Chinatown photography exhibit brings a community’s past into the present

A new photography exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) on Centre Street offers viewers a window into Chinatown’s past. “Interior Lives: Photographs of Chinese Americans in the 1980s,” which runs through Mar. 24, 2019, features 41 black-and-white images of Chinatown’s inhabitants at work, at home, and at play, taken by photographer Robert ‘Bud’ Glick over a three-year period in the early 80s.

Glick was hired by MOCA’s founders, Jack Tchen and Charlie Lai, to document the neighborhood at a pivotal time. After immigration laws loosened in 1965, waves of Chinese women and children arrived to join male relatives in Chinatown, transforming the character of the neighborhood.

Glick shot almost 500 rolls of black-and-white film for the project. Three decades later, Glick reconnected with some of his subjects, who shared personal stories about the photos’ meaning to their lives.

“It made me realize how important all this work could be to the whole community of Chinatown,” Glick said. Eventually, he hopes to publish a book of the photographs, he said.

When he first walked the streets of Chinatown with his camera, Glick said many locals were wary, but others embraced him. When shopkeeper Frankie Wong spotted Glick on Catherine Street his first week on the job, “he looked up at me with a big smile and said, ‘take my picture’,” Glick said. A striking portrait of Wong with a wide grin is featured in MOCA’s exhibit.

Frankie Wong
Frankie Wong in front of his store, Chinatown, NY, 1981. Photo by Bud Glick

Wong’s son, Freeman Wong, 42, discovered Glick’s photos a few years ago through a friend’s Facebook post. Freeman Wong said he sent Glick a photo the family had of his father standing outside his Chinatown business with the two youngest of his four children, “not realizing that he was the one that had taken the picture.” When Glick explained their connection, “I was just floored,” Wong said. “He sent over some other photos that we had never seen before. It was definitely emotional.”

Frankie Wong had died in 1987, when Freeman Wong and his youngest brother were only 11 and 8, so “we didn’t really have a lot of photos with dad,” Wong said. “There was a picture Bud has of our whole family and I think that is the only one picture that has all of us.”

In 1983, Glick captured an elderly Kam Ho Lee on his Eldridge Street stoop, cradling a sleeping toddler in his lap while he read the newspaper.

That toddler, Lee’s grandson Vincent Lee, is now 38 years old. When he first saw the photo hanging in the lobby of his junior high school, Vincent Lee said, “I thought my grandpa was famous.”

After years of coming across the image on flyers, in articles, and online, Vincent Lee said he sought out the source, hoping to get a copy for himself. “I emailed so many internet websites that had my picture,” Lee said. “That’s how I found out about Bud.”

Kam Ho Lee with grandson
Kam Ho Lee with his grandson, Vincent Lee, 9 Eldridge St, 1983. Photo by Bud Glick

At the exhibit’s Oct. 17 opening night, Vincent Lee talked to people touched by the photo of him asleep in his grandfather’s lap. “Some told me that they were in love with the picture for over 30-something years and they can’t get over it,” Lee said. “That’s like history to my family.”

For Freeman Wong, “there is that connection, there’s that human element,” he said. “It’s not just a photo.”

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