Sihan Cui is a documentary photographer who lives and works in New York City. She was born in Taiyuan, an industrial city located in northern China, in 1996. She majored in photojournalism at university. She graduated from the MFA program in Photography, Video and Related Media department of the School of Visual Arts.
Sihan Cui has been committed to documentary photography and documentary film making. She has been focusing on the diversification of social communities, living reality of social minorities and the public’s stereotype towards them. Her photography project “520”, which is about the betel nuts beauty in Taiwan was shot for three months in 2017, and she has completed a subway busker documentary photography project The Dawn in Beijing, China in 2018. The project “520” was shown in the 17th Pingyao Photography Festival.
Sihan Cui went to the School of Visual Arts for MFA program in September 2018. After moving to New York, she noticed that the living status of Chinese immigrants in New York are very special and complicated, especially for the “new immigrants” who have moved to America after 1980s. She began to focus on the current situation of Chinese labor immigrants in the United States and has been working on a series of projects about that. In November 2018, Sihan Cui met Song Hai and Shi Yumei, the family of the victim of the falling case in Flushing, and began to document their life in New York since then. The project “After 356 days” finished by March 2019. From June 2019 to the present, she has been working on an independent documentary The Wave on the theme of the current status of Chinese labor immigrants.
The immigration issue is a major global issue in our world. In China, labor migration is providing vulnerable groups of immigrants. Their process of going overseas is often accompanied by illegal smuggling, human trafficking, labor exploitation, and physical assault. These parts of the process, as well as the life overseas for migrant workers, are not fully aware of people who live in China. Many Chinese have the impression that overseas migration means wealth and a better life. However, the life of Chinese labor immigrants overseas is not as glamorous as people think. Language barriers, illegal residency status, distrust of foreign country and the lack of effective protection put them in a very dangerous situation. Labor exploitation and substandard low-cost hourly wages are not new issues. The dilemmas immigrants face may also be the threat of personal safety and forced involvement in the illegal industry. For female labor immigrants, in
addition to overcoming fears of unfamiliar environments and living in poverty, they also face human trafficking and sex industries. Immigrants have paid a great price. They left their loved ones and friends, left everything they are familiar with, and went to a country where they can’t even understand the language in order to seek a better life. When they set foot on the new land with high expectations, all kinds of unexpected and unpredictable risks emerge in the way of opportunity. Is the dream still as good as they imagined, or is it just a phantom, fragile bubble?
I was born and raised in China. Like a lot of Chinese who live in mainland China, I always thought those who make it aboard to live in a developed country, always successful and wealthy. They live a better life than before. After I came to New York, I met many Chinese immigrants living here. A lot of them were labor immigrants. They lived in a small area of the city and lived a life so different from what I imagined.
Last year, I shot a documentary photography project about a Chinese massage girl’s family. For the first time, I got to know something about the living conditions of Chinese labor immigrants living abroad. The first thing that needs to be clarified is that everyone leaves their home and go abroad with hope and goals. They have paid a lot getting here. One must wonder whether these costs are worth it? Do people know what kind of life they are facing before arriving at their destination? Are they fully aware of the risks they need to take?
I have been to some apartments in Flushing, New York, with living conditions that are nearly unbearable. It is quite
common for three or four families to share a small space separated by curtains or wardrobes. Because of the language barriers and the natural alienation between people, loneliness is probably the most difficult suffering for migrant workers. They have no relatives or friends here. They don’t have any emotional connection. They must learn all the rules and customs like a child. As a foreigner who’s new to this country myself, I have an empathetic experience with their situation. In the process of getting in touch with Chinese labor immigrants, I noticed that even if they only want to work hard to make money, they are also in a very vulnerable living condition. Many labor immigrants go abroad by paying smugglers, which means that they have not only illegal residence, but also carried a huge amount of debt. This kind of life is far from the impression I had about immigrants. I wondered if this kind of situation is a dilemma Chinese labor immigrants are facing all over the world.