Often lost in overheated political rhetoric about immigration are the faces and stories of immigrants who have quietly made their way in the U.S. for years. Chinese immigrants have been settling in New York for so many generations that the city is now home to the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia, according to the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY). The museum is celebrating that facet of the city’s identity with an exhibition called “Interior Lives: Contemporary Photographs of Chinese New Yorkers.”
Of course, Chinese immigrants were in the political crosshairs a century ago, just as Irish and Italian immigrants were in the 19th century, and Latino immigrants are right now. But starting in the 1960s, the U.S. re-opened the door to Chinese immigrants, who have arrived in increasing numbers from different parts of China, and settled all over New York—not just in Manhattan’s historic Chinatown. The MCNY exhibition features work by photographers Thomas Holton, Annie Ling and An Rong Xu, selected by the museum’s curator of prints and photographs Sean Corcoran. MCNY organized the exhibition in conjunction with an exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America called “Interior Lives: Photographs of Chinese Americans in the 1980s” by Bud Glick.
Ling’s photographs, from a project she did in 2011, document the domestic lives of immigrant Chinese laborers in cramped quarters at 81 Bowery in Manhattan. The building was a lodging house for Chinese immigrants for more than a generation. Ling’s quiet photographs capture the claustrophobia, loneliness and longing endured by the former residents (81 Bowery is no longer a lodging house) in pursuit of a better life. In order to save money to send to family back in China, the residents lived cheek by jowl in rooms the size of office cubicles, with thin makeshift walls, hotplate kitchens, and token reminders of home among their meager possessions. But Ling also captured the residents’ sense of hope and community in images that show them socializing and sharing meals in common spaces.
Holton’s photographs are from a project called “The Lams of Ludlow Street,” about an immigrant family he began documenting in 2003. The son of a Chinese mother and American father, Holton was shooting street photography as a means of exploring his own identity when he first met the Lams. They were a family of five, with three young children at the time, living in a 350-square-foot apartment. Holton has periodically documented the family’s trajectory—at times happy, at others difficult—over the past 15 years. “From bright, busy meals to quiet moments of reflection, Holton captures the shifting landscape of growing up and growing apart,” MCNY says in exhibition materials. Evident in Holton’s images is how much the Lams are like so many other American families in their aspirations, family dynamics and struggles.
Born in China and raised in New York City, An Rong Xu also practices street photography to understand his cross-cultural identity. “Interior Lives” includes photographs from his “My Americans” series, which documents the intersection of Chinese and American culture in New York, while challenging assumptions about what it means to be Chinese American. Like Holton and Ling, Xu approaches his work with genuine curiosity about people, not a political agenda. But the “Interior Lives” exhibition nevertheless manages to challenge facile us/them rhetoric about immigration. It does that by showing how rich and complicated things really are when we consider the lives and humanity of actual immigrants, and how they become so much a part of our country.
“Interior Lives: Contemporary Photographs of Chinese New Yorkers”
Through March 24, 2019
Museum of the City of New York