Ever wondered about the history of your city’s Chinatown? Yunfei Ren explores San Francisco’s
The Wuhan-born and bred photographer traces the history of Chinese American migration and discrimination with powerfully cinematic and surreal vignettes taken at the eldest Chinatown outside of Asia.
Yunfei Ren’s work is something of a cultural map. The photographer has spent years immersing himself in not only cultures, but the objects, symbolism and characteristics that its people hold dear. Take Midsummer Neighbors for example, his exploration of a community of people living across California’s RV parks, where his attention to the motorhomes and wider scenery – be it the towering redwoods or the greyish dirt road – make a sharp backdrop for his portraits. Or there’s Hair Power, a project from 2021, where he explores the political nature of afro hair and society’s willingness to label it undesirable through the tracing of a Black woman’s trip to a wig store. Among these works, the photographer has also turned his lens to his heritage with No Asians and No Filters, exploring the Asian experience through a plethora of scenarios. But nothing has been quite as mystical and historically rich as Guǐ 鬼, the spellbinding narrative series about loss, alienation and a search for belonging.
Guǐ 鬼 is nothing short of cinematic. A man doesn’t just open a launderette washing machine to collect clothes, Yunfei’s wide shot captures him gazing into it, arms out, as if the escaping steam and blinding light are obscuring the answers to the universe. This feeling is felt throughout the series and is amplified by Yunfei’s use of a singular character to explore the experience of the Chinese diaspora. Throughout, the character emerges as the ghost of a Chinese labourer who has landed in the modern-day San Francisco Chinatown. Yunfei says, “a key message for me is the interconnectedness of the past and present; history informs the contemporary, but is there a possibility of revisiting the past to seek healing?” And as such, he merges the two timelines, the alienation and discrimination of the past and its lingering existence for immigrants today.
For Yunfei, the immigrant experience holds great weight due to the increase in anti-Asian sentiments and violence in San Francisco and throughout the US, during and since the Covid lockdowns. “I am particularly sensitive to it because I was born and raised in Wuhan, so understanding the origins of the animosity and xenophobia became crucial for me,” he tells us. Hence, he decided to dive into the Chinese diaspora and learn how the patterns of migration have impacted his current experience, stereotypes and racism faced – from the first wave during the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that forbade labourers, and post war migration. But, for the photographer, learning about these events doesn’t come close to his experience of acting out this lineage of migration, giving him a greater sense of belonging in both San Francisco and the wider Asian American community.
After an extensive period of research, Yunfei began immersing himself in any and all materials related to Chinese American history and San Francisco’s Chinatown, before selecting which pivotal moments would guide the series. “Over two months, I frequented Chinatown to scout locations, before crafting compositions and sketches that would inform costumes and props sourced from Los Angeles,” he tells us. “Shooting progressed smoothly,” with an average of two images taken per week, at night, while shops were closed and it resembled an (ahem) ghost town. Yunfei’s assistant would act as a stand-in model, while the photographer would set up lighting, composition and the overall scene, and just before the shutter is pressed, they’d switch roles and the photographer would become the character.
While observing the photographs it becomes abundantly clear that Guǐ 鬼 has this enticing balance between history and fantasy, heritage and diaspora, and Chinese and American culture. “Harmonising fantasy with historical accuracy took being delicate. It was in the careful play with lighting, colours, and a touch of smoke here and there to imbue surrealism and a haunting sense of loneliness,” he tells us. “The cuisine is Chinese American, not Chinese, and architecture too,” he adds. And it all makes a perfect equilibrium. The photographer holds a mirror to the fusion embedded in Chinese American culture itself. Guǐ 鬼 guides us on an immersive journey, leaving us to wonder about the historical specifics and, the fortuitous and intentional makings of such a populous place found throughout many of our cities: What’s the story behind London’s Chinatown? Or Toronto? And for Europe’s eldest, what ghosts lurk around Liverpool?
Yunfei Ren: Guǐ 鬼, Women’s Work (Copyright © Yunfei Ren, 2022)
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.