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China's "Ant Tribe" Lives In The World's Most Cramped Apartments

Photos from the fringes of China's biggest cities. Toilets built under bed lofts, groups of renters crammed in underground windowless rooms — how the great migrations towards cities create cramped living conditions.

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Many of them are migrant workers toughing it out in China's most desirable cities, though Hukou residency quotas mean many cannot become legal city residents or partake in their low-income housing and public services. In Beijing alone, an estimated 100,000 of them live in windowless underground hovels, while elsewhere they live in buses, shipping containers, and dangerously cramped bunks. They are China's "rat people" and "ant tribe," a category that includes older workers priced out of above-ground apartments and, increasingly, underemployed college graduates who have to share a bedroom with six strangers to make rent ("rat people" refer to people living in underground rentals, while "ant people" refer to recent grads in cramped quarters).

The photos below show how blue and white collar migrants alike are getting shut out from the cities' official Hukou resident system (which the government plans to reform) and priced out of the cores of cities into to the fringes and undergrounds.

Sim Chi Yin / VII Mentor Program

In the communal kitchen of a condo in western Beijing, the landlord posts a rent collection notice: "starting August, rent will be due on the first day of each month. New renters are exempt."


Two employees of a construction material company share an apartment in Wuhan city. An open shower (and what looks to be a squat toilet) sits at the base of a ladder leading to the top bunk.

Sim Chi Yin / VII Mentor Program

Master Yan, who declined to give his full name, teaches and practices Chinese martial arts in an air-raid shelter basement with 130 rooms for rent.

Sheng Li / Reuters

Migrant construction workers live and share dinner on a bus in Shenyang, Liaoning province. Their construction manager bought the scrapped bus for his workers at 26,000 yuan ($4,190).

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Dai Yusheng and his wife live and work in city sanitation in the Hongkou district of Shanghai. He makes 14RMB per hour ($2.28) and lives in a windowless underground apartment.

Comics Editor + Chinese-English Translator.

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