From Beijing to Los Angeles, a photographer's journey to expose income inequality


Sim Chi Yin


Joyce Fang

BEIJING — On a frigid gray morning outside a furniture mart in the northeast corner of the city, a man named Li has a thick army-green coat draped over his shoulders like a blanket.

Li, in his late 40s, is far from his home in north China’s Hebei province. He’s a migrant with skills as a plumber who watches every passing car come out of the furniture store like a hawk, desperate to land some work as a day laborer before winter’s early dusk. If he doesn’t, he won’t eat and he won’t have money to send home to his family.

Five days later and 16 time zones away in Los Angeles, I watched as Santos Agin, 26, did much the same in a giant parking lot outside a Home Depot store near downtown Los Angeles.

His hands tucked into his red jacket to keep out the early morning chill, he shuffled in his paint-splattered sweatpants, looking up each time an SUV, truck or sedan went past. Agin called it a day by 10 AM and walked home empty-handed to his wife and two young daughters.

The lives of these two migrants are woven together through the shared experience of just how hard it is to find work in the shadows of two of the greatest economies in the world. Their lives as migrants place them at the lower rungs of an economic ladder in which the distance between the bottom and the top rungs is increasing dramatically and, statistics suggest, making the climb in both places exceedingly difficult.

China last week released new economic data, which revealed a rising level of income inequality. In Los Angeles, the level of inequality is on the rise as well, with a Gini coefficient of .485. China’s is estimated at .480 by the CIA World Factbook, though the new Chinese government figure is .474.

More from GlobalPost: In Beijing, migrants remain in the shadow of China's rise to wealth

The per capita income in Los Angeles is higher at $28,000 compared to Beijing’s at $8,400. Unemployment is three percentage points higher in LA at 16.3 percent. So their economies are not exactly the same, but the distance between the rich and poor is the same, according to the Gini Index. 

More from GlobalPost: For new immigrants, an 'American nightmare' in Los Angeles

And this GlobalPost Special Report is about exploring that distance between rich and poor in America and the rest of the world and examining the considerable social costs that come with such vast levels of inequality. I am a photographer and writer who lives in Beijing. I documented the struggle of poor migrants who live in the shadows in Beijing in rundown slum-like housing and some who literally sleep underground and are known as the “rat tribe.” In luxury high-rises that tower over this reality, there is an increasing number of multi-millionaires and billionaires in China who rarely see or hear from this underclass.

But, as many economists here and in the US point out, this level of income inequality creates divisions, tensions and ultimately instability that can someday erupt in political protests and violence.

From LA to China, that cost is hard to see on a cold winter morning in the eyes of a migrant laborer scrounging for work to get by. But the reality is there, and people like Li and Agin are left struggling and desperate and trying hard to cling to a belief in the idea of economic mobility, the notion that if you work hard enough you can climb the ladder.

Agin doesn’t give up. He tries to get day labor at the Home Depot several times a week and has done so for the past decade, standing among scores of immigrants who wait for work daily outside the store. This is how Agin is trying to live his ‘American Dream,’ having taken the hard road of trekking and hitch-hiking for a over a month from his native Guatemala to get to the United States as a 14-year-old.

Up until recently, Agin had been clocking enough time with a Vietnamese-American boss doing construction work and plumbing, and picking up extra work outside Home Depot to make enough to pay his $750 in rent and another $700 or so in monthly expenses.

With the economic slowdown, work has been harder to come by and Agin says he will soon have to move to a cheaper apartment. He does not have legal papers to stay in the US but insists he will eventually. He keeps going, as he puts it, “for my babies.”

Li has been at the toil of day labor even longer, standing in the same corner waiting for work for almost 20 years now, he says. Li has not bothered to bring his children to Beijing from his native province, approximately four hours away by train. It would be difficult, he said, to enroll them in a state school or get healthcare for them and himself because of China’s household registration system which largely restricts public services to where one is from.

“I have been a laborer all my life,” Li says. “I am not educated. What else can I do? Nothing changes for people like us.”