‘Home’ can be a difficult thing to define. Is it where we were born? Where our parents are from? Where we spent the biggest parts of our childhoods? Is home another person? Is it a feeling, or a deep emotional connection to one specific place?
For photographer Annie Lai, home always felt like Xiamen, the picturesque seaside city in southeast China where she grew up. After moving there from New Zealand when she was just two years old, this was the place she had spent the majority of her life and even after moving away for high school, and later relocating to London for university, it was still the place she’d ultimately return to. That was until 2018, however, when her mum announced that she was moving back to New Zealand with her husband.
"Xiamen was a haven where I could always hide and rest so, all of a sudden, the idea of ‘home’ was deprived from me and the feeling of loss was overwhelming. I didn’t know how to deal with my insecurity and despair. I felt like I had lost the bridge to my past and was pushed, suddenly, into adulthood," she remembers. "I visited for the last time and after I returned to London, I was determined to make it my home, even though I didn’t feel like I belonged here." Out of this tumultuous time emerged In Between, a photo project meeting other young women from the Chinese diaspora in London. The resulting portraits are soft and milky-hued with a tender atmosphere which Lai describes as "intimate, feminine and nuanced, with a touch of subversion too".
Lai began In Between in 2018 and shot the pictures on and off for the next three years. Initially, she said, she held back from meeting new people or putting herself out there and so it took time for the project to materialise but, once it did, it transformed her outlook completely. "During conversations with my Chinese friends, I realised how common struggling with issues of belonging and cultural identity is. Most of my friends come here for university and want to continue living here after graduation, but between being in the creative industries and the pressure of parents, it’s almost impossible to do so."
Growing up, Lai says, her parents were easy-going but the customs of Chinese society still cast a shadow. "My parents are quite liberal when it comes to education compared to most Chinese parents and that allowed me to have a relatively carefree childhood," she says. On the other hand, her dad is from a very traditional, patriarchal background where there is a belief that every family needs to have a son. If daughters are born, it’s expected that they marry into good families and have children as soon as possible. "When I was a kid, I wasn’t really conscious about the concepts of sex and gender and how much impact it had on me, but I think this was embedded in me that I felt the need to be competitive and win to prove I’m just as worthy. I was told that no matter how successful I am in my career, as long as I don’t marry and have kids, my life will be a failure." This sort of conditioning can send a girl out into the world unsure of who she is or where she’s heading.
Lai has photographed seven young women so far. Some of them are friends, others she found through mutual contacts on Instagram. "The Chinese circle in London is quite tight so almost everyone is connected in some way," she says. She’s remained friends with most of them but some have since returned to China – in fact, only three remain. Candice is one of her closest and longest friends in the city. "We came here at the same time and met at university seven years ago," Lai explains. "She studied styling and got into film afterwards. It’s mesmerising to witness each other growing up and entering different stages of our lives." She points to an image of Candice wearing underwear and standing in her living room, her back to the camera. It’s shot in soft, dreamy black and white. "This picture was taken in Candice’s old place in Mile End – she was going through a lot of mental stress at that time and she really wanted to move out of that place. I love the contrast of her body to the chaos of the room setting, there is a sense of calmness to it." In another image – colour this time – Candice stretches out on a purple carpet, eyes closed, an intricate snake tattoo trailing across her arm. "I knew everything about her so we didn’t really talk that much through the shoot, although I remember being quite flustered," Lai adds. "Shooting someone you’re close with is quite a different dynamic."
Another of her favourite interactions was with Xiaoqiao – a girl she met through Instagram and became close with after the shoot. "She came here three years ago to study film curation and she’s doing both music and modelling now. She’s bubbly and energetic but at the same time quite sensitive too. We talked a lot about art, music and the industries we are in. I struggled with only being seen as a ‘female Asian artist’ for a while and when we discussed this issue, she said: ‘Everyone is eager to label nowadays but the world is non-binary and nuance should be validated and celebrated.’ That’s the true meaning of In Between for her and it really helped me, too." Xiaoqiao is beautifully vulnerable in Lai’s pictures, laid out on pearlescent bedsheets and baring skin – an image of softness and strength. Elsewhere she sits delicately on a dining room chair, leaning on the back of it and looking intensely into the lens.
In the end, Lai says, the camera was really just an excuse to connect with people like her, after her fractured experiences of moving between cultures and losing access to her roots. "I sought out responses to my confusion and uncertainty, and it became quite a therapeutic process. By communicating and empathising with these women I could reflect on myself." The photographs are the products of these precious encounters, becoming a memoir of the lives that passed through London.
Lai’s working holiday visa expired last year and she found herself once again in a strange hinterland of belonging. "As I have a New Zealand passport I was supposed to return there to apply for a new visa but pandemic travelling restrictions made that almost impossible. Instead, I had to make very last-minute plans to fly out of the UK and return to avoid overstaying," she explains. She was, of course, relieved to be able to do so but it was a sombre reality check in regards to her status. "No matter how much I feel at home in London," she observes, "I still ultimately live in flux."