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I need your support to return to Toishan, China, to document my family's story and the larger narrative of Chinese immigration.
I need your support to return to Toishan, China, to document my family's story and the larger narrative of Chinese immigration.
282 backers pledged $23,306 to help bring this project to life.

About this project

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I need your support to return to Toishan, China, and complete my photographic and historical documentary project tying together my family history and the larger story of the Chinese-American diaspora and emigration abroad.

Over the next several years, I will spend six to twelve months in China, photographing and interviewing Toishanese families, many with similar stories to my own.

This Kickstarter funding will pay for travel, lodging, and then editing and printing of the images. The final product will be a book and related slideshow/exhibition that I will present both to Chinese-American audiences -- so that we know our own history more -- and in larger contexts so that our story can become more widely shared.

Although I was born in the United States, Toishan is my ancestral home. I speak a local dialect of Cantonese that is incomprehensible to the rest of China.

Toishan (台山) is a county of a million people in Guangdong(廣東) Province in southern China. I have been photographing there on and off since 1989. It looks at first glance like many other areas: a few gleaming buildings and factories, multi-lane divided highways, McDonald’s, new cars and well-dressed pedestrians. It seems to exemplify wealth and economic growth.

Behind this facade is Toishan’s peculiar history. Until the 1960s, two-thirds of all overseas Chinese, like my family, originated from this one small region. It was poor and over-populated during the 19th century and very close to Guangzhou, where the foreign powers first penetrated China. Thus it was a fertile recruiting ground for the “coolies” who built the American transcontinental railroad, and for the generations who emigrated to become restaurant workers and laundrymen.

My paternal great uncle, Sing Chin, left our village of Gongmei (江美) in 1927, traveling first to Cuba and then the United States. My father, Fow Sang Chin, followed in 1951. He would not see my mother for 19 years. They worked in family-run laundries in the Bronx and Queens, and I grew up in that now-vanished world of the old sojourners’ Chinatown.

Those were tumultuous years in China, with the Second World War and civil war between Communists and Nationalists. Contact with the motherland was almost completely severed during the Cold War and the chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

The lives of the Chinese in the diaspora diverged radically from those of our relatives back home. Politically and culturally, mainland China disintegrated and rebuilt itself in paroxysms of murderous totalitarianism and then unabashed capitalist reform.

Many ordinary social services like schools and hospitals survive only on donations from overseas. State funding has withered. The health system once provided basic, if primitive, care to all. It is now accessible only to those who can pay. Villages have lost their populations as residents seek better opportunities elsewhere.

My last remaining close relative in Toishan was a great aunt who died several years ago, not long after I saw her. My father’s house and the house in which my mother was born now sit empty, their former inhabitants scattered across the United States, Malaysia and Canada.

But when I walk through the rice fields and the paved roads that now lead to Gongmei, villagers recognize me and accept me as a native son — albeit one who is overheard speaking in English on a mobile phone and seems to spend an inordinate amount of time taking photographs. After all, I keep returning. And my name and family's names are on the donors’ plaque of the recently built community center.

The more time I spend there, the more it begins to feel like some kind of home, illusory as that might seem. Despite the persistent poverty and the vast chasm between Gongmei and my life in New York, I can foresee a time when Toishan might become like Tuscany, a picturesque region rich in history and architectural heritage, a vacation getaway. For now, though, it is still part of the forgotten rural China, engulfed in a crisis that is quiet but sustained.

Most of the above essay was first published at The New York Times Lens Blog after my last visit to Toishan. At that moment, and especially after the response, I realized that I needed to return and go deeper, more in-depth, and tie all the disparate pieces together.

Thank you for your support!

--Alan Chin (陳本儒)

Great thanks to Elaisha Stokes, AnRong Xu, and Rita Kabalan for helping me put this Kickstarter campaign together.

Risks and challenges

The hardest challenge for me as I work on this project will be to know when I have enough material, that it is fully and richly textured, that my pictures and words can effectively communicate this grand narrative. I am counting on all of you to help me through that process, to be honest and insightful in your critique.

Also, I need to know when cultural and linguistic nuances I take for granted might not translate correctly or be implicitly understood, so please ask questions! I hope that you will be curious to do so...expect a lot of updates!

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  1. Select this reward

    Pledge $25 or more About $25

    A postcard from Toishan, China and gumbo!

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    Pledge $60 or more About $60

    A signed copy of the book when completed.

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    Pledge $100 or more About $100

    A signed copy of the book AND hand-printed, archival, fiber-based 8x10 black and white print. (The prints will be ready before the book.)

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    Pledge $150 or more About $150

    SPECIAL ONE-TIME AWARD!
    Much thanks to Anna Badkhen who has graciously donated a signed copy of her acclaimed new book, The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village. I first met Anna in northern Afghanistan during the dark days of winter 2001-2002, and have been captivated by her reporting and writing ever since! + A signed copy of my book AND hand-printed, archival, fiber-based 8x10 black and white print. (The prints will be ready before the book.)

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    Pledge $350 or more About $350

    A signed copy of the book AND hand-printed, archival, fiber-based EDITIONED 11x14 black and white print.

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    Pledge $500 or more About $500

    A signed copy of the book AND hand-printed, archival, fiber-based EDITIONED 11x14 black and white print.

    Also, invitation to join me for a walking tour of New York's Chinatown, visiting some of the important sites of immigrant history, and dinner at a palatial restaurant.

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    Pledge $800 or more About $800

    A signed copy of the book AND hand-printed, archival fiber-based EDITIONED 16x20 black and white print. Also, invitation to join me for a walking tour of New York's Chinatown, visiting some of the important sites of immigrant history, and dinner at a palatial restaurant.

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    Pledge $1,000 or more About $1,000

    A signed copy of the book, hand-printed, archival fiber-based EDITIONED 16x20 black and white print, and either a one-day portfolio review of your work OR black and white darkroom training/refresher session. Also, invitation to join me for a walking tour of New York's Chinatown, visiting some of the important sites of immigrant history, and dinner at a palatial restaurant.

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Funding period

- (40 days)