Interior Lives documents the unassimilated lives of the largest Chinese population outside of Asia

Date
18 January 2019

Currently showing at the Museum of the City of New York, a unique exhibition is filling the walls of the galleries. Titled Interior Lives: Contemporary Photographs of Chinese New Yorkers, this exhibition provides an unseen glimpse into the lives of the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia.

Featuring the work of An Rong Xu, Annie Ling and Thomas Holton, their work has the common aim of documenting a community that has remained unassimilated over the years. While in some instances, it is seen as beneficial or natural for an immigrant community to assimilate into Western culture, this exhibition presents a different case to this ideology. The photographs authentically document the lives of a community that disregard Western cultural norms, despite living within the heart of it. Families and individuals live their lives within their Chinese microcosm, seemingly untouched by American culture. Why should a community with their own culturally-rich values and traditions adopt another way of life?

The photos don’t seemingly befit to the mainstream connotations of New York. In Annie Ling’s series 81 Bowery, she documents one of the last standing lodging houses in New York which has been home to more than a generation of immigrant Chinese labourers. In cramped rooms filled with Asian kitchenware and crockery, a variety of scenes within the 64-square-foot cubicles unfold. In one image, a middle-aged man climbs to the top bunk of a cheap wooden bed. Most of these inhabitants send as much of their earnings as possible back to their families in China, paying as little as $100 a month for their makeshift homes.

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Annie Ling: 81 Bowery

Alternatively, photographer An Rong Xu, born-and-raised in New York’s Chinatown explores the intersection of the “two sometimes polarising cultures.” He depicts the Chinese-American as an integral part of the American landscape; appreciating the everyday ordinariness of the community’s comings and goings through rich, cinematic photography.

In Thomas Holton’s work, he captures the personal life of a Chinese family living in a 350-square-foot flat on Ludlow Street. The intimate images capture the personal nuances that fill the family’s life. In Chinese Soap Opera, the mother watches a show from her native land, situated in yesteryear’s age of traditional cheongsams and elaborate hair-dos. She sits opposite the old boxy television and absent-mindedly stirs fat noodles with chopsticks while engrossed in the show. Thomas’ photographs are eerily still; they capture the confined living quarters of a Chinese family centred around the cultural importance of food and encapsulate the apparent closeness of relationships as a result of their compact apartment.

On the new exhibition, Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of the Museum of Chinese in America states that the show “provides the rare opportunity to consider the evolution of a community – New York’s Chinatown – allowing visitors to examine a community over a 40-year period,” hopefully simultaneously “re-igniting conversations about what the experiences of Chinatown residents can contribute to the broader discussion about community, space and perseverance.”

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Thomas Holton: Chinese Soap Opera, 2004

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Thomas Holton: Bath Time, 2004

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Thomas Holton: Conversation, 2005

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Thomas Holton: Mother’s Lap, 2011

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Thomas Holton: Family Portrait, 2004

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Annie Ling: 81 Bowery

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Annie Ling: 81 Bowery

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Annie Ling: From Tenement Series

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An Rong Xu: Mr. Wong, 2011

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An Rong Xu: Grand Park Girls, 2011

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An Rong Xu: Division Street, 2017

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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. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.

jo@itsnicethat.com

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