Fitting: A Photo-Essay
Posted May 18, 2021
By Anne Wu
An aerial view taken from above of a set of stairs descending into a concrete patio, surrounded by a gleaming steel banister and railing. A neighboring house faces the banister at the top of the image, with a green-glass window reflecting some of the banister.

Part One

In the summer of 2017, I traveled to my family’s ancestral village in rural Fujian, China, to see the construction of my grandfather’s new house. For generations, all of the dwellings there were identical—simple concrete bungalows built by the residents themselves—but the landscape had since transformed.
An aerial view taken from above of a set of stairs descending into a concrete patio, surrounded by a gleaming steel banister and railing. A neighboring house faces the banister at the top of the image, with a green-glass window reflecting some of the banister.
Many of the older houses had been replaced by oversized modern-style mansions, clad in stainless steel, granite, and fresh bricks. These houses have remained largely uninhabited as most descendants of the village’s older generations now lived overseas, returning only to construct another building or add a new feature. Walking around the village, I encountered a stainless steel gate flanked by large stone pillars.
Two concrete columns with writing in gold Chinese characters that stand with a steel gate closed between them. To the right rise a concrete wall and brick, two-story house. To the side of the left column, an empty lot with green grass is visible in the background.
Behind its doors, I saw nothing but unincorporated farmland, the remnants of a quickly evaporating past.
Concrete and terracotta slabs sit in discarded piles in a deserted field or empty lot with a pond and housing development in the distance behind them
In Flushing, there are decorative stainless steel fixtures on almost every block, the gleaming surfaces mirroring the aesthetic changes shifting the landscape of a place nearly 8,000 miles away.
A white clapboard row house with a long gray concrete stairway leading to the front door. A shiny steel railing lines either side of the stairs, curving as the stairs join a short sidewalk that leads to a driveway
A gray concrete porch with a white wooden door with a long oval window at its center. The house has yellow siding, a metal and glass awning over the porch, and a shiny steel railing that lines the small square porch. Sunlight casts shadows from the awning and railing onto the siding of the house.
A stairway leading to a door of a house in a corner formed by two brick buildings. The door is made of steel, with a glass and metal awning above it, and a steel railing lining the side of the stairway. Against the stairway, two blue plastic containers are propped against the brick.

Part Two

New Tengfei Stainless Steel is located on a crowded one-way street with several other fabricators and a live poultry market.
An open industrial garage door in the façade of a low, two-story row of brick buildings, with an assortment of commercial signs above and around the door. The space behind the door recedes into the building in shadow. The signs around the door are sun-faded and hard to read. Several read “For Rent” in red letters.
In 2019, I met Mr. An, who owns New Tengfei, when I was searching the area for stainless steel scraps. His shop is animated and expansive, every inch seemingly covered in rods, emblems, unfinished pieces, and metal dust. Sometimes he has an assistant or two, usually a young man who recently immigrated.
A Chinese man in a cluttered metalworking workshop turns his face toward the camera as he bends over stainless steel railings and tools in front of him. He wears a protective face mask over his mouth and nose and orange gloves on his hands, one of which is stretched out in front of him.
Mr. An tells me that all of his materials are imported from China, produced cheaply and quickly but marketed in the US as luxe home additions that require little maintenance.
A corner of a house with a stainless steel gate closed upon the sidewalk alley beside a porch elevated a half story above street level. The porch has a stainless steel front door that is half open to the house, though it blocks any view inside the structure.
Retrofitted onto the neighborhood’s existing architecture and earlier ornamentations, these stainless steel adornments loudly proclaim a sense of self-identification as they reflect their ever-evolving surroundings.
A crawl space beneath a narrow wooden porch attached to a brick building. The porch bisects the image horizontally and a stainless steel railing on the porch above matches a stainless steel gate that encloses the crawl space beneath it. A basement window is at the back of the crawl space and a green garden house snakes out of the gate.
A rowhouse with yellow siding sits adjacent to an attached house painted gray. The yellow house is three stories including a basement level and the elevated front porch has plastic corrugated sheets for a railing. Both houses have wrought iron railings along their front stairways and sidewalks.

Part Three

The house next door to my mother’s didn’t always have a stainless steel gate. Once the tenants moved in, each a stranger to the others, their landlord installed the luminous façades and covered the small patch of grass out front with a layer of concrete.
A shiny stainless steel gate with behind it up three marble stairs, a shiny stainless steel banister and railing leads to a stainless steel front door of a brick house
Last year, I noticed that the silver ornamental ball on one of the pillars had fallen off, replaced by a translucent pink orb fastened with a blue shoelace. This is how things are put together in Flushing, guided by a logic of “close enough” that permeates the decision-making of its inhabitants.
A five-story apartment building under construction. It has unfinished concrete walls and orange plastic netting encloses the spaces where windows and balconies will be. To its right, a smaller two-story brick house sits beside it. The house has steel railings along its front porch.
As I pass other houses on the block, I find similar moments of ingenuity that embody this distinct vernacular born out of neighborhoods like this one—typically lower middle class, primarily first-generation, and usually on the periphery of city centers.
A front porch on a brick house with a stainless steel banister. Dead flowers sit in plastic buckets placed on the landings of two stairs.
The side of a brick apartment building. The first story has a wide, three-paned window with stainless steel bars over it. Areas cut out for A/C units on the first and second stories are covered in black plastic tarp sealed with crisscrossing duct tape.
Chicken bouillon buckets as flowerpots. Air conditioners covered in patterns made by garbage bags and duct tape. The ubiquitous plastic red rope punctuating the landscape.
A black wrought iron railing with a stainless steel railing behind it. A piece of pink plastic ribbon is haphazardly tied to the black railing.
At times, my neighborhood feels simply strung together, its tethers left loose and unbothered.
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