Asian American photographers train their cameras in the Chinatown-International District

A team of Asian American photographers are making a concerted effort to document the Chinatown International District neighborhood for the remainder of 2022. Left to right: John Pai, Sherwin Eng, Sally Kim-Miller, Tim Mar, Ron Choi, Theo Bickel, Dean Wong, Rick Wong. Missing from the photo: Audrey Fan, Loan Nguyen. Photo by Rick Wong

As the lions danced during the Lunar New Year, a group of photographers recorded the festivities and daily life of the community for a project they call “Chinatown International District: Through the Eyes of a Tiger.”

The title refers to 2022 being the year of the tiger in Chinese culture. “Through the Eyes of a Tiger” is the name of the project created by ten artists, including nine photographers.

Each brings a different perspective, and each records the living history of the neighborhood as they see it, with their own style and photographic interest.
The project comes at a difficult time for the historic Asian district.

The Chinatown International District (CID) is going through a tough time. Homelessness continues to be a problem, as well as the lingering effects of the pandemic. For the past two and a half years, the community has endured anti-Asian hatred, shuttered businesses, windows smashed by protesters, greedy developers buying up land and changing the face of CID.

The CID is also thriving in some ways. Businesses have lines at the door. Crowds attend festivals as they emerge from COVID lockdown.

Now the community, along with Asian seniors holding protest signs, are taking on another threat. Sound Transit proposed a Ballard light rail line in West Seattle running through the CID and moving businesses. The construction will clog the streets for up to ten years and bring dust and pollution.

Longtime photographer Rick Wong hosted a 16-day workshop at the Photographic Center Northwest earlier this year. He titled the workshop 24/16 Year of the Tiger.

There were no Asian Americans in the workshop, so Wong recruited photographer friends to participate.

Wong then came up with the idea for “Through the Eyes of a Tiger” and recruited a talented group of Asian American photographers to train their cameras on the CID district.

“I wanted to put together a team,” Wong said. The team would document the CID for the remainder of 2022.

“We are all different styles. But the theme is Chinatown in all photographic genres. It all falls into place at the end,” Wong said.

Wong grew up helping out at his father’s restaurant, the Gim Ling which later became China Gate.

For Wong, photography started at an early age. He started with a Kodak Brownie camera. It would be the start of a 59-year career in photography.

Wong enlisted his friend Ron Choi who is not a photographer to keep the project on track. “We needed a project manager. What I have to do is fundraise,” Choi said.

“I didn’t realize how important this project could be. But now that I’m at it, I’m committed to seeing it through…an achievement,” Choi said.

“Chinatown International District: Through the Eyes of a Tiger” has a great opportunity to receive funding from the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.

Last August, the group was asked to contribute photos to the time capsule sealed into the wall of Uncle Bob’s Place, which is currently under construction. Bob Santos was a revered community leader in the CID. The photographers had the honor of donating 14 photographs, specially prepared, to be seen by the people who will open the capsule in 100 years.

Additionally, the Wing Luke Museum is interested in seeing the results of the photographers’ work for possible future exhibition.

The Nisei Veterans Committee has offered to hold an exhibition at its King Street facility.
Some of the photographers are seasoned community artists. Others are relatively new.

Sally Kim-Miller takes photos with a camera while processing and printing her work in the darkroom.

As a photographer, Kim-Miller is a people person. “Photographing people in their everyday environment is an area that interests me. My style of photography for this project is to capture images of people who live and work in the CID,” she explained.

Theo Bickel works at International Community Health Services (ICHS) and is also new to photography in the area. Bickel said working at ICHS helps him feel like a member of CID.

“Getting to know my elders whose rich history and lived experiences of joy, pain, success and struggle gives me a sense of grounding that I have not felt anywhere else,” Bickel said.
Tim Mar is interested in food and restaurants. My interest is in capturing restaurants and the people who own and work in them. As a food photographer, Mar believes restaurants are a window into a culture.

The group is eager to host an exhibition of their work. Another goal is to have a book of their work published.

“An exhibition can be exhibited for a few months. A book is forever,” Wong said.

In a statement released by the artists explains more. “The project is inspired by this Year of the Tiger, where in Chinese mythology, the tiger is called upon to purge demons and in this guardian role, characterizes courage and bravery. We expect our work to exhibit these traits as well as those of resilience and strength among the citizens of our community,” the statement read.

Participants in the Year of the Tiger project are Audrey Fan, John Pai, Loan Nguyen, Rick Wong, Dean Wong, Sally Kim-Miller, Sherwin Eng, Theo Bickel, Tim Mar and Ron Choi.

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About Monty S. Maynard

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