Annie Lai’s Photographs Capture Chinese Women Living in Between Cultures

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WenchuPhotography by Annie Lai

Annie Lai’s new series In Between features portraits she made with six young Chinese women who were living in London; “girls that I could resonate with”

When Annie Lai took the first photographs for her personal series In Between in 2018, she was wrestling with a personal crisis deep inside. Despite moving to London in 2014, her search for ‘belonging’ in a country which wasn’t her own proved to be a continual series of highs, lows, and in betweens.

“Ever since I left where I grew up, I’ve felt like an outsider. Even in a place that I’ve lived for so long,” Lai says over the phone from London. “When I started doing this project, I felt really lost. I wanted to make London my home but the reality was that is really hard to achieve.” Alongside language barriers, cultural differences, and visa issues, Lai also struggled with forging personal connections. “Even if you get along with other people, I feel like there’s still an invisible barrier there.”

Lai gravitated to the Chinese diaspora in the city, and, after years of finding it near impossible to express how she was feeling in words alone, she began In Between. “I needed an outlet to heal”, she says, “to comfort myself.” Lai soon discovered that her Chinese friends were experiencing a similar struggle.

In Between is an ongoing series which features portraits Lai made with six young Chinese women who were living in London. Lai was invited into the often temporary homes the women had created for themselves, and within the confines of these intimate spaces, she would shoot them at ease, with minimal styling or intervention – a scattering of their personal belongings offering a glimpse into their lives at that moment in time.

“I was intentionally looking for girls that I could resonate with,” recalls Lai. Although recognised for her fashion photography – fleeting moments with models she says she’s often unlikely to see again – Lai was determined to develop deeper relationships with the women in the series, and returned to photograph them several times. She wanted to ensure she was capturing the dualities of womanhood; of fragility and resilience. She was also trying, she says, “to find the layers underneath.” For Lai, the women she photographs are a reflection of herself: “We see ourselves in each other.”

Wenchu, one of the women that Lai photographed for In Between, initially relocated to London to study philosophy, and like Lai, she faced similar frustrations. “As international students and employees, we were constantly reminded by the system that we were ‘outsiders’,” she says. Wenchu wanted to be a part of In Between because she felt a “soulful connection” with Lai. “Not only because of our similar cultural and language backgrounds, but because of our shared experiences as individuals living in between cultures. I was curious to see her portraits of me and my self-reflection through her gaze.”

Xiaoqiao, who is also featured in In Between, came to London to study, but her life in the UK has a marked expiration date dependent on her visa. Because of this, she has been unable to create strong emotional attachments in the city. “Living in the UK is more like a transition, where farewells are inevitable,” she says. “It’s hard to have deep conversations when you have grown up with totally different memories and contexts.”

For Lai, In Between, is more about the journey than the destination. Instead of a constant commitment to shooting, Lai seeks comfort in making these portraits when her circumstances are unsettled, but puts it on pause when she feels more stable. When visa issues were raised recently – the third time she has had to deal with the process – Lai realised that despite having spent six years trying to make the UK her home, that it could be quickly ripped from her. “It was quite an incredible realisation, that the sense of belonging you try to put yourself in, or persuade yourself into, can collapse in a moment.”

The crippling effects of Covid-19 have only amplified these insecurities. “Most of the girls I shot have now returned to China due to the pandemic,” Lai reveals. And although she chose to stay with her boyfriend and their cat in London, it has brought on a lot of anxiety for her. “Sometimes when you are really low, you wonder what life would be like if you went back home – it’s a forever internal struggle with myself.”

While Lai is less optimistic that the search for belonging and home can be found without investing many years living in a city, Wenchu is positive. “The feeling of belonging or having an identity is a complicated mix of our experiences and conscious choices,” Wenchu says. “Race, culture, and national identity are not monolithic ideas.”

“As we are moulding and being moulded by our experiences, we are constantly seeking a sense of validation and belongingness,” she continues. “These don’t necessarily have to come from a physical place, but anything and anyone that we’ve found resonance with.”

Despite many of the women that Lai has photographed now being scattered across the world – and her own circumstances frequently in flux – the sisterhood and space which In Between has forged to discuss these issues is a poignant stepping stone in an unrelenting journey to find where they each belong.