Every morning in Sunset Park, Brooklyn Chinese grandmas and grandpas stream towards the recycling center on 62nd Street. They carry bags or drag carts overflowing with bottles and cans they have collected over the course of days or weeks. For each redeemable bottle or can, they receive 3 cents.
People who collect bottles and cans for recycling are a common sight in New York City. It’s work that provides an income for New Yorkers with few other job options. In Sunset Park what is striking is the number of elderly Chinese immigrants who undertake this work.
While the first Chinese immigrants to settle in Sunset Park were Cantonese, since the 2000’s an increasing number come from Fujian province in Southeast China. Many older Fujianese immigrated together with their grown children, arriving in New York City without knowing a word of English.
Back in China, they were farmers. They spent their days toiling away on the land, and are used to hard work, or ku gong (literally, bitter labor). In Brooklyn there is no land to cultivate and no jobs to be found. Many take on the role of caregivers for the young and old in their families and to cook and clean. Yet for some, who’s children have left the city for jobs in other states, even this role remains elusive. They are alone and lonely. Rather than staying idle, they turn to recycling to fill their days. Collecting bottles and cans is a way for them to be productive, and a practical way they can contribute to their family’s income and not feel like they are a burden to their children. For these grandparents, every bottle counts.
Photographer Janie Shen spent months getting to know some of the grandmas who recycle and produced this photo essay.
The quotes in the captions have been translated from Mandarin.
This story is part of the photojournalism class at The New School taught by Glenna Gordon.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, The J.M. Kaplan Fund, an anonymous donor and readers like you.