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Grains of rice hang on the lips of a child benefitting from the free lunch program, an effort organized by journalists and promoted using Sina Weibo. (image via

LOS ANGELES — One thing many Americans notice about first-tier Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai is that there are very few homeless people. Indeed, life on the margins in major Chinese cities often means life literally on the margins, away from the public eye.

“The Child who Wakes up the Earliest in Changsha City”

Featured recently on QQ, China’s leading social media service, and then translated and featured on ChinaSmack, Yang Shuhai’s photography went viral. And it’s easy to see why: their power comes from Yang’s eye for the people and moments who slip by in the margins of Chinese society.

But the photographer also tells the stories behind his photos, adding a much-needed dimension. Take, for instance, “Free Lunch,” showing a child with rice on the corners of his mouth. Most Chinese internet users would recognize that this refers to the free lunch program, a journalist-driven effort to bring food to China’s many rural children whose parents can hardly afford a basic lunch. And “The Rural Worker of a New Generation,” showing autoworker Lu Yongming, whose older sister works in a clean office building. “I don’t like farming,” says Lu, as translated by ChinaSmack, “so black collar is still better than ‘mud collar’.”

And then there’s “The Child who Wakes up the Earliest in Changsha City.” It’s an image of a child sleeping in the back of a tricycle cart, one of many such carts in China. The child’s mother is nowhere to be seen, as she had just begun her work shift cleaning and sweeping around the city. What’s effective about Yang Shuhai’s photography is that many of the images feel familiar to those who’ve traveled through China — it’s the extra stories he adds that gives the photos more dimension.

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An Xiao

Artist An Xiao (aka An Xiao Mina) photographs, films, installs, performs and tweets and has shown her work in publications and galleries internationally. Find her online at @anxiaostudio...