The fourth floor of 81 Bowery, in New York’s Chinatown, is composed of narrow, ceiling-less cubicles that some 35 Chinese immigrants call home. After reading a Village Voice feature on the residence, photographer Annie Ling was inspired to capture the space and the hard-working men and women who inhabit it. The result was an absorbing photo essay, published recently on the website of The New York Times.
Ling’s images recall the dawn-to-dusk labor and cramped conditions that greeted generations of Eastern-European Jewish immigrants who settled, at the turn of the 20th century, on the Lower East Side — just a stone’s throw from 81 Bowery. Ling, who emigrated from Taiwan at age 7, spoke recently with The Arty Semite about the culture that exists within the tenement’s walls, the dreams that residents harbored upon coming to America, and how this project grew out of a need to share her own immigrant story.
Gabrielle Birkner: What drew you to this particular assignment?
Annie Ling: Since the neighborhood has seen so much change, the resilience of these residents to preserve their way of life at 81 Bowery really compelled me look closely at what is being threatened. Family and home, subjects I am particularly interested in, also drew me to this unique community of immigrants. In one of my earlier visits to the lodging house, one of the residents, Mr. Chu, said to me: “You’re the same age as my daughter… I have not seen her in 17 years.”
Because many Chinese immigrant laborers like Chu live on very little and send most of their earnings to family members in China or distant cities, at the end of the day, these breadwinners forfeit a real relationship with their wives, children, mothers and fathers. Mr. Chu and I exchanged stories and I [confessed to him] that I did not really know my father. He was the breadwinner I never saw growing up. My personal work in Chinatown is driven by a need to tell my own story, and the stories of immigrants and individuals that revolve around the themes of displacement and sacrifice.
Was it difficult to gain access to 81 Bowery? Were tenants hesitant to be photographed?
For me, getting past the front door was more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Being confident of why I am there in the first place was critical. Getting personal invitations from residents into each of their personal spaces and homes would be the next challenge.
Mr. Wang was the first one to invite me into his 64-square-foot home. At 84 years old, he is one of the oldest tenants and has lived at 81 Bowery the longest (more than 20 years). We would watch Chinese operas and movies together, sometimes chatting between breaks. Soon after other residents would welcome me into their homes. When they are comfortable around me and I am comfortable in their homes, that is when I start to make pictures.
What can you tell me about the community and culture that exists inside those walls?
The community of immigrant workers functions like a family. The cubicles without ceilings provide very little privacy, so neighbors have to learn to trust each other and tolerate each other to live peacefully. They support one another, often share meals, drink and socialize together at the end of long work days. The hallways between cubicles serve as communal spaces — living room, dining room, kitchen. The aesthetic environment, which is so characteristically Chinese, is very telling of how detached they are from the rest of the city.
What keeps the longer-term residents there? Is it merely the low rent — or is it something more? For those who stay for a few weeks or months, where do they go from 81 Bowery?
The residents mainly stay on the Bowery because of the cheap rent [$100 to $200 a month] and the location. They struggle to operate outside of Chinatown because of language and cultural barriers. They feel more comfortable and “at home” in this community than anywhere else. After working in foreign cities and states, the residents talk about how tough it is to eat outside of Chinatown, where Chinese dishes, flavors and options are limited. The few temporary residents at the Bowery are either staying with friends who are tenants or are just passing through till they find work in another city or state.
Did any of the tenants discuss how, before they came over from China, they had imagined their lives in America would be — and how that compares to the lives they are leading now?
Pretty much all of them came to America in hopes of getting better opportunities for work and to make a better wage. Most of the residents speak practically about the benefits of being in America, while few have expressed a longing to return home to China. Some dream of owning a house here someday. But without family in America, the workers resolve to send the bulk of their earnings home so their families can build a better life for themselves in China.
What surprised you about the residence, and about its tenants?
Every space is personalized, and are all quite different from one another. I was surprised to find a 30-inch flat-screen TV in one of the cubicles. Also I’m usually quite impressed with how well they cook and eat most evenings. Sometimes it feels like a cafeteria, with everyone preparing different dishes for supper simultaneously.