One rich family considered my proposal seriously for a couple of days. I met them at a party for the opening of a fashion boutique. They were dressed like celebrities. The daughter had been studying abroad, first in Britain and then in the United States. She spoke perfect English and displayed perfect ‘Western’ manners. The family talked of their plans to visit a resort in Thailand soon. They did agree to me shooting photos, but with unacceptable conditions. They would allow me to photograph the guest room of their luxurious house but ruled out anything that might associate them with the terms “wealthy lifestyle” or “rich lifestyle”. They also wanted to review my picture story before it was published.
The poor did not welcome my camera either but for different reasons. Many felt ashamed of their life and had anxieties about being reported on by the news media. Nonetheless, I spent a lot of time in wealthy and poor districts located in the eastern part of Beijing. The distance between the areas was just a 30-40 minute bicycle ride but the wealth gap I could see through my camera was much wider.
In the wealthy district, the upper levels of Chinese society have already joined the global league of the rich. They drive Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Porsches and dress in designer outfits. The world’s most expensive brands have opened huge shops targeting their aspirations for expensive Western lifestyles. Food, free of the safety and hygiene problems that have made headlines in China in recent months, is sold at prices several times more than in the poor areas.
Life in the poor residential areas is a completely different world. Something many of the poor themselves are reminded of every day when they travel to the ‘rich areas’ of the city to work in construction, housekeeping and other jobs in the same category.
They may build the luxury homes, but the housing they can afford for themselves is cramped and lacking in so many ways. I met a family of migrant workers who had moved to the city to earn more money. They somehow managed to squeeze themselves into a small 5-square-meter room without a toilet or bathroom. The father of the family works in construction and arrives home every day covered in sweat and grime. Their room had no shower or bath and all he could do was wash his body with wet towels. This is an average size home for a migrant worker in the area and this family’s rent was about 400 yuan ($65) a month, less than the cost of a single dinner in some of Beijing’s fine restaurants.
This section of town is full of similar tiny, sub-divided rooms. Its alleys crowded with people cooking, eating, studying and washing outside due to a lack of space and utilities like running water. One migrant worker told me that he was not envious of the rich’s lavish lifestyle because he believes it will be impossible for him ever to reach that level of wealth in his life. Instead, for him, life is just a matter of surviving. It’s not an enjoyable thing.