mount Dora Yacht Club Members and other prominent, wealthy residents, including citrus magnate William Baker and businessman Theodore Mittendorf, to discuss building a large fallout shelter. He proposed that if 25 families could each contribute $2,000, local builder J.G. Ray could build a massive fallout shelter to house them all for up to six months. It was then, in the early ’60s, that construction began under an orange grove in Mount Dora.

What Lies Beneath Mount Dora’s Streets

As construction began on what would become the Mount Dora Catacombs, those in the know lied to other residents, telling them the construction was just a new tennis court being built. After the Cold War came to a close, the truth was revealed.

From the outside, the exterior door looks mostly nondescript, even innocent and boring. You’d likely imagine any number of possibilities for what would be found behind those green doors. But once you open the door, you quickly see that something is very different about the space within, six feet below the streets and orange grove.

Mount Dora – Down The Darkened Stairs

Behind that 2,000-pound steel door, you’d quickly see that the steep steps quickly lead you downward into the darkness. Not a fragment of light shines upwards to greet you, and you’d be in utter darkness if you did not carry a light. There’s a cold solidity about the stairs. They are not welcoming, partly because the dust and grime over the decades, as it rusts and decays, no longer serving it’s purpose as a fall-out shelter that may need to be used at any given moment. Even this initial entrance area reminds us that this is a castoff place, from a mostly forgotten Cold-War era.

What Was The Plan?

The Mount Dora complex doesn’t look impressive from the outside. Of course, to keep it secret, it would have to appear innocuous. The maze of rooms and tunnels, so carefully hidden away underground, were also considered to represent a prime real estate investment (each family contributed $2,000) by some of the wealthiest civilians, including prominent doctors, lawyers, the mayor and others. You could see the logic. As one of the ‘elite’, you were afforded the rare opportunity to survive even the world’s worst possible disaster. You’d have everything you needed to survive, and you could also keep your family close around you. It sounds like a perfect opportunity.

If you look back at history, you can’t help but wonder what the victims of other major disasters would have given to save their lives, and protect their families.

Families In Mount Dora Catacombs

The Catacombs spanned 5,000 square feet of living space, plus additional square feet for storage. Each room accommodated four people in bunk beds, one for each family. Not only did they store enough food and fuel to last them six months, they also planned to store enough supplies to start rebuilding their community once they survived the attack, including a storage of weapons. The walls were a foot thick of concrete and steel, and the size matched that of a motel.

Down The Hallway

These dark and dank halls must have looked more attractive once upon a time. The place may have even taken on a clinical, even ultra-safe personification with those bleached-white walls. The decades have not been kind to these halls that likely connected the living quarters with all the other areas of the Mount Dora Catacombs. Now, in their decayed and molding state, those chalk-white halls add to the freakish, even horror-movie, feel of the place. It might as well be an old psychiatric hospital or haunted house, rather than a survivalist’s pipe-dream and safe haven.

Elite Only

While it made sense for residents to take their safety into their own hands, with little shelter and protection provided by the government, it’s almost painful to think of all the lives that would be lost, of those who couldn’t afford to build such a shelter. Those involved in the project sworn to secrecy and would not welcome other residents into the Catacombs in the event of an emergency, even if it meant their death. Even the mayor was in on the plan.

Preparing For Anything

The artifacts left behind in the huge Mount Dora complex seem to point toward a community that took nearly every possible condition and situation into consideration. So, you’ll see the remnants of an old-fashioned wheelchair in what appears to be a small clinic or hospital room. Those bottles could be outdated medicine or disinfectant, or any number of possible remedies. What’s clear, though, is that careful planning went into the design and development of the rooms, as well as in the stocking of supplies.

Full Stocked Kitchen

The kitchen was fully stocked, and was one of the common areas in the Catacombs. The families were prepared not only to feed themselves for six months but to have supplies for after the nuclear disaster. While we don’t have an image of what the kitchen looked like before it began to deteriorate, you can image that they had seating, utensils, and dishes for everyone who paid. It’s hard to believe they planned all of this without anyone else catching on. At least the shelter provided a sense of comfort and safety to those who paid to build it.

The Common Space

After seeing some of the small rooms that are peppered throughout the Mount Dora Catacombs, you might be surprised to see the larger space here in what was the common room, located in the center of the Catacombs. From this angle, the ceiling also takes on almost a vaulted look and feel. With so many other tight and confining areas in the underground tunnels, the designer may have felt that this space (and other similar ones) would help to alleviate the effects of cabin fever and claustrophobia. Any design features that were meant to help alleviate that trapped feeling would have likely been welcomed.

Electronics at Mount Dora Catacombs

With all the talk of missiles and the technology of war, the inhabitants of Mount Dora Catacombs would have had access to several technological devices. As every good apocalyptic story goes, you’d have seen devices for navigation, communication, illumination, and (of course) the requisite power supply. Here on the shelves of this little room, it’s intriguing to see those electronic all in one place. It also shows that the families who paid for the construction of the fallout shelter have money to purchase all of these devices.

Light At The End Of The Room

In another time or place, you’d probably expect the light to be the flicker of firelight. The glowing flames would have danced against the far wall, and warmed all the inhabitants of this super-secret place. But, this is the Mount Dora Catacombs. An open flame would have just filled the room with smoke, with no outlet or ventilation to carry it outside. It’s an enclosed space, so a flame really wouldn’t be a good idea, but the golden glow of that light might just bring back memories of another time and place, above ground.

The Books At Mount Dora Catacombs

It’s not really surprising that you would find books, or even catalogs, in the rooms at the Mount Dora Catacombs. Of course, on the one hand, it’s a healthy nod to the basic utilitarian functionality of paper products. While we may rely almost exclusively on digital artifacts in modern society, the place was erected at a time when it was not so easy to access or store files. So, they would have needed books, or papers, particularly for instruction and training courses of study, but also for much more basic use-case scenarios. After all, in a highly stressful situation, books have powers to de-stress and offer much-needed entertainment.

Kids Affected By The Cold War

The doll’s house in the Mount Dora Catacombs is an intriguing find for a number of reasons. For one, it gives an indication of who the inhabitants really were. You’d have to guess that one of the families had a little girl who was particularly passionate about her dolls. Why else would her parents pay premium dollar to ensure that a little doll’s house was ready and waiting in their living space, should she ever need to escape from the end of the world catastrophe? During this time, kids were also practicing drills in schools in case of a nuclear disaster.

The Discovery Of Mount Dora Catacombs

Whether in real life or seen in film, you may have heard the sirens that were supposed to warn you of an imminent nuclear attack. You may have panicked, thinking about what could possibly happen. Then, that terror subsided, at least a little bit, when the all-clear was sounded. As you also probably know, hiding under a desk or in a backyard fallout shelter would almost certainly have done nothing to protect you. It probably would have been too little too late. Still, the act of “duck-and-cover” still made you feel better, even safer.

As you walk through the underground tunnels, halls and hidden places under Mount Dora, you get the sense that they may have really created a place where they could survive. Although it’s not been tested, or even really proven, the place offers a sense of secret, even hidden safety. So, face it… You too would run for those tunnels if the siren ever went off once again.

True Danger

We know what nuclear fall-out and the initial percussive blast of destruction can do to a place. We’ve seen examples from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we’ve also been struck with the many apocalyptic fictions. We know the brutal realities, in terms of human life and also in structural damage. It’s sickening to hear or read the stories, but worse yet to see the evidence in our history books and documentaries. Those devastating photos have continued to inspire places like the Mount Dora Catacombs project, as well as other survivalist pursuits, as they prepare to dig deep underground to escape whatever fate might befall the rest of the world.

What About The Mushroom Cloud?

Beyond the threat of the missiles was the much-more-fully realized fear of the tell-tale “mushroom cloud”. Most American knew about that mushroom cloud because of the propaganda films and materials from a decade earlier. The real and imagined dangers were enough to inspire many to at least consider the idea of creating a secret (or not-so-secret) fall-out shelter. Of course, most Americans wouldn’t have imagined anything quite so elaborate as Mount Dora Catacombs. Then, again, they couldn’t have afforded a place like that. Even so, it wouldn’t have seemed odd or insane to believe that you’d need a safe escape for the inevitable cataclysmic event.

The Alas, Babylon Connection

The Mount Dora Catacombs were inspired by the 1959 novel Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank. The apocalyptic dystopian novel is often assigned by high school teachers and college professors and depicts the effects of a nuclear war.

You may be intrigued to learn that Fort Repose, Florida, the fictional town mentioned in the book, is actually modeled after Mount Dora, Florida. After reading the novel, the real residents of Mount Dora decided to build a fallout shelter in case the plot unfolded in real life. And, there’s that reminder from the novel: “Your job is to survive because if you don’t the children won’t survive. That is your job. There is no other.”

Thankfully, residents never had to use the shelter for its purpose.

Discovering a Bomb Shelter in His Backyard

In 2015, John Sims moved into his new home in the midtown area of Tuscan, Arizona. The previous owner revealed some peculiar information to Sims about his new house; apparently there was a nuclear fallout shelter buried somewhere beneath his lawn. The shelter had been built in 1961 by a company named Whitaker Pools (pool companies had built lots of the fallout shelters). The Tuscan area had been especially distressed during the Cold War because the nearby Sonora desert was the site for 18 intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, that were presumed to be aimed at the Soviet Union.

The Search Begins

In triple digit temperatures, Sims grabbed a shovel and started to dig in hopes of finding the shelter. After a few empty holes, Sims started to worry that he would never locate it. He then paid a consultant to help find it using a metal detector, and sure enough the location was pinpointed. Sims had dug down about three feet into the dirt when he reached a metal cap that was flipped upside down. At first he thought that it was a septic tank, but he soon realized it was the hatch to the shelter. As a captain with the Rural/Metro Fire Department, Sims figured out how to pry off the heavy piece of metal, but was hesitant to enter down below.

The Descent Below

The next day Sims decided to walk down the spiral staircase and enter the bunker. As he looked down he noticed that some of the stairs had crumbled and fallen into the shelter, and knew he had to approach with extreme caution. Sims knew important things to look for in that type pf situation, as he had been trained in rescuing people in confined spaces. He knew to test the air for mold, as well as to ensure that he had people nearby in case the lid fell back on and he became trapped, as he’d never be able to lift it from the inside on his own.

An Empty Dome

As Sims carefully climbed down into the small shelter, he discovered that it was made from concrete and had a domed fiberglass ceiling. Sims was expecting to find “a little microcosm … a time capsule full of civil-defense boxes, radiation detectors and cots and stuff like that.” That was definitely not the case. Instead what he found was a barren, dirty bunker. There were no furniture or a supplies down there, and instead it was filled with bricks, debris and rubble. It is not known whether anything was removed from the shelter, or whether its original owner never had a chance to properly set it up.

Let the Restoration Begin

Sims has decided to restore the shelter and transform it into his own man cave, HAM shack and Civil Defense Museum. Though handy himself, He has been consulting with engineers and contractors for advice on how to restore it to its proper glory. Once it is complete, he plans on spending the night in the shelter at least once and using it as a retreat from the intense Arizona summer heat, as the temperature in the bunker lingers around 72 degrees year-round. His has already restored the upper entryway with a concrete pour and built a new metal staircase, all of which cost about $2k.

Go Fund This

Sims hopes the competed shelter will became a neat little memorial to the Cold War period of American history, a period of time in which Americans were so overcome with fear of a possible nuclear war that they were inspired to build shelters such as this one in their own backyards. He has begun to acquire numerous period artifacts to put on display down inside the shelter, such as Geiger counters, water supply barrels, sanitation kits and vintage HAM radios. He has even launched a Go Fund Me campaign to help him raise money to complete his restoration.