“Why Chinatown Still Matters”

May, 16, 2016 – The New York Times

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There is one thing we do not see in a compelling 1982 self-portrait by Dean Wong: his face. Taken in Seattle’s Chinatown, the photograph zeroes in on the back of a metal helmet, polished to a mirrorlike finish. In it is reflected a crowd of neighborhood residents — a metaphor for the people and hometown community that have shaped and fascinated Mr. Wong.

The image appears in Mr. Wong’s new book, “Seeing the Light: Four Decades in Chinatown” (Chin Music Press), which centers on Seattle but includes images from other cities, including San Francisco, New York and Vancouver, British Columbia. Juxtaposing photographs with short, anecdotal essays, the book serves as a powerful corrective to decades of one-dimensional and blinkered reporting on neighborhoods generally represented in the cultural mainstream as exotic, insular or irrelevant, as places to order a quick meal or marvel at the colorful rituals of the Chinese New Year.

Self-portrait, Seattle, 1982.
Self-portrait, Seattle, 1982.Credit Dean Wong

The photos remind us that despite the stubborn, stereotypical view of Chinatowns as places of vibrant exoticism, they continue to serve an important social function as gateways and homes to new immigrants, as guardians of art, history and heritage, and as a refuge from discrimination. Mr. Wong does so not by creating a visual and verbal gloss, but rather by meticulously documenting the rituals of everyday life and focusing on personal stories, ordinary and extraordinary, of people largely ignored in mainstream media.

Mr. Wong started photographing Seattle’s Chinese-American community in the early 1970s, while working for the International District Emergency Center, a grassroots neighborhood services organization. Later, as a photojournalist for the International Examiner, a Seattle-based Asian-American newspaper, he continued to focus on Chinatown. “I photographed meetings, did portraits, went to community celebrations, and roamed the streets of Chinatown looking for anything that caught my eye,” he later recalled.

Among the many contributions of “Seeing the Light” is its eloquent documentation of complex and evolving communities, neighborhoods that exist not for tourists, but as cultural, political, and historic sanctuaries for the Asian-American community.

“For me, Chinatown has been a kind of compass by which to find where I belong in this country,” the writer Bonnie Tsui observed in her groundbreaking book, “American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods.” “I haven’t always felt at ease in my identity as a Chinese-American, and as a young adult it was comforting to know that there was a place I could go in my city where everyone else looked like me.”

Sun Yang, Seattle, 1994.
Sun Yang, Seattle, 1994.Credit Dean Wong

If “Seeing the Light” affirms the role of Chinese-American communities in empowering a people, their history has been fraught, complicated by racism, xenophobia and, more recently, the threats of urban renewal and gentrification. In the mid-19th century, Chinese migration to the United States began when natural catastrophes across China inspired some of its more intrepid citizens to go to Gum Shan, “Gold Mountain,” the Chinese nickname for California, and the western regions of North America, stoked by news of gold-rich land and economic opportunity.

But as the economy weakened in the United States, the Chinese labor force came to be viewed by white Californians as a threat. Racism and repressive legislation drove Chinese-Americans to self-segregate and form a sanctuary neighborhood in San Francisco: a so-called Chinatown, where close-knit families and benevolent associations sustained a spurned minority. As new businesses thrived within this community, however, the city’s white residents continued to view Chinese-Americans as a danger to the region’s fragile economy.

Charlie Chong, Seattle, 1996.
Charlie Chong, Seattle, 1996.Credit Dean Wong

It was not until the mid-20th century that Chinese-Americans began to enter the nation’s mainstream, with Chinatowns in cities as diverse as New York, Seattle, Washington, Los Angeles and Boston flourishing. But in recent years, gentrification has encroached on some communities, outpricing many Asian-Americans from neighborhoods that had served as cultural havens for decades. At its peak, for example, Chinatown in the District of Columbia was once home to about 3,000 Chinese-Americans. That number has dwindled to 300.

In light of this history, Mr. Wong’s vignettes and photographs — including images of community activism, local businesses and organizations, political leaders, children playing, celebratory rituals and, on a more personal level, reminiscences about his family and student life — speak to the cultural nuances, complexity and necessity of Chinatown, well beyond the touristic fascination with swirling paper dragons, countless restaurants and trinket shops.

706 S. King Street, Seattle, 1984.
706 S. King Street, Seattle, 1984.Credit Dean Wong

In a section titled “People,” for example, Mr. Wong photographed and wrote about a range of Chinatown residents, some of them artists in their own right: the Japanese-American photographer Henry Takayoshi, for example, a reminder not only of Chinatown’s cultural diversity but also of the non-Chinese Asian-Americans who have gravitated to its precincts; Ryan Rhinehart, a gay Korean-born drag queen, who died of AIDS in the mid-1990s; Sun Yang, a Seattle artist whose early paintings were of landscapes near his hometown, Anhui, in central east China; Eun-Gyong Lee, legally blind since birth, who daily navigated the bustling metropolis of Seattle; and the sculptor Meng Huang, who transformed the detritus of daily life — the things people had literally thrown away — into dynamic assemblages.

The overall effect of “Seeing the Light” is to illuminate the cultural uniqueness and social consequence of Chinatown, both historically and in recent years.

“What I take away from Chinatown when I leave … is a sharpened sense of why Chinatown still matters,” Ms. Tsui observed in words relevant to Mr. Wong’s important book, adding: “After a century and a half of Chinese immigration, Chinatown can still be the first step for new immigrants into America, and for American-born Chinese into their Chinese heritage. Their personal stories are narrative epics; by reading them, we find out what Chinatown means to its people at present. And by looking behind, we also get a sense of what may lie ahead, beyond its borders.”

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