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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.”

Aurora’s Beads and Jewelry is a Neighborhood Gem

Tamar Raum laid a broken strand of freshwater pearls on the counter at Aurora’s Beads and Jewelry in Kips Bay. Raum, 71, is a law librarian who has lived in the neighborhood for decades. Aurora’s jewelry repair service had been recommended by the nearby second-hand shop on Third Avenue where she had purchased the necklace.   

“They told me how much they love you and how reasonable you are, and this is where they take all of their things,” Raum told shop owner Aurora Manalo. Manalo assured Raum she could restring the necklace by Friday and would adjust the length for a better fit.

Raum’s story is typical of Aurora’s customers. Aurora’s Beads and Jewelry sells beads, jewelry-making supplies, and repair services as well as one-of-a-kind finished pieces handmade by Manalo. Many customers discover the tiny shop through word-of-mouth or a chance encounter while in the neighborhood. 

owner with customer
Aurora Manalo with customer Tamar Raum, who brought in a string of pearls for repair.

Aurora Manalo, 65, opened the store on East 28th Street over thirty years ago. At its height, the business employed 12 assistants, who helped Manalo produce custom beaded jewelry for a handful of professional designers as well as individual customers seeking something personalized.

Walk-in customers who ring the entry bell are greeted by Manalo herself, a friendly woman with an easy laugh, or by her husband, Omar Boughadda, 62, who helps out on his days off from his job as a manager at Fresh Meadows Country Club.

Strings of colorful beads cover the walls behind a long U-shaped display case filled with more small treasures. The narrow shop accommodates only a few customers at a time, lending a sense of intimacy, as if one had entered a creative friend’s joyfully cluttered living room rather than a commercial business. 

hanging strands of beads
Sales of jewelry and supplies make up 60 percent of Aurora’s revenues; the remainder comes from repair services.

Although Manalo has no formal design training, she has a good eye for color and a respect for the natural materials – semiprecious stones, shell, wood, carved bone – she uses in her jewelry.

Customers sometimes request specific stones as talismans – rose quartz for love, turquoise for healing, citrine or amber for attraction, tiger eye for protection against evil. “It’s all in the head, but if you’re going to believe it, it might work,” Manalo said.

She once made a good luck bracelet of jade for a customer headed to Atlantic City. He returned the next week to tell her he had won $2000. She said she told him, “No more, it’s only a one-time deal, sweetie,” so she couldn’t be blamed if he lost the next time.

jewelry display on counter
A counter display holds examples of Aurora Manalo’s beadwork.

The business has struggled in the last decade, hurt by a combination of the 2008 economic crash, Hurricane Sandy, online competition, and rising rents in Manhattan. 

To stay afloat, Aurora’s laid off its last employee in 2014, and Manalo no longer pays herself a salary. She earns just enough to cover the overhead, but keeps the shop open because she enjoys it. She hopes to renew her lease in 2020, but if the rent increases too much, she may be forced to close the storefront and turn entirely to online sales from her home in Long Island. 

For now, Manalo continues to open the shop six days a week and welcome everyone who drops in. 

shop interior
Only a few customers at a time can fit inside the store, lending a sense of intimacy to the service.
shop exterior
Aurora’s Beads and Jewelry is located on East 28th Street, just a few steps from Second Avenue.