Intimate Portraits Of New York’s Chinatown

It’s the largest Chinatown in the United States and two new exhibitions capture a side rarely seen by tourists.

New York City’s Chinatown is home to almost 100,000 people–it’s the largest Chinatown in the United States and one of the biggest enclaves of Chinese people in Western hemisphere. Its labyrinthine streets are a sensory feast, packed with jewelers, grocers, and fishmongers. One of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods, it attracts tourists in the thousands.


Few tourists, though, get to know about the individual residents that make up Chinatown’s bustling crowds. Two simultaneous new exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese in America–A Floating Population and Portraits of New York’s Chinatown, by artists Annie Ling and Tomie Arai–dig beneath the neighborhood’s surface by featuring intimate photographs and oral histories of its people and domestic spaces. Arai’s collaged portraits and artifacts, with nostalgic photographs of the Music Palace movie theater and artist hangout Grampa’s Bar, almost resemble shrines to the Chinatown of yesteryear.

To create Portraits of New York’s Chinatown, artist Tomie Arai interviewed 27 Chinatown residents and community leaders about their experiences with gentrification and displacement, and developed interpretive portraits, using screen-printing, oral history, and a collaging of personal artifacts. “I think there’s a notion that Chinatown residents don’t care about space and community-building, that these folks move here for their own convenience and don’t contribute to civic improvement,” exhibition curator Herb Tam tells Co.Design. “Annie Ling and Tomie Arai’s projects show that their subjects create domestic spaces imaginatively and are sensitive to changes in their neighborhood.”

In her series A Floating Population, New York Times photographer Annie Ling uses her camera to reveal the private lives of Chinatown’s shut-ins, tenement residents, and residents of Single Room Occupancy building 81 Bowery. SRO rooms are cramped shoeboxes 64 square feet in size, without ceilings, often serving as bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens all at once. “My favorite image from A Floating Population shows residents of 81 Bowery sharing a meal in their cramped space,” Tam says. These understated, often melancholy images capture how city dwellers learn to transcend their claustrophobic spaces. “There is an obvious care to the ritual of eating that makes the space feel bigger.”

A Floating Population and Portraits of New York Chinatown are on view at the Museum of Chinese in America until April 13th.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.