My parents immigrated with my older sister to the United States from Hong Kong in 1981. Soon after, I was born in Flint, Michigan, where I spent most of my childhood. There were a handful of Chinese families in Flint, and it was a close-knit group at one point, but it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago in 2009 at the age of 27 that I was able to familiarize myself with a larger Chinese community. Chinatown became a place where I’d take my camera and capture the neighborhood as a curious outsider. I started my series of photographs, titled “Face Value: A Portrait of Chicago’s Chinatown” in 2013. Since then I’ve amassed a wide variety of candid portraits and urban landscapes, depicting the day-to-day lives of Chinese residents in Armour Square and its surrounding areas.
Armour Square’s Chinatown wasn’t the first Chinese settlement in Chicago. At the turn of the 20th century, earlier settlers lived downtown on Clark between Van Buren and Harrison. Then, due to high rent, crime, and discrimination, much of the Chinese population retreated from the Loop. The majority of Chinese Chicagoans followed one of two rival groups: the Hip Sing Association, which resettled north in Argyle Park, and the On Leong Association, which resettled south in Armour Square. The latter resulted in the building of a new headquarters on Wentworth and Cermak. Attached to the headquarters were 30 apartments and 15 shops that catered to the Chinese community. Now, 104 years later, Armour Square and its surrounding area boasts the densest Chinese population in the midwest. That number continues to grow, while other Chinatowns across the U.S. are shrinking due to gentrification. Affordable housing and a growing list of amenities has a large part to do with Armour Square’s success. But Chinatown also has a long history of strong civic leaders and organizations, which promote progress on behalf of the community.
Chinatown’s history of resilience has encouraged me to use photography to honor its legacy and advance Chinese-American visibility. I relate to the people of Chicago’s Chinatown because many of their struggles and successes are similar to my family’s. Many Chinese residents in Flint were restaurant workers, and they fostered my first sense of community. Working on this project has helped me discover a deeper understanding of Chinese communities and their way of life, one that nurtures harmony and order among the individual, family, and society.
My role as a Chinese-American artist has recently taken on newfound urgency. The United States has elected Donald Trump as president, and I can’t scroll through my newsfeed without reading some article that warns of impending conflict with China. I often wonder how this will affect the perception of my family and other Chinese-Americans who’ve struggled in America. The one thing I can do right now is to build bridges through art, connecting people through the universal language of photography.
I plan to continue this project and to no longer be an outsider. I recently received a grant through DCASE (funded by the Joyce Foundation), and I’ve used that opportunity to collaborate with the Chinese American Museum of Chicago on a portraiture and oral history project highlighting senior women who are connected to the Chinatown community. The Chicago Cultural Center will be featuring my work and the work of the other DCASE artists in residence in the late spring of 2017; I’m looking forward to that, but eventually I want to exhibit my work in Chinatown. I hope to empower other storytellers within the growing diversity of the United States, to redefine what it means to be American. v
The senior portion of the Chinatown population is rapidly growing and is very noticeable, as many are still very active in the community. I took this picture of two senior-aged women taking a stroll and walked up to them to talk. They let me know they were sisters, but I wasn’t sure if this was figurative or literal. One was clearly older than the other. Taken July 17, 2014.
A senior-aged woman picks vegetables from a garden she tends between a parking lot, freighter train tracks, and the el. I’ve seen this woman out many times tending her garden and this was near the end of the harvesting season. Taken August 3, 2016.
A compact disc hangs in a home garden to reflect the sun and scare away small animals. I spoke to the woman who owned this property and she let me know about a study done about urban gardens through the University of Illinois. This first-of-its-kind study was conducted throughout Pilsen and Armour Square. “It appears Chinese origin households have a higher density [of gardening] than anywhere else in the city”, according to researcher John R. Taylor. Taken Aug. 3, 2016.
A mother and daughter wait at the corner of Wentworth and Cermak Avenue. South of Cermak on Wentworth is considered “Old” Chinatown, and the location of the Chinatown Gate marks the area of Chinatown’s original settlement where Chinese businesses were first established, September 9, 2014.
The beginnings of a redevelopment plan for the intersection of Cermak and Wentworth Avenue, June 28, 2016.
Two teens read about the Chinese zodiac in Chinatown Square, November 15, 2015.
I like this photograph as you can see a reflection of Wentworth in the main subject’s sunglasses. Taken June 27, 2016.
Two kitchen workers eat lunch as the Chinese New Year Day parade begins. This frame makes me think of all the people who can’t afford to celebrate equally and still have to work despite the festivities going on around them. Taken February 23, 2015.
A dragon dancer waits to perform in the Chinese New Year Day Parade, January 14, 2016.
A woman practices qigong in Ping Tom Park. The grace in which the woman moves is quite mesmerizing. This reminded me of my mom doing the same types of exercises in the living room when I was young. Taken June 24, 2015.
Due to culture and language barriers, it’s very common for Chinese adults to only maintain relationships with other Chinese people. Pictured here are two kitchen workers on break outside a restaurant. Taken June 22, 2014.
Sun Yat Sen Park was created in 1977, after the city of Chicago decided to build the Stevenson highway through Armour Square. On nice days, you can always find men playing Chinese chess in Sun Yat Sen Park. The men don’t normally mind if you photograph them. Taken August 16, 2016.
On Friday mornings, free Chinese newspapers are distributed throughout Chinatown and is one of the main sources for local, national, and international news. Taken in 2014.
I took this picture because of the composition, but the frown on the man with the ironic juxtaposition of the “Three Happiness” sign in the background really makes this picture unique.