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Portraits reflect fears, joys, hopes of NYC’s Chinatown community

“Everything that I needed to say about the pandemic pertaining to Chinatown was in this photo,” 32-year-old photographer David Zheng told CBS News. “Fear, confidence, struggle, reservation, maybe a bit of anger. it’s all in there.” 

It’s a portrait of an elderly Chinese woman. Black-and-white. Her hands aren’t casually hanging at her side, buried defiantly in crossed arms or blithely waving, but behind her back. She stands alone with her cart adorned with printed flowers. Fitting for spring and the life it brings. 


Portrait of elderly Chinatown resident shows grit and fear

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Yet it was also the middle of a global pandemic, a time that saw flashes of violence and hateful rhetoric against people of Asian descent in the United States.

It was May 2021. The Delta variant was surging in countries all over the world, in cities all over the country, and in communities all over New York City, like Manhattan’s Chinatown. 

“I grew up here, know a lot of the people,” Zheng said of Chinatown. “In fact, my aunt used to have a CD shop on Bowery Street.”

During the pandemic, Zheng had been volunteering to hand out meals to the elderly and those in need, and afterwards, wandering around Chinatown taking photos and documenting the neighborhood. But he wanted to do more.

“I wanted to give back in a way that made sense to me,” Zheng tells CBS News. “To rejuvenate joy back into the community.”

His efforts have culminated into a new photo book titled “Some Chinatown Portraits.” It’s a collection of black-and-white pictures of mostly elderly Chinese residents and their families.

Allen Peng

Zheng says the entire project is the result of wanting to do something positive for the Asian American community, as well as reflecting on his own family. Specifically, he referred to an altar at his parents’ house where his mother puts all their family photos.

“All the photos are generally stuff taken during banquets, on the fly, point-and-shoot, but there’s one professionally taken photo of my mom, dad, sister and brother … but I’m not in it,” Zheng said. “I always looked at it and thought, ‘I’m not in it.’ I always put importance to that photo because it’s nostalgic in a way. It’s a document of my family.” 

Zheng thought many other Chinese families in the area may also lack professionally taken portraits, and decided he could provide an opportunity for them to get one.


Portrait of a Chinese American family shows generational ties

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“That’s the beginning of the project, and it snowballed into something bigger,” Zheng said in a phone interview.

Working with local organizations including the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, Feed Forward, and Heart of Dinner, he offered free portraits for Chinatown seniors who came to pick up free meals and groceries.

The seniors in Chinatown had been hit particularly hard, since many of the local small businesses they relied on for food and community were shut down, explained Winston Chiu, a college friend of Zheng’s who collaborated with him on the portrait project.

“Chinatown seniors were definitely panicking because their lifeline was pretty much cut off,” said Chiu, whose nonprofit Feed Forward supplied some of the meals for distribution.

The portraits would take place over the course of two weekends. Everything was coming together in the span of days and Zheng wasn’t sure what the response would be. He knew people were there first and foremost for the food.  

“But as they saw portraits being taken, they just wanted to come,” Zheng said. “The line wrapped around Mott Street and down to Canal [Street].”   

Chinatown seniors lining up for meals, groceries and portraits.

Owise Abuzaid

Many elderly Chinese folks began to open up and have their portraits taken. The average wait-time for portraits was around two hours, so many seniors came back the next week. Some of them also wanted to be better dressed and prepare for the portraits ahead of time.


Portrait of elderly Chinatown resident and granddaughter brings joy amidst pandemic

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Marisa Lee, a 24-year-old ad campaign manager at Amazon, had seen a flyer promoting the meals and portrait event on Instagram, and suggested to her dad that her grandma, 91-year-old Bick Chu Lee, would love it.

“I went to check out David’s site and I saw a picture of grandma and I was like, dad, she already found it,” Marisa told CBS News. “And I thought, that’s so funny.”


Elderly Chinatown resident smiles for a portrait after being at home for over a year

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For Zheng, it’s also been about reconnecting and bringing people together. He talked about how Justin Yu, president of the Chinese Community Benevolent Association (CCBA), had been instrumental in helping him with this project. The CCBA is one of the oldest community organizations in New York City. 

“I think in Chinese culture, sometimes we operate with an ego. The younger generation is ambitious in their ideas, and the elder generation demands respect towards their perspectives,” Zheng said. “When Justin allowed us to exercise our ideas, it was a very symbolic moment. Almost like the passing of the keys to Chinatown from the older generation to the young.” 

Yu also saw the project as part of a broader effort to connect generations that occurred during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the aging leadership of the Chinese community recognized they needed to recruit younger folks to participate in local community service functions, but were limited in their success, according to Yu.

“But this pandemic really helped the younger generation come back to the community to serve,” Yu told CBS News.

CCBA President Justin Yu (center left) with some volunteers and staff.

David Zheng

People have suggested he replicate this project elsewhere, but for Zheng, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  

“I’m reluctant to expand on the project because the beauty of it is it came when it was needed, and the psychology of the people that were involved in the project,” Zheng said. ” Because of what was going on, and how naturally it happened. A moment in time.” 

“Some Chinatown Portraits” will have its official book launch at Yu and Me Books, in Manhattan’s Chinatown, on March 3, 2022. 



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