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Chongqing in China escapes the heat wave in cave restaurants

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World War II air-raid shelters have become a popular summer retreat for many in China’s interior southwest, as locals and tourists flock to underground bunkers and cave restaurants to escape the sweltering heat this summer.

In past summers, Chongqing has opened up part of the underground space from June to September, with stools, drinks, board games and TV projectors, for residents to get away from the heat. This year, most shelters have been closed in line with China’s “zero covid” policy, even though the city is experiencing the fiercest heat wave since Beijing set official weather records in 1961.

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But some restaurants, cafes and shops converted from these facilities are allowed to open as long as there is no major outbreak, and they find locals and tourists arriving in droves. Chongqing and neighboring Sichuan Province are facing a power shortage, which has forced factories to shut down production and left many of Chongqing Municipality’s 32 million people without air conditioning, with temperatures reaching 113 degrees Fahrenheit. (The Yangtze River that Chongqing straddles has reached an all-time high, decreasing the hydropower generation the region depends on.)

The most popular underground hotspots are “cave hot pot” restaurants, converted from former air-raid shelters to serve the Chinese hot pot – a simmering bowl of broth in which diners dip slices of raw meat and vegetables to to cook. Chongqing is known for its spicy hot pot, which uses beef fat, red chili peppers and numbing Sichuan peppercorns in the broth.

Cave Pavilion Hotpot, established in 1989, has garnered a cult following following recent media hits. Plastic tables and chairs line two long, narrow tunnels connected by a dimly lit hallway.

Diners can expect long queues outside and poor ventilation inside, according to customer reviews on China’s largest review site Dianping. Water leaks are a common problem, and a local restaurant chain told The Washington Post it suspended in-person dining at an underground outlet after reports of slippery floors last month.

As part of a campaign to use retired air-raid shelters, Chongqing has turned some places into museums, shops and other venues since the 2010s, according to the China National Defense Daily. As an important military base during World War II, Chongqing had built more than 1,600 shelters by 1942 to counter the Japanese invasion, according to an estimate by local researchers.

“I see the most customers in the summer because my house is insulated from the heat and the underground location gives you a different vibe,” said Chen Huanwen, owner of Stone House cafe. “It’s an experience in itself.”

Chen, an art curator and Van Gogh fan, rented and redecorated the space with his friends and installed plumbing and ventilation systems. They painted a starry night sky on the arched roof and marked tables as train seats, with Van Gogh-inspired picture blocks on the wall showing “views outside the train window”.

“A headache is that the water keeps dripping from the ceiling, and there’s not much we can do about it,” Chen said, adding that this hasn’t deterred visitors drawn to the cool weather.

To compensate for the closure of cooling shelters, Chongqing has designated 99 air-conditioned subway stations as summer rest areas for residents to “escape the scorching heat”, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

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Temperatures have largely dropped after rain on Monday, made possible by artificial cloud seeding by the government, and local authorities expect this heat wave to end on Tuesday.

High temperatures may return in early September and drought may continue, but the risk of another large-scale extreme heat wave will be “quite low”, Zhang Yan, deputy chief of the Chongqing meteorological department, told reporters on Friday.

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement