In 1981, the photographer Bud Glick began documenting Chinatown in Lower Manhattan during a pivotal time in its history, when waves of immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China were arriving, supporting different cultures and linguistic backgrounds but sharing the dream of a new life in a new world.
Back then, Chinatown was a decidedly different neighborhood than it is today. Over the ensuing decades, it would transform from a tightknit and largely self-supporting community — home to a robust garment industry and fading bachelor society shaped by earlier immigration policies — into a bustling neighborhood centered on young people and families.
Mr. Glick’s Chinatown project began when he was commissioned by the Museum of Chinese in America — then known as the New York Chinatown History Project — to photograph local residents. Relocating from his native Wisconsin, he embarked on a three-year mission of representing the public and private lives of a community long misunderstood or stereotyped in the mainstream media and popular culture.
In retrospect, Mr. Glick did more than depict the street life, people and domestic scenes of a New York neighborhood. He also sensitively documented a community at the cusp of dynamic change. His project is now the subject of an exhibition, “Interior Lives: Photographs of Chinese Americans in the 1980s,” organized by the Museum of Chinese in America in conjunction with the Museum of the City of New York exhibition, “Interior Lives: Contemporary Photographs of Chinese New Yorkers.” Both shows are on view through March 24.
Intent on portraying Chinatown honestly and with complexity, Mr. Glick did so as an outsider respectful of a community he did not know from the inside. “I was a documentary photographer, with the responsibility of learning, understanding, making connections, gaining access and documenting what I saw, felt, and understood — communicating what was occurring around me — telling the story as I understood it,” Mr. Glick wrote in an email. “My role was to keep my eyes open, learn as much as I could, make connections, and follow wherever my connections took me.”
Mr. Glick’s photographs are at once vivid and intimate, a window into the everyday lives of their subjects: the male residents of so-called bachelor apartments, quietly reading newspapers or eating meals; a worker pressing clothes in one of the city’s then ubiquitous hand laundries; a chaotic garment factory, piles of fabric strewn on tables; children playing, interacting with parents, or hanging out on the street; and a young man sporting a T-shirt from the punk rock band the Ramones, a harbinger of Chinatown’s impending demographic and cultural shifts.
These photographs provided much-needed detail and context for a community all too often defined by stereotypes: the exotic tourist mecca replete with golden dragons and inexpensive restaurants; the booming business district, crowded with shopkeepers hawking ethnic foods, gaudy trinkets and mysterious potions; or the lurid, opium-fueled world of “Chinatown Nights,” a 1929 gangster film directed by William A. Wellman about a white socialite caught up in San Francisco’s Chinese underworld.
Beginning in the late-19th century, a series of federal laws — built on stereotypes, anxieties about white racial purity, and the fear of lost jobs — greatly restricted Chinese immigration to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, was the first to bar a group on the basis of nationality or race. It placed draconian restrictions on prospective immigrants, including the exclusion of the wives and children of Chinese laborers already living in the country.
But the easing of immigration laws and quotas in the 1950s and 1960s precipitated an upsurge in Chinese settlement in the United States, dynamically altering Chinatown’s demographics, physical character and geography. Shops and small business were established, shuttered and reborn. Old buildings were demolished and replaced. The neighborhood’s boundaries expanded beyond its historical core streets. And Chinese communities arose and flourished in other parts of the city.
“All communities change,” wrote Mr. Glick. “However, looking at it now, the incredibly rapid growth and change distinguishes Chinatown from many other communities. What felt big at the time now seems small. Chinatown has expanded tremendously. It seems qualitatively different now. Today’s Chinatown is a dynamic community created by a new generation of immigrants.”
“Interior Lives” represents these shifts not just through historical photographs, but also through audio and written excerpts from recently recorded interviews with some of their subjects. Mr. Glick perceives these interviews, which are featured in the exhibition and on the WeChat mobile app, as a vital continuation of the project he began almost 40 years ago.
“My goal now, in terms of this project, is to connect with and interview more people that I photographed in the 1980s and produce a book that places the photographs within the context of people’s stories,” wrote Mr. Glick. “The photos together with the stories that people tell will inform each other and contribute to a deeper understanding of both the personal experience and the broader social history of New York’s Chinatown.”
Perceiving echoes of the Chinese Exclusion Act in our present-day politics, Mr. Glick believes the project is evermore urgent. In this regard, “Interior Lives” remains consequential and relevant during a time when immigrants are being demonized by the president and his supporters. Its testament to the strength and resourcefulness of an immigrant community belies the stereotypes, assumptions and anxieties that fuel this regressive thinking.
“I hope that my Chinatown work can stand as a refutation of that bigotry,” wrote Mr. Glick. “The photographs tell a quintessential American immigrant story of persistence to gain a foothold in a society that excludes them racially, socially, economically, and culturally. We know that the past is present. The same, racist, anti-immigrant politics that led to Exclusion are alive and well in our current, toxic times. It was wrong then. It is wrong now.”
Race Stories is a continuing exploration of the relationship between race and photographic depictions of race by Maurice Berger. He is a research professor and chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
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