In Manhattan’s Chinatown, Shirley Lam sits in front of her television set to watch a Chinese soap opera. On her lap is a pastel pink mixing bowl, and she’s clutching a pair of chopsticks to tenderize the pork held inside.
Around her, cabinets and shelves are stuffed with a vague assortment of knick-knacks. Clothes drape over the Chinese calendar hanging on the wall, obscuring part of it from view. The room behind illuminates the cramped nature of the family’s living quarters.
A bright red poster stuck on the door looks festive, celebratory, but also dated. Shirley sits in the darkness, looking lost in thought, captured by Thomas Holton. The year is 2004.
Holton has photographed the Lam family since 2003. He has documented how Stephen Lam, Shirley Lam and their three children lived in a compact 350-square-foot apartment on Ludlow Street in Chinatown. He has also chronicled the Lams as their children, Michael, Franklin and Cindy, developed into teenagers, as well their resulting divorce.
His work ‘The Lams of Ludlow’ is now part of an exhibition along with photographs of two other photographers, Annie Ling and An Rong Xu, at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY).
The series, entitled Interior Lives: Contemporary Photographs of Chinese New Yorkers, depicts the complex realities of life as a Chinese-American immigrant. In a statement, MCNY said the exhibit is meant to shine a light on the relationship between these communities and the places they occupy within the city.
To see how diverse Asian-American migrant communities are in America, it seems intuitive that New York would be one of the first places to look. After all, it is home to the largest ethnic Chinese population outside Asia, with “more than half a million people of Chinese descent living in Manhattan’s Chinatown and other neighborhoods across the city,” according to Whitney Donhauser, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York.
In the 1960s, the United States changed its immigration policy in order to reopen its doors to Chinese migrants. Reaching a peak in the 1980s, these waves of immigrants from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan arrived in New York, forming their own communities in Manhattan’s historic Chinatown district.
In 40 years, they have become a multi-ethnic diaspora which spans all the boroughs of New York from Brooklyn to Queens, and their identity has expanded in tandem.
The first generation is now holding a mirror to their families and their communities to examine their roots and how far they have come.
Photographer Holton, the son of a Chinese mother and American father, met the Lam family while accompanying a local housing advocate on home visits. He has never lived in Chinatown, although his grandparents did, and he wanted a deeper connection to the neighborhood and the culture outside of the stereotypical images of dim sum and sightseeing. In short, he wanted to “experience the daily life and drama.”
The Lam family became his window into this community.
‘In Family Portrait (2004),’ the family of five pose for a photo underneath a clothesline with bright colored puffer jackets arranged in order of size. One can only assume that the lack of closet space resulted in this novel storage problem. Yet, there is still something optimistic about the image. The three children are sitting in dining chairs, smiling while Christmas lights dangle in the foreground with a spread of dishes laid out on the table.
There are six sets of plates – one for Holton, we assume, who says he often joined the family for a meal.
Indeed, that is hardly surprising as he followed them from 2003 to 2005, and then later in 2010. In the five years that had passed, he observed that the Lams were in a more somber mood than the raucous state he had first seen them in.
The parents divorced and their children were facing their own set of challenges in their teenage years, and as they went on to college.
“They had gone through some usual and unusual circumstances, which changed the tone and atmosphere in a heavier, lonelier direction,” Holton said.
The family was breaking up, and their living space reflected the new borders between them. “Steven and Shirley had separated, and the large single bed for five was replaced by a system of bunk beds with curtains for privacy,” Holton explained.
“The family I had known seemed broken up physically and emotionally, and I felt compelled to capture this new reality because ultimately life is unscripted and truthfully quite messy.”
Living through the changes with the Lam family was how Holton came to connect with the culture and community in Chinatown, which was once so foreign to him.
“Working with the Lams has allowed me to begin to understand the Chinatown life I never had and never will, addressing the questions I have always had regarding my Chinese half through a completely different experience than I had originally envisioned,” he said.
Apart from Holton’s work, the exhibition also includes photographs by Taipei-born Annie Ling, who spent more than a year documenting how 35 immigrant Chinese laborers lived in one of the last lodging houses in New York City.
It was in 81 Bowery, which is now closed, and they worked at construction sites and kitchens throughout Chinatown.
Ling observed that they would live modestly in order to send the bulk of their wages as remittances back home, but in doing so, they forfeited the chance to have a close relationship with their families in China.
“You’re the same age as my daughter … I have not seen her in 16 years,” Chu, a resident of cubicle #4, said to Annie, the first time they met. He had lived at 81 Bowery for more than a dozen years.
The cramped living conditions – bunk beds and cubicles partitioned by cloth draped on a string – was a way of stretching their money.
“In 2010 dozens of individuals were left sharing the fourth floor – each occupying a 64-square-foot cubicle. Rent for the cubicles ranged between US$200 and US$300 per month,” Ling explained.
In another photograph, she captures Chen just as he prepares to turn in for the night at cubicle #22. His mother occupies the bottom bunk, which she fills with the few worldly possessions she has accumulated over the years.
Ling was particularly drawn to the contemporary lives of people whose housing and status could be threatened by gentrification or neglect. She did not really have a chance to know her father well because he was the breadwinner of the family when she was growing up.
To her, photographing the residents of 81 Bowery was a part of “a personal search to understand the sacrifices made by individuals who put the welfare of their families above their own.”
The Chinese name for America translates literally to “beautiful country.” The exhibit’s third photographer, An Rong Xu, is obsessed with translating the “beautiful country,” and the visual journey of Asian Americans.
America is not only “the land of promised prosperity, of promised liberty,” and “of promised freedom,” Xu said. “Time and again, the Chinese have been erased from history and considered the perpetual foreigner, regardless of how many generations have passed and the countless contributions to American history they have made.”
On Pell Street, often referred to as the “Barber Street” because of the hair salons and barbershops that rub shoulder to shoulder, Xu captured two males getting their hair cut. He called it “one of the rites of passage in Chinese-American life.”
“I spent a good part of my childhood in these barbershops with my grandfather. We’d go once every two weeks, spending a few hours catching up on the local gossip, and I’d sit and listen,” he said.
“Every time I pass by a barbershop, the scents of hairspray, hair gel, hot towels, buzzers buzzing, scissors shearing, and the sounds of my mother tongue bring me home,” Xu added.
He often found himself on the outside of intimate shop scenes, looking into quiet, solitary moments. In another photograph, Wong, a florist on Bayard Street who is often asked to arrange bouquets for funerals in Chinatown, holds the delicate stem of a flower with his wine-colored gloves. He executes his job with seemingly meticulous attention.
For Xu, the mundane has been elevated into an art form and illustrates the lives of Chinese-Americans in New York.
This is not a separate subculture, he pointed out, but “documentation and undeniable proof of the existence of an American people.”
Interior Lives: Contemporary Photographs of Chinese New Yorkers (until March 24, 2019) at the Museum of the City of New York.