Deeply ingrained into the culture of New York City is a vibrant population of Chinese Americans, who for generations have lived and thrived within the Big Apple as entrepreneurs, community leaders, and so much more. While most are familiar with Chinatown as one of New York's most popular tourist hubs, the roots of Chinese immigrants run much deeper and are quintessentially vital to the city as we know it today.
A new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York titled Interior Lives: Contemporary Photographs of Chinese New Yorkers, celebrates and explores the depth of these roots by bringing together the work of three documentary photographers — Thomas Holton, Annie Ling, and An Rong Xu — who have each captured striking and intimate perspectives of Chinese New Yorkers by way of their deeply personal connections to these communities.
Sean Corcoran, the curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, spoke with BuzzFeed News about the process of organizing the exhibition and the stories behind the pictures on view:
To me, it is the differences in approach that make the combination of these three photographers so compelling — a long-term project with a focus on a single family, a short-term project anchored in one location, and an ongoing project that is free-form and self-reflexive.
Tom Holton followed a single family, capturing the growth of the children and the splintering of the husband and wife, since 2003. It is an intimate and incredibly personal long-term documentation of one family as they navigate life. Annie Ling, however, spent over one year documenting a community of people living in one of the last operating “lodging houses” in New York. It is there that many of the immigrants live in cramped quarters for little money to be able to send remittances to their families in China. Her photographs exude an intimacy among the residents, but also reveal her own tender relationship with them.
An Rong Xu’s photographs are drawn from his project titled My Americans, which is an ongoing effort to reveal the impact of Chinese immigrants and their culture in America. Through mostly candid photographs of everyday life, An Rong works against what he feels has been the constant erasure of Chinese culture in America.
The intention of the exhibition is to present the work of photographers who have an intimate connection to the community they are photographing. Tom Holton has traced his roots back to Taiwan, while Annie Ling and An Rong Xu are immigrants from Taiwan and mainland China, respectively. Each has made a deep commitment to photograph the personal and varied relationship between their subjects and the places they live. Their work shines a light on these New Yorkers as they navigate their own identities and place in the city, in public and in private, alone and together.
At its base, the exhibition is intended to provide a window into the complex realities of immigrants in the city — specifically those of Chinese origin. We hope to remind people that New York City is home to the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia, with more than half a million people of Chinese descent living in Manhattan’s historic Chinatown and neighborhoods across the city.
Each of these photographers demonstrate that Chinese Americans have many of the same concerns as other Americans. They have the same ups and downs of familial relationships, they run businesses and participate in community events, and — something which will be familiar to many New Yorkers — they often have to deal with the tenuous nature of housing in this city.
While some aspects of life might appear different to some viewers, I think it is the normalcy of many aspects of the lives depicted in these photographs that do the most to counter misconceptions and stereotypes.
For me personally, this exhibition has been a great opportunity to better understand the historical experience of the Chinese in America. Although it is not necessarily apparent in the photographs, as background I did research on historical racism and its effects on immigration legislation.
While the history of Chinese immigration goes back to the 1840s, for many years it was severely limited by federal laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882–1943, and the National Origins Act, 1924–1965. Since 1965, however, hundreds of thousands of new arrivals from many different provinces have settled in New York, establishing nine different “China Towns.” They have remade themselves as New Yorkers with a variety of languages, traditions, skills, and cultures.
Since opening we’ve had some very positive responses to the exhibition. What I have been struck by is the different points of entry people seem to have for the exhibition. Some people have been struck by the familial relationships, others by the sense of community, and yet others by the housing and social justice issues. The many ways this has appealed to visitors has been pleasantly surprising.
Hopefully those who visit the exhibition will leave with a greater sense of diverse experiences Chinese New Yorkers have as residents and a great sense of the impact they have on this city.