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Interior Lives by An Rong Xu
Grand Park Girls, 2011Photography An Rong Xu

Three photographers tell the hidden stories of life as a Chinese New Yorker

This exhibition spotlights the daily lives of the largest population of Chinese people in any city outside of Asia

New York is home to the largest Chinese population outside of Asia – yet the reality of Chinese-American life remains hidden. Interior Lives: Contemporary Photographs of Chinese New Yorkers challenges this invisibility and the preconceptions silence breeds. The current exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York features three photographers, Thomas Holton, Annie Ling, and An Rong Xu, who, over twenty years, have documented the diverse lives within Chinese-American immigrant communities as these New Yorkers negotiate their space within the city.

Thomas Holton easily slips into the family that he has been photographing for the last 15 years. The Lams first welcomed him into their home on Ludlow Street while he was accompanying a local housing advocate on neighbourhood visits. Photographing them through 2003-2005 and then again from 2010, Holton has seen the family handle divorce and sending the children off to college. He recalls, “I never wanted to be a ‘fly on the wall’ photographer so I helped out with chores, driving the kids to college, and visiting their family.”

Becoming privy to the family’s personal moments, Holton says his “photography definitely changed”. He explains, “I became more aware of small details like lighting and facial expressions. Because I knew what was going on in their lives, I became more attentive to tone and atmosphere so I tried to make work that best reflected the mood at the moment.” Many photographs show a family member gazing directly into the camera, testifying to Holton’s skill and the relationship between photographer and subject as the stare doesn’t detract from the intimacy of the picture. Holton adds that if he likes “a particular photograph” and “it fits in with the current mood or story of the Lam’s lives, that is when I know I’ve made a strong image”.

In the show text, Holton revealed that he began his project to “get behind closed doors and photograph something other than the stereotypical images”. He has succeeded. Holton’s record of the Lam family transcends identity categorisations based on ethnicity or culture and documents the expectedly, unexpected, ups and downs that any and every family goes through.

In contrast, An Rong Xu’s subjects are often strangers, evoking a more historical narrative of Chinese migration. Xu’s series, My Americans explores “two sometimes polarising cultures”. Chinese and American history has long been intertwined – from the early 1800s when Chinese migrants first came to America, to the present day, when over half a million people of Chinese descent live in New York.  

Xu’s photography is heavily influenced by cinema, particularly by the Taiwanese New Wave and 1990s Hong Kong films. Xu says, “Having images that could ebb and flow into each other – as in cinema – is paramount to achieving a visual litany of the Chinese American people.” Xu stylistically fuses the two cultures by also following in the footsteps of America’s great photographic documentarians. He began his project in New York – where his ancestors settled – before travelling through the United States.

Xu’s photographs have a mesmerising quality of looking both staged and candid. The photos evoke a story of its cross-generational subjects without limiting interpretation. “When I’m working, I like to wander and find my way into different subjects not knowing what I’m going after, and then hoping for the story to take mould afterwards.” Xu adds, “There are other times when I go looking for particular images,” such as the photo of the Chinese American Beauty Pagent where Xu “tried to make images that could speak to this cultural event”.

While Xu travelled around for his photographic subjects, Annie Ling’s series, 81 Bowery, centres on the lives of 35 residents, all living on the same fourth floor of the now-closed lodging house of the same name. Each lodger made a 64-square-foot cubicle their home for as little as $200 a month. It was one of the last remaining lodging houses in New York City, housing more than a generation of immigrant Chinese labourers who worked in kitchens or at building sites throughout Chinatown.

Ling’s background in documentary photography is easily recognisable in these images but it’s her personal investment in the series that makes the photographs both archival and deeply emotive, avoiding the traps of voyeurism. The show’s text describes that, on meeting Ling, Mr Chu from cubicle #4 remarked “You’re the same age as my daughter… I have not seen her in 16 years”, which prompted Ling’s own admission that she had hardly known her father either. The occupants of 81 Bowery often live below their means to send money back to their extended families in China, losing out on personal relationships. Ling’s father had also been a breadwinner, sacrificing himself in order to privilege the lives of his family members.

81 Bowery is similar to Ling’s other bodies of work, focusing on the notions of home, belonging, and identity. Rather than pictures with explicit messages, Ling’s images suggest or make references through everyday scenes or mundane objects, making the viewer do their own imaginative work to envision the lives behind their belongings or daily actions.  

All three photographers, in different, equally effective ways provoke viewers to think about the untold lives of an often overlooked community.

Interior Lives continues at the Museum of the City of New York until March 24