A Year of Photographing Chinatown in Quarantine
Observations of uncertainty through the lens
I’ve been photographing Chinatowns since the beginning of the coronavirus shutdowns. And like all things during the pandemic, Chinatowns across cities have had their fair share of phases under quarantine. Of the roughly 3,800 physical and verbal attacks against AAPI individuals over the past year, 35% have occurred at stores and small businesses with elderly individuals and women as a majority of victims, according to a report from Stop AAPI Hate. Common sense tells us that the actual number is much higher due to the likelihood of unreported attacks among marginalized groups.
I witnessed the vanishing crowds before the beginning of quarantine, in tandem with when #ChineseVirus and #KungFlu were Twitter’s top trending hashtags. I observed the quiet rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans (one widely cited statistic states that New York City experienced a 1900% jump in anti-Asian hate crimes in one year), which reached an inflection point on March 16, 2021, when a terrorist murdered eight individuals in Atlanta, six of them Asian women. Moreover, I saw how these unsettling events shaped Chinatown.
I didn’t plan to document Chinatown for over a year. But when I picked up my camera in February 2020, the public imagination of Chinatown was mired in misconceptions. Having grown up visiting Chicago’s Chinatown on the weekends, I had my own mental image of the neighborhood. So when I heard about the conflation of the AAPI community with coronavirus and all the misery it’s yielded, wrought on by xenophobic rhetoric weaponized by the former president and vice president, I was confused. What was it that individuals were seeing that differed from the Chinatown in my mind, the Chinatown I knew? It felt as though its image was deserving of a second look. I haven’t been able to tear my eyes away since.
When I started photographing Chinatown near downtown Chicago, the first coronavirus cases were entering the country. Business in the district had already plummeted in half. Metal grates with steel locks were pulled down in front of storefronts. In one shop I spotted, hand-written “for lease” signs made from printer paper hung precariously in dark windows. Wentworth Ave, typically Chinatown’s busiest street, was nearly empty, save for one other car besides my own. Every now and again a person or two would appear and hurry past before disappearing again. It felt as if the whole neighborhood, apart from the rest of the city, had been driven underground.
When I received the initial set of photographs back from the developing lab, I was disheartened by the results. I had accidentally set the wrong exposure for my film type. Consequently, the black-and-white photographs appeared dull without enough contrast. Tones were uniform throughout the photographs, causing them to look shallow. Flat. The intrusive grain of the film made Chinatown look gritty, as though covered in ash. The dirty quality was a visual that hearkened back to early tropes that made me shudder.
I set the photographs aside and ignored them for a week before revisiting them. When I did, they reflected a poignancy I hadn’t noticed before. Upon closer inspection, the grain from the photographs had texture and depth. The eerie emptiness brought on by the heightened shadows and absence of color felt apropos to what I had experienced. Buildings felt austere and cold but dignified, like stone towers in a mist, nearly vanishing into a rich gray-hued darkness.
A couple months later, I moved to Oakland, California. My new apartment was conveniently only a few blocks away from Oakland’s Chinatown, though this was unplanned. I walked up and down the streets, camera tucked under my arm, homesick for the Chinatown I knew in Chicago.
I quickly familiarized myself with some of its citizens. There’s the elderly woman somewhere in the district’s center who sells an array of miscellaneous goods—miniature bamboo and handfuls of produce—on flattened cardboard sitting on the sidewalk. She sits by herself all day, every day, in the same chair next to her pushcart, waiting for someone to approach her makeshift stall.
I don’t know how old she is, but I know she’s too old to sit outside regardless of the weather or however many people are in the market that day for an array of plants that look freshly dug out of the dirt. Age spots decorate the parts of her face I can see, and her white hair sticks out beneath her face shield. She reminds me of someone’s grandmother, perhaps my own for no other reason than for being an old Chinese woman. Occasionally she tries to entice passersby by calling out to them in a dialect I can’t understand, without success.
I buy lemons, potatoes, and zongzi from her on a semi-weekly basis, even though I don’t know enough recipes, nor do I have the appetite, to utilize the amount I’m accumulating. I begin gifting friends bamboo when I see them. Our communication exchange is limited due to the language barrier. I pretend to study the select range of vegetables sitting in small clusters and act like I’ve struck a fantastic deal when she tells me that the potatoes are, yes, one dollar for the whole pile. I resist and only take half. I pay and she packs my groceries into a worn plastic bag even though I tell her I don’t need one. I have no idea what she makes of me as I routinely select a mismatch of items each time. Even through the strain on communication, I hope she knows what I mean when I tell her, as she hands me the bag, to be safe.
As quarantine went on, I continued to see Chinatown through many smaller crises. There was the day the sky turned a deep amber from wildfires raging in California and Oregon. The photographs taken from that day are out of focus, as though reflecting my own anxiety, for myself and those around me given the amount of ash hanging in the air. Besides a couple lingering individuals, the only others still around were workers flattening cardboard boxes and loading them onto carts as well as restaurant workers cleaning up after what was likely a slow day. The ember-orange of the atmosphere threw into sharp relief the green and yellow lights glowing from within the few open restaurants and businesses. It felt as though I had landed myself into an environment running an experiment with toxic waste gone wrong.
But in many ways, there were still other things yet to go wrong in this Chinatown. A week after the sky burned the color of a Monarch, I looked out the window one morning to see plumes of thick black smoke rising from 6th and Webster Street. For the next hour, I heard sirens outside my window. A dumpster fire had caught the back of a building shared by fourteen restaurants and businesses. The fire proliferated throughout the structure, turning into a five-alarm blaze and requiring over seventy firefighters to contain it. The central part of the roof collapsed. Today, six months later, the storefronts of the displaced businesses remain boarded up.
Then the attacks began.
Though they had been happening since the early days of quarantine, the months between November and January saw an uptick in strongarm robberies in the community. By February 2021, the month of Lunar New Year, eighteen hate crimes in Oakland’s Chinatown were reported. It was suddenly unusual for there to not be any attacks in any given day. One woman’s head was hit by a flare gun shot into a main street at 1 PM. The proximity of the crimes could not be ignored.
I searched social media to see if anyone else was seeing what I was. Some hypothesized that the area was targeted because the elderly often carried cash with them and were virtually defenseless against confrontation. Others attributed to spike in crime to the lack of eyes around to witness crimes. These observations, however, felt like small conversations relative to the rest of the news coverage. These talks got picked up by a wider audience after victims as old as 84 and 91 years old died from unprovoked attacks.
When I photographed Oakland’s and San Francisco’s Chinatowns on the weekends, whereas my eyes were usually scanning for opportunities to photograph, this time I was also paying close attention to the safety of those around me. My eyes focused on the phones held loosely in the hands of shoppers and frail-looking individuals plodding along. This one-person initiative at community scrutiny, however, had its limits. I realized the ineffectiveness of my own efforts to protect those around me. I felt a personal helplessness and sunk deeper into distress.
It was this same helplessness I felt when I went to Chinatown the day after the Atlanta shooting. It was raining, so I sheltered my bulky camera under my jacket as I walked the sidewalks. The atmosphere felt weary and on edge. Beleaguered. I photographed a restaurant worker on break as he walked in front of me. The sound of the shutter release, a deep and hollow mechanical clicking sound of the shutter curtains snapping together and apart, caused him to whip his head around and check for what was behind him. Seeing me with my camera pointed at the ground, he turned around and took a long drag from his cigarette as he kept walking. Every few steps he looked over his shoulder.
For over a year, I learned a lot about a neighborhood I thought I already knew intimately. Whenever I set out to take photographs, I wasn’t quite sure what side of Chinatown would be revealed to me in this moment of acute precarity and vulnerability. In the process of observing the area—its shops, citizens, and artifacts—I came into a greater awareness of the beauty, fears, and uncertainty that exist in its proximity. But if photographing Chinatown has taught me anything, it’s that vigilance is a love language; that the practice of attunement to one’s environment and neighbors is a reflexive service. It nourishes a community that is safer, more organic, and more sustaining than any law enforcement; it also develops a deeper appreciation for one’s community. The exercise of serious noticing serves as a reminder that seeing is a political act and a method of protection. Looking through a lens is no exception.
I don’t question whether Chinatown will come back. Its history is rooted in persevering in spite of racism and state violence; I trust it will continue this legacy. It also isn’t a question of whether foot traffic will return. Rather, the question is how Chinatown has changed and more importantly, how it is beheld in the imagination of the public and regarded by those for whom Chinatown is a central feature of their lived experiences.
Some days, after photographing Chinatown in the late afternoon, I sit in my car. It is also the end of the elderly woman’s day. I watch in my rearview mirror to make sure she doesn’t encounter trouble as she loads her unsold goods into her pushcart, backlit by the setting sun. She takes her time as other local workers and shoppers head home before dark. I position myself to think of how her day went. What was the most interesting thing she saw? Did she have any entertaining conversations to ease the crawl of the hours? I wonder how many apples she was able to sell today. Is she planning what to bring tomorrow? Or, ever the astute businesswoman, is she strategizing how to price her goods competitively? Is she thinking about tomorrow’s weather or perhaps her family; if she has any? Does she worry? Does she hope? I don’t pull away until she turns the corner out of sight. I wonder where she goes with her cart, how far she has to walk before finding her way home. Maybe, she is wondering where I am, too.