Hannah Yoon’s Restaurant Kids documents the children growing up in Chinese restaurants

The Canadian Korean photographer discusses how and why she became a photographer, with a particular focus on people.

22 October 2020

A common personality trait in photographers is their ability to easily approach people they don’t know to take their photo. For most, it’s a talent developed in adulthood but for Hannah Yoon, it’s something she remembers doing back in middle school. “Photography was my way of connecting with people,” the Canadian Korean photographer tells us, “getting over my nerves and feeding my curiosity.” For Hannah, the camera is a way of learning about other people and their stories, something she does masterfully throughout her powerful works.

With clients such as The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Huffington Post, The Guardian US and Bloomberg Businessweek (just to name a few) it may come as a surprise to know that in fact, Hannah did not initially study photography. Sociology and psychology was her subject of choice at college, but in a similar respect to what her photography does now, Hannah’s degree sparked an interest in social justice, racial issues and mental health; all relevant themes which befit her practice today.

Originally from Waterloo, Ontario, the photographer recalls how she has always been taking photographs of people. At school it was with a cheap 35 mm point-and-shoot that she would use to document friends. “I loved being candid with my photography,” she remembers. Fast forward several years and after graduating college, Hannah decided to take two years off teaching English in Seoul. It was here that she wholly rediscovered the joys of clicking the shutter, and decided to pursue photojournalism. Now based in Philadelphia she has been freelancing for two years where she works on personal projects alongside her editorial commissions.

From 2013-16, she created a visual essay dedicated to the Lafferty family, a family with eight children exploring shared caretaking. In another personal project, Hannah reflects on her family’s time in Waterloo, Ontario, home for 25 years. Documenting her family’s move from the city back in 2018, she looks back on childhood photos, contemplating nostalgic familiar places that we form deep connections with. Hannah explains of the town she grew up in, “Waterloo was and is a predominantly white, upper class city. It took some time for me to recognise the way I grew up was unusual. I was usually the only Asian person in my classes and my parents weren’t your typical immigrants.” She adds, “They came to Canada as missionaries so they didn’t have this mindset of becoming successful.”


Hannah Yoon: Restaurant Kids (Copyright © Hannah Yoon, 2020)

In a particularly poignant personal project, Restaurant Kids, Hannah explores the lives of kids that grow up in Chinese restaurants, centring on a family in central Pennsylvania. The project started back in 2017 with a feeling of discontent. “I tend to come up with project ideas or story ideas when I’m at a low point in my career (or what I feel like is a low point),” she reveals. In this instance it was a dissatisfaction with her work and the state of the industry which particularly bothered her, saying, “I wanted to see more stories with people that looked like me.”

While on a visit to Pennsylvania with her husband, she came across several small-town Chinese restaurants where the owners’ kids would either be sitting in the corner of the restaurant or helping out. “I had read a lot of essays on this kind of situation but hadn’t seen any photo essays on it so I went for it,” she says. Driving to as many restaurants as possible, Hannah approached the restaurateurs about the project. In response, “most said no,” but there was one family in particular who were open to Hannah being around the kids and photographing them.

Originally from China, the family moved to Pennsylvania from Albany in New York in the hopes their four children would have better opportunities in the future. The emotionally poignant series evokes many themes relating to not only the immigrant experience, but also a human one. Childhood, the American dream, the importance of food in one’s culture, racial identity and sacrifice are all themes that are powerfully conveyed Hannah’s work. In making the work, she cites Jennifer Lee’s book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles which states that there are more Chinese restaurants in the US than McDonald's Burger Kings, Wendy’s, Domino’s and Pizza Huts combined. These environments, in turn, play a hugely important part in thousands of children’s formative years. They grow up alongside their parents working, playing in industrial kitchens and across countertops, doing their homework in seating booths while their parents bustle around them – something Hannah has captured with intimacy and candour.

GalleryHannah Yoon: Restaurant Kids (Copyright © Hannah Yoon, 2020)

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Hannah Yoon: Restaurant Kids (Copyright © Hannah Yoon, 2020)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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