Chien-Chi Chang: China Town
In his work, Chang makes manifest the abstract concepts of alienation and connection. Chang’s investigation of the ties that bind one person to another was drawn on his own deeply divided immigrant experience first in the United States and later in Austria. For 24 years, Chang has photographed the bifurcated lives of the Chinese immigrants in New York’s Chinatown, along with those of their wives and families back home in Fujian, China. Still a work in progress, China Town was hung at the National Museum of Singapore in 2008 as part of a mid-career survey and at La Biennale di Venezia, 2009 as well as at International Center of Photography, New York. 2012.
Chang has had steady solo and group exhibitions including The Chain, La Biennale di Venezia, 2001, Museum der Kulturen Basel, 2011 and recently, Home, at National Art School Gallery/Sherman Contemporary Foundation, Sydney, 2014, Busan Biennale 2014. Chang has received numerous awards from National Press Photographers Association, Picture of Year (1998 & 1999, USA), World Press Photo (the Netherlands, 1998 & 1999) Visa d'Or at Visa Pour L’image (1999, France) and was the recipient of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund on Humanistic Photography in 1999.
Chang's photographs have been in the permanent collection of The National Media Museum, Bradford, Chi-Mei Museum, Tainan, International Center of Photography, New York City, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Kaohsiung, Los Angeles County Museum, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung, Queens Museum, New York City, Southeast Museum of Photography, Daytona Beach and Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei.
Immigration is propelled by suffering. To witness the shifting patterns of populations is to see the world in all its exigencies—war, natural disasters, repression, famine, poverty and persecution. But there is a rainbow at the bottom of that Pandora’s box of troubles; hope, too, propels immigrants to settle in strange lands. I should know: I am one myself.
Perhaps the most aspirational of the world’s people are the Chinese. For them, New York’s Chinatown is the capital city of promise, the place you go to make a new life for your family, a fortune. It is no coincidence that the boatload of illegal immigrants who grounded on a New York City beach in 1993 sailed on a ship called the Golden Venture. And this movement of people is an increasingly critical social issue. As the relationship between the U.S. and China grows ever more complex on an economic level, these individual stories, too, are weaving together the future of two nations.
Nineteen years ago, I began to haunt Chinatown in the hope of gaining access to the most recent wave of immigrants from the province of Fujian. Outsiders are not welcome; trust comes from blood ties. But I was persistent, and I slowly gained the trust of a handful of men who lived in a dilapidated tenement building that was subdivided into 32 cubicles containing some 90 Fujianese men from the same village.
I ate with them and slept on their floor. I helped them with telephone calls and forms in English, and gradually they allowed me to photograph them. These men—mostly uneducated, undocumented and unskilled—pay as much as $86,000 to be smuggled into the U.S. They leave their families to work as dishwashers, cooks, carpenters and day laborers. Their little leisure time is spent in crowded dormlike apartments where they eat, sleep and dream of prosperity and of home. Because of their illegal status, they haven’t been able to go home, even for a visit.
When I was living with them in 1998, 1999 and 2001, we shared two showers, four toilets and three sinks in the cockroach-infested boardinghouse above Bowery. My next door neighbors were four middle-aged men from the same village in rural Fujian who shared three bunks for four dollars a night so as to save every penny to pay off their debts.
The men were not prepared for the harshness of the life they found in New York City. In the summer of 1998 when the temperature reached 105 degrees F, the little cubicles became an unbearable oven. Most of the tenants slept on the rooftop night after night to escape the heat wave. And most of them were unprepared for the emotional hardship of separation from their families. Several times, 38-year-old Que Hejin, one of my neighbors, begged me to go to China to marry his wife and bring their daughters over to lessen his loneliness.
I began to wonder about their wives and children—many of whom the men hadn’t seen since they were born. I had a passport and a grant from the W. Eugene Smith award. So in 2000, I decided to find out how these families were doing back home in villages that had been stripped of their adult male populations. Such families, I learned, may spend decades in purgatory, waiting for the men of their household to save their menial wages so that they can afford to reunite, whether in China or, in the U.S.
Visiting these villages, one immediately notices the absence of men between 20 to 50 years of age. Yet, physical evidence of the fruits of their labor is evident in the rapid construction of new housing, as well as the brisk sales of furniture, imported electronic goods and brand name clothing. The visible flaunting of wealth influences still more men of the community to seek “opportunity” abroad. For although China’s economic reform policy of the late 1980s has created prosperity for many in cities, it hasn’t trickled down to rural areas where jobs are scarce. Left with little alternative, Fujianese men seek their fortunes overseas.
Living lives devoid of husbands, fathers or brothers, uncertain of their future, women resign themselves to waiting, the unpredictability of a reunion tearing at the fabric of both the family and their community. With their husbands and relatives in New York, women in rural China assume the responsibility of caring for younger and elder family members while enduring ridicule brought on by harsh Chinese societal values and norms. Some Fujian neighborhoods are sarcastically nicknamed “widow’s villages.”
Videotapes of weddings, funerals and housewarming parties are sent abroad to lessen the emotional distance, but the physical distance cannot be bridged. A marriage, a child’s growth, a death—the rites and markers of a family and tradition all fragment. Meanwhile these couples live double lives: Married / single, Chinese / American, legal/illegal. Together, yet apart.
To contrast the bleak, black-and-white lives of the men in the U.S. I chose to photograph the families in China in color. Like the families who have granted access to me, the project has also grown and changed over the years. In 2005 I began using audio recordings and, in 2007, video recordings to continue to document the divided families. Now I am ready to move the project to a higher dimension through the combination of still images and moving images within a soundscape. And, ultimately, to do what has never been done before—to make these invisible families, with their sufferings and triumphs, at last, visible.
The past 21 years of developing these relationships are now culminating in a tri-generational drama. Some of the first waves of illegal immigrants are choosing to return to China to enjoy the prosperity they have created there and spend the rest of their lives with family members they have not seen for nearly two decades. Yet their sons still choose to be smuggled to New York, leaving their own families behind. Divided families remain divided.
The compelling quality of this project is its universality. It is about the essential human need to hold hope in your hands and about having the willingness to sacrifice one’s own immediate happiness to realize the dream of giving children a “better” life. But is economic prosperity worth the social cost? Perhaps the answers to such questions we all ponder can be found in the lives of the people left behind in China and in those of the second and third generation immigrants growing up in the United States. Look at them, and listen to their voices. You may not understand their language, but you can feel their longing.