From the countries capital, to one of the largest industrial cities in the world, Chongqing’s mountainous and changing landscape is like no other. At first look, it could pass as just another metropolis in China with its skyscrapers hidden behind a thick smog and heavy traffic on its meandering highways and overpasses, but upon closer scrutiny, you will notice the array of informal micro-enterprises that have been established in disused air-raid shelters.
During the Sino-Japanese war, Chongqing (then Chungking) suffered an horrendous bombing onslaught by the Japanese. Chongqing was made the new Nationalist capital by the Kuomintang due to its strategic location in 1938. That same year, hundreds of bomb shelters were built into the sides of the mountains for asylum against the impending raids. The attacks meant to serve two purposes; to weaken Chinese defences, and inflict civilian casualties in order to weaken moral. The worst attack being on the night of the 4th June 1941 where 2,500 people were killed of injured, the majority due to suffocation in the shelters. Every year air-raid sirens can be heard all over the city in commemoration of the 10,000 Chinese people who perished in the attacks.
These shelters have a very different use now. Many have been converted into restaurants, shops and workshops. In Fujiagou, they are being used for industry. Owned by Jianshe, one of China’s most successful motorcycle companies, they produce a variety of machine parts. The workers are there 6 days a week for earning around 2000rmb a month, the workers are busy bustling away on noisy machines, under flickering light with terrible ventilation as they have been doing since the end of the war. One of the workers, whose job it is to drill holes in cylinders, says that she gets 0.04rmb per cylinder (around 80rmb a day) and that she struggles to manage the rent, bills and tuition fee for her daughter. The only school she can afford outside of the city and means that the only time she can see her child is on Friday evening and Saturdays. Sunday her daughter has to start her commute back to school. While the company pays for her endowment insurance, it wont help her financially in the short term.
In another shelter, Ms Fang, an owner of a recycling business near Liziba metro station, is struggling with the fall of the price of steel. Moving from Sichuan province 4 years ago she would earn up to 2000rmb per ton of steel, now that has dropped by 50% to 900-1000rmb per ton. But on top of that when she has a lot of work that needs to be done she hires workers to breakdown the goods to get at the metals. 4 years ago a worker would earn 180rmb per day, now thats gone up to 2050rmb. This is not something she can afford and most of the time she’s by herself in the tunnel playing the stock market on her computer. Like most of the older generation she looks to her two children to finish their studies and support her through her old age as the business that she has built for over 17 years is no longer able to support her through her retirement.
There are many workshops that have been established in the bomb shelters along the two rivers in Chongqing all with similar stories of falling demand, however one draw to built businesses in these tunnels is the low overhead. Renting a tunnel close to Lianglukou, for Ma Zhihua and Ning Pingzhi’s bicycle store and electronic scooter workshop, is so low due to the design of the tunnels. They’re cool in the summer and warmer in the winter, meaning they have no need for heating or air-conditioning year round. They pay 3000rmb rent per month, which seems to be the average of all the shops in the area, but means that they have a financial edge. This has meant that since their move to Chongqing from Hebei 10 years ago they have been able to send their three children to school (having three children is very rare in China) just outside of the city and live a comfortable life. Over the last couple of years however they have started to have problems, The internet is able to undercut their merchandise and even though the bills are low, having no shop at all seems to be the way Chongqing, China and the world is going.
Local government are in the process of transforming many of the surviving shelters into recreational areas for locals and tourists with plans in Fujiagou, to transform the working tunnels into a memorial and museum. Hundreds of others have been made into halls that residents can go to for performances and games. Established to protect people from peril, then helping Chongqing become an industrial powerhouse, to the present. They are a reminder of darker times to some, but also a brighter future.