New Performance Focuses on Shared Beds for Chinatown Shift Workers

By Serena Solomon on December 13, 2012 8:41am 

CHINATOWN — A multimedia performance is seeking to shine a light on the phenomenom of "shift beds," in which struggling immigrants rent places to sleep in 12-hour installments.

The performance, "Your Day is My Night," will show at University Settlement on Eldridge Street this Thursday and Friday night, as a prelude to a documentary of the same name that will premiere in February.

The show intersperses excerpts from the upcoming film with live performances from predominantly Chinese Americans, detailing the often private life of workers who share beds to survive, but who also gain a sense of community as they carve out life in America.

"What you will see is a place where adults interact and talk and have this really homely life," said filmmaker Lynne Sachs, 51, who has so far spent two years working on the documentary and accompanying performance, along with cinematographer Sean Hanley. "There is a lot conversation and exchange of live experience."

As New Yorkers complain about living in what they consider tiny apartments, "shift beds" have been commonplace in immigrant communities, as well as in China, for years.

Jacob Riis photographed the lifestyle at the turn of the last century, capturing the beds where one person sleeps during the day and someone else moves in at night.

"Often, if you see a very small building with a large pile of trash out the front, chances are lots of people live there," said Sachs.

Shift-bed apartments currently exist in areas like the corner of East Broadway and Allen Street, Sachs explained, providing accommodation to renters willing to vacate for half of the day for about $150 a month.

Many of the performers taking the stage for the show are between 50 and 70 years old and have themselves spent time in a shift bed.

"I gave them a change — to be performers and tell their own life story," Sachs said.

Those performing on stage create the narrative using tai chi, dance, song and acting, with any Chinese translated via subtitles.

Sachs, a Carroll Gardens resident, was first inspired to research New York's shift-bed lifestyle when an elderly uncle recalled its prevalence in the 1980s.

"I began to research and found out it was still happening today," she said.

Even though eight people occupying an 800-square-foot apartment may seem to offer a poor quality of life, Sachs pointed to the community the shift-bed system creates for workers whose families often stayed in China while money was sent home, or until a life could be set up in America.

"We are trying to show that shift beds aren't the struggle they seem to be," she said.

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