Behind every hustle and bustle of a big metropolis, there are always corners and secrets yet to be discovered. In the east of lower Manhattan in New York, an ethnic enclave of Chinese immigrants can be found. These Chinese immigrants mainly come from Fujian, China and lead their lives as waiters, cooks or cleaning workers at Chinese restaurants in “Chinatown”. Addressing the shocking differences in living standard of the Chinese diasporic community in an “Alpha ++ city”, Taiwanese photographer Chang Chien-chi has documented photographically in his project “Chinatown” the lives of Chinese workers in NYC since 1992.
Apart from revealing the caged unhygienic living conditions of Chinese immigrant workers, Chang significantly challenged the notion of home for such Chinese diasporic workers in New York City. Having illegally emigrated to the U.S.A., diasporic immigrant workers live under gigantic debt to the Mafia which assisted them during emigration. Most of these illegal immigrants, being fathers of families in Fujian, took up the challenge and opportunity to prosper their families in China by working in the United States. After separating from their family members for 20 years, however, do they still recognize their wives or children in Fujian?
“Do I know you, father?”
There are cases that fathers in these families work very hard and earn enough for their family to emigrate to the United States. However, such reunion poses suspicion in the virtual relationship between the fathers and the rest of the family. Especially children of such families often experience strangeness of ‘meeting’ their fathers again after a long time. The learnt biological relationship with the father contrasts starkly with the intimate care provided by their mothers and family members in China. However, fact is that these children could experience a comfortable and prosperous life (as part of the middle class in China) only because they received remittances from their fathers who work long hours every day in the United States. The pictures portray the emotional and economic debt these family members have to one another.
Closely related to the importance of marriage for young women (often daughters of these separated families), as Hung (2011, 288) puts it, “in the Fuzhounese home, guilt and a sense of obligation served to reify a gendered division of labour that compelled youth to perform specific duties”, that is, the sons working in a restaurant and daughters “marrying a citizen and performing wealth at an extravagant wedding.”
My life vs Our life
These pictures contrast the lives of the husband and wife who are separated between New York and Fujian. The wife has her bed empty and there is more space in her bedroom, whereas at the husband’s side, it is an incommodious room. The facial expressions display the sense of unpleasantness and nostalgia. One wonders how couples could communicate or psychologically connect while engaging in a long distance relationship.
“I will get married”
Marriage is an obligation and a performance for the Fuzhounese. Fuzhounese women play a crucial role in contributing to the family by getting married to a man in the United States who helps her gain migrant citizenship and help with debt repayment. The illegality of Fuzhounese immigrants in New York Chinatown results in spatial boundaries and economic hardships, thus “sexuality and marriage practices” are put “outside of the established norms” (Hung 2011, 184).
Weddings in Chinatown have become more luxurious and costly, Fuzhounese weddings take place at the best Chinese restaurants in Chinatown with red carpet and crystal chandeliers. A lot of guests are invited to witness the wedding. These weddings are often the showcase of the wealth and ‘face’ of the families, the average cost of a wedding being about $40,000 (Hung 2011, 196).
“Marriage [is] largely related to political economy of restaurant work and the income generating function of the restaurant space” (Hung 2011, 184). Since most Fuzhounese workas restaurant workers and owners, marriage means an increase in man power in the catering business. In other words, marriage is a created economic opportunity.
The secret life of immigrant male workers
The photos of Chang portray the pathetic scene of a Chinese worker who resorts to playing with an inflated doll for sexual satisfaction. The fact that a lot of bachelors from China went to New York on their own results in psychological problems. The sex toy is the only solution and comfort man has; whereas his family is far away, there is a peculiar portrayal of the notion of home and family. To the worker in the photos, his home is on the one hand the sex toy and himself, and on the other hand, the imagination and memory of his wife and children in Fujian. It shows the “in-between-ness” of the Chinese worker in terms of psychological and physical needs, since these needs are fulfilled by prostitution or inflation toys.
Next time when you travel to New York, or pass by Chinatown in lower Manhattan, it might be worthwhile just to appreciate a little more of these hard working fathers.
Hung, Winnie T. 2011. “Enforcing Stillness: Chinatown Youth and Geographies of Illegality.” Doctor of Philosophy, University of California Davis.
 According to Globalization and World Cities Research Network