Underground shelters turned into wine cellars and cafes

Some abandoned bomb shelters hidden beneath the city's downtown area are being converted into activity centers, cafes and wine cellars. Others are being filled in.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Zhang Fuxiang prepares to climb down to an abandoned shelter under Meixi Elementary School in Huangpu District to ensure it is rendered safe by being filled in.

Shanghai has a total of over 700,000 square meters of abandoned bomb shelters honeycombed across the city.

Local government is filling up some of them, while the better preserved shelters are being converted into activity centers, cafes and wine cellars.

Most of the underground shelters were built during the 1960s and 1970s under the admonition of Chairman Mao Zedong to "dig deep and store grain" and also as a defense against foreign invaders.

Most of them are still in good enough condition to offer emergency shelter to citizens, but some have become major safety risks due to severe water percolation and even partial collapse, especially beneath the old residential communities in downtown Huangpu District, according to the district's civil defense office.

Huangpu alone has 582 abandoned civil defense shelters covering 100,000 square meters, or a seventh of the city's total, said Wang Shirui, director with the engineering management department of the office.

"Many of them have been long abandoned and hidden beneath old residential buildings and historic structures. Their entrances and exits have been sealed and that made them difficult to be found," he said.

During the "dig deep" campaign about half a century ago, enthusiastic citizens built a large number of shelters with poor quality bricks, and most of them incorporated no steel beams or concrete due to a shortage of materials in that era, according to Wang.

These often shabby shelters are about 2 meters wide and tall with a vaulted ceiling. After decades of being abandoned, the bricks manufactured in self-built workshops have started to crumble. Since no waterproof materials were used during their construction, most of the shelters have been flooded by underground water and sewage, Wang said.

They have become "time bombs" hidden under the residential houses that could lead to land subsidence and even cause the buildings above them to collapse, he said.

Wang added he was shocked by a cave-in accident that happened in central China last year and became determined to remove the risks to Huangpu once and for all.

In the accident, a female teacher in her 30s was killed in Zhengzhou in Henan Province last August after a large hole suddenly appeared in a road caused by a cave-in of a former bomb shelter beneath.

Flooded underground caves could create other problems such as a damp or stinking environment to families living above. Furthermore, toxic gases such as hydrogen sulphide and marsh gas often accumulate in sealed spaces.

Huangpu District Civil Defense Office / Ti Gong

A worker climbs down into an abandoned shelter beneath a residential house. A flooded underground cave can create problems for people living above it.

Huangpu District Civil Defense Office / Ti Gong

A worker fills up an abandoned shelter with foam concrete to prevent land subsidence and the shelter caving in.

Wang has recently resolved a long nightmare for one household living on Liyuan Road where a shelter cave filled with black water was found under a bedroom.

The district government is using CT technology to search for about 30 such "forgotten" underground shelters. And two dozen have been found, according to Wang.

Twenty-year-old Zhang Fuxiang climbed down to an abandoned shelter under Meixi Elementary School that originated during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). His task was to ensure the whole cave was filled in.

The migrant worker from central Henan Province had to wear a gas mask, protective glasses and a thick protective uniform despite the city's scorching 35 degrees Celsius weather.

"The darkness down there is sometimes more disturbing to me than the strong smell and the stagnant air," Zhang told Shanghai Daily.

The district government plans to fill up 283 abandoned shelters this year, mostly in the old residential communities, Wang said.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A bomb shelter on 883 Xietu Road in Huangpu was turned into a wine club in 2010, storing about 30,000 bottles of red wine.

Some shelters are being converted into a multitude of different uses, ranging from activity rooms, exhibition halls, storage rooms, and even wine cellars.

"The bomb shelter is a special memory to the city that shall not disappear," Wang said. "Some of them can become valuable again with proper renovation."

A bomb shelter on 883 Xietu Road in Huangpu wouldn't be such a bad place to run for cover if disaster struck — because it now houses about 30,000 bottles of red wine.

Today it is home to a membership wine club called Cellar Club. Opened in 2010, it covers 2,050 square meters and lies 5 meters beneath the ground.

"We rented the shelter because its temperature and moisture are ideal for the storage of wine," said Rock Yin, a manager with the club. Its temperature is a constant 25 degrees all year round, while the moisture is always 60 percent, Yin said.

Yin's company spent over 4 million yuan (US$600,000) to stabilize the underground structure, install an air purification system and to remove gases, and decorate the shelter in the style of European wine cellars.

Using a bomb shelter site for a wine cellar has been done elsewhere in Shanghai. An 800-square-meter bomb shelter in Hongqiao area has become a renowned wine storage area named Ruby Red, run by locals and a New Zealander.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A bomb shelter on 883 Xietu Road in Huangpu was turned into a wine club in 2010. It stores about 30,000 bottles of red wine.

In Jing'an District, a cafe called Extra Time has been renovated from a shelter to become a "web celebrity" cafe. The management of the cafe kept the grey cement walls, emergency exits and floors as well as some historic logos.

"The gloomy concrete wall makes a shape contrast to the modern coffee smell, which made the place attractive," a customer called Mary commented.

Furthermore, a shelter in Huangpu's Bansongyuan Subdistrict has been renovated into an activity center for its residents.

Not far away, an underground civil defense shelter beneath Dongjiadu No. 2 Elementary School is being turned into a storage area for the school and an exhibition center for students to study history.

Two shelters in the Xiaodongmen Subdistrict have become lounges for patrolling police officers.

However, if disaster strikes, these renovated shelters will be assigned to serving their original purpose, Wang said.

Zhu Yan / Ti Gong

A cafe called Extra Time was once an underground civil defense shelter in Jing'an District. The original grey cement walls, emergency exits and floors have been preserved .

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