Essay by John Kuo Wei Tchen

Frankie Wong with Steven and Freeman
Frankie Wong with Steven and Freeman

Frankie Wong with Steven and Freeman 

Photographing Chinatown 

Memory & Meaning, Fascination & Fear 

John Kuo Wei Tchen 


How do we respond to these images?  

Luscious blacks, whites, grays – each, a world of stories to tell. 

But will we ever know them? 

It depends. 

Did you grow up within this experience?  

Outside it? 

Which images intrigue you? 

Which draw you in?  

Give heartache? Make you smile? 


Freeman Wong was 4.  

He writes of his father 35 years later, guessing: “My father must have made an impression. He was outgoing and well liked, always smiling. He was like the mayor of Chinatown; he knew a lot of people and did lots of work in the community, which was small and close-knit. He spoke fluent English, as well as Cantonese, Mandarin and his hometown dialect of Fuzhou.” Viewing the photograph today, Freeman is making sense of that past, and his father. We’re lucky to listen in. 

“When my dad emigrated from Fujian province in the early 1970s, joining his father in the US, he opened a fish store. Later he opened a grocery store next door. I would have been at kindergarten in 1981, right across the street. I remember hanging out in the shop abusing the cat. She was a little feisty and I liked to pull her tail.” 

Aha, now decades later, I understand why this image exists. The year before we got a grant founding the New York Chinatown History Project. We rented a second floor loft nearby Freeman’s store. And Bud Glick with camera in hand showing up day after day started taking photos and giving them back to the Wong family. Who would let this lofan take their image? The open-spirited, English speaking Frankie!  

Frankie himself was an outsider-insider. Below Chatham Square was still in rapid transition then. Greeks and Jews were moving out. And Chinese from Fujian Province were moving in. The Chinese community had been a 99.9% Cantonese speaking community. Frankie and his father were amongst the newcomers. And he adapted to the multiple dialects and languages around him. 

A moment is freeze framed. We get to look, really look, and catch our breath. Here, with stilled images especially, we move back and forth, sifting and winnowing fragments of the past puzzled within a present. Suddenly one is challenged to make sense of the same place and same people in this blink of the eye.  

Freeman navigates these shifts with poignance: “My mum, who’s 73, is still in the shop every day. My dad died six years after this picture was taken, when I was 11. When I look at the photograph, it reminds me how young I was when I lost him. I’m 39 now, older than he was when he died.” 

Social media now offers the possibilities to make this reckoning with time/place possible for more people. Freeman “found” Bud’s images of 80s New York Chinatown on his friend’s Facebook page. Recognizing people, he emailed Bud with the photo of his dad, his baby brother, and himself (not knowing that Bud took the photo). Bud responded right away revealing he had taken that photograph sending more family photos never released. “When we saw them,” Freeman writes, “our jaws dropped. It was an emotional day.” 

The moment of the past image is juxtaposed against the moment of now, a 34-year time shift. An opportunity of deep reflection and deep connection opens up for Freeman, his mom especially, and his family. And also between Freeman and Bud, but luckily also for all of us. The photograph appearing at the right moment can become a portal opening up worlds of meaning and memories. 

Or such moments pass and go undocumented. And there are no opportunities for loved ones to piece together and make sense of what has happened, literally to re-member a past time/place with a current time/place. Experiences of a people and communities get fragmented. Such appears to be the tidal nature of NYC. “Back then,” Freeman reflects, “every Chinese immigrant headed to Chinatown. I was born there. It’s grown tremendously…. In Manhattan [now], the younger generations are moving out, just as the children of Italian immigrants did in the 70s and 80s.” There is a strong sense these are natural shifts, almost tidal in nature. Such is the life cycle, it appears. 

These precious 1980s social documents of everyday life capture a still moment amidst rapid and profound shifting currents of who lived where. Freeman is correct about the Italians. They left Manhattan’s Little Italy out to Brooklyn and beyond. The 1977 film that launched John Travolta’s film career “Saturday Night Fever” captures that moment of young men torn between their street allegiance, moving out further across the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island, and finding some personal meaning and creative career. Yet, what’s out of sight of Glick’s photos, Freeman’s memories, and Travolta’s script but omnipresent are the US immigration laws that constantly impacted these neighborhoods and the resulting juxtaposition and movement of groups.  

Freeman’s father Frankie, and Frankie’s father were able to come because of the civil rights impacted 1965 Immigration Reform Act. For the first time since the passing of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, such regular people as the Wongs could legally enter the US.  

Bud recounts: “I realize what a unique and fleeting time it was. Within that community of young immigrant families, there still existed (in the same place but in many way separate) a remnant of a much earlier immigrant experience, those stranded by the Chinese Exclusion laws.”  

The same anti-foreign politics that resulted in Chinese and later other Asian group exclusions, also led to the eugenics formulated National Origins Quotas which were written into the 1924 Immigration Act. Suddenly, Italians and Jews (but also all non-“Nordic” meaning Protestant Western Europeans such as Greeks) were also effectively stopped from entering the US.  

By the time Frankie Wong allowed Bud Glick to take a series of photographs in 1981, the Lower East Side was revived by new immigrants. During the era of exclusion, the historic African American communities and Italians in the area intermixed with more recently arriving Puerto Ricans. Americans are a particular fragmented people. “At the time of this photograph, we were living in Knickerbocker Village, a housing complex on the Lower East Side. It was a family community, with more Italians than Chinese. As a result, we Chinese all knew each other. But my sister remembers some anti-Asian feelings around the Village, from Italians, Americans and African Americans.” 

Unbeknownst to most of the residents, this public housing complex was a mix of groups who had all been racially profiled by immigration laws, colonial policies, and racism. Such a history nobody knew much about except for the fact they were all there and coming from many different cultures and ways of living. With the civil rights and many other freedom movements, the Chinese families arrived because exclusion was lifted and because it was okay to be Chinese in America again. Nixon and Kissinger visited China. And things Chinese, especially the banquet Nixon had with Mao, became the rage. Exclusion and the disgust Americans feel about racially stigmatized others shifted to its opposite, fascination. 

This local mix is also embodied in these photographs albeit with a strong Chinese emphasis. But these various othered groups are always framing what we see and sense. Just as the laws and anti-Chinese history is also always there but not so easy to capture on film. But like the air and water surrounding Manhattan, it was always there. 

A single photograph can open all these discoveries, dialogues, and more, or not. It all depends on spaces pried open like the one Freeman pursued. Still photography, but also sound recording, video clips, and other tools of democratic meaning making, we now hold in our hands everyday, can be great means to learning about ourselves across time/place fragments and across insider/divides. Such photographs as these, people’s reflections like Freeman’s, and creating spaces for these reflections to happen and be understood should be at the foundation of all everyday lives. This is what makes life worth living. This is a portal, an opening stitching together a fractured understanding of our lives. It is an opening full of possibilities and pleasure we can all become a part of.  

Bud Glick’s still images open this window.  

Let its fresh air into your life.