Last week on Canal Street I saw a Chinese woman get arrested for selling knock-off designer handbags. Looking on vacantly with wide-eyed shock and fright, she was handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police cruiser. This woman, clearly a new immigrant from China, is part of a large, complex knock-off luxury goods system in the Chinatown/Soho area that caters primarily to American and European tourists.
The next day, business continued unimpeded as if the arrest ever happened; that woman lost and potentially forgotten in the system. Further north on Grand Street, I frequently pass Spanish and French tourists carrying multiple bags from the myriad retail chains on Broadway back to their hotel rooms. Tourism and shopping are close cousins, contemporary activities basic to middle class life across the world.
The art world has awkwardly tried to tailgate on this actuality, chasing around tourist money with art fairs and biennals in every corner of the world. Dealers, artists, curators, critics and collectors flock to Miami this time every year hoping that living it up next to the beach might propel art sales and provide a career boost. Museums also feel compelled to lure tourist audiences with exhibitions that sometimes feel like decorative installations in shopping malls or amusement parks. Check out the latest from the Guggenheim and New Museum.
Museums are like stray cats after thanksgiving, tearing apart any trash bag at night to find the leftover carcass of a bland-tasting bird. If a little mouse runs by, they’ll forget about the ravaged turkey and try to chase that down instead.
I wonder what Fish is doing now. Fish was a minor playground legend on the outdoor basketball courts of Lowell High School in San Francisco during the mid 90s. On Saturdays, after a day working at my parent’s dry cleaners, I would race north on interstate 280 to catch the last hour of daylight, looking for a little run on those courts. A few friends might already be there, and sometimes, Fish was around. But the real action at Lowell was on Sundays, when at least 3 courts would be running 5 on 5 games with a minimum one game wait. Fish usually arrived when the day was peaking with competition, sauntering in sleepy-eyed, looking like he didn’t want to play, much less be there. He would always be distractedly eating something – a bag of chips, a candy bar, a banana. He didn’t seem to want to do that either.
Fish was Chinese and likely got the nickname from the way he looked. He had big, bulging eyes, a small mouth that was always open, and a pronounced profile. Fish’s head would look good on a coin. Eventually he would loaf onto the court, shoes lazily scraping the ground. Ballers sitting on the sidelines waited in anticipation for his lefty jumpshot, launched usually from well beyond the 3-point line. He would always try to bank it in and was usually on the money. The real beauty in his game though, was the way he would dictate play with his ball-handling, getting even the most limited players the ball in exactly the right position at exactly the right time for them to score easily. He championed his makeshift teammates as if they were his little brothers, urging them on and instructing them with genuine enthusiasm. Fish would light up as the day went on, his gloomy disposition brightening as the weather eventually and predictably deteriorated. Basketball never stopped even though a summer fog always rolled in annoyingly in the mid-afternoon to that southern part of San Francisco known as the Sunset, bringing with it a cold, misty wind. Nevertheless, we ran until it got dark.
Sometimes after a full day of basketball my friends and I would drive to the Vietnamese spot in Daly City and each get a bowl of pho before heading home for a proper dinner with our families. Pick-up basketball at Lowell was mostly an Asian thing. Chinese, Philippinos, and Koreans owned those courts. Back then, we chased basketball.
Lowell was just one of a handful of possibilities during the week. On Fridays, I’d often meet up with childhood friend Ben Lei at the RSF (Recreational Sports Facility) on the campus of UC Berkeley for a night of intense runs. And I’d play at least three afternoons in San Jose State University’s gym, racing there after sleeping through an art history or graphic design class. At night there was either an intramural game or a less serious run with the after-dinner crowd looking for light exercise. Basketball junkies chase fleeting moments when they feel unconscious and unstoppable, when they reel off 5 or 6 games in a row, when they beat a clearly more talented team, when they shut up a trash talker. For me those moments were a sign from higher powers at how right the universe could and should be. It was a little piece of nirvana. Basketball will never quite be like that for me again. When life revolved around hoops, Fish was the man. Now, I struggle to remember what kind of sneakers he wore.
Note: This piece is a work in progress essay being developed for an upcoming exhibition about how America is seen by photographs of Chinese artists, documentary photographers and non-professionals.
American photographers are often on the road, overcome with disrespectful wonder at what their country offers in the way of surreal surprises. Moralists and conscienceless despoilers, children and foreigners in their own land, they will get something down that is disappearing – and, often, hasten its disappearance by photographing it. -Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977
Photography was invented in France by Joseph Niepce and Louis Daguerre in the early 1800s, and developed further in England when Henry Fox Talbot figured out a way to make negatives and print multiples of the same image. This allowed photographs to be duplicated endlessly, clearing a path for the concept that images can be everywhere and document every moment. Photography counts on multiplicity and in this way embodies an American sense of comformity, born from the ethic to efficiently manufacture products like cars, machinery, appliances, and now pictures. Now in the digital age, photography has taken on the immateriality of conceptual art. After all, this movement presaged the information age. Photographs now exist as disembodied images, shared and posted within streams of related data and commentary. Otherwise, they are unseen and appropriately occupy the “memory” within smart phones, hard drives, and digital cameras.
Even though it was invented in Europe, photography didn’t find its natural subject until Americans started using it to document their New World. Photography was as raw as the country and their growths mirrored and enhanced each other. As Americans hit the highways in the 1950s, the camera started becoming more portable, cheaper and more available to more people. Driving across America and photographing it became a rite of philosophical maturation – to have driven and seen (photographed) your country is to have truly lived the concept of America. Robert Frank, a Swiss immigrant, did this in the 1950s to profound artistic effect and his book The Americans remains the portrait of America’s subconscious as it struggled to find itself in the aftermath of two World Wars and a Great Depression that left it standing as the young prince in a beaten-down, war-wary world.
Imagine what kind of excitement and awe the invention of photography must have engendered in the mid 19th Century. It was chemical science wrapped in the possibilities of art: mechanical picture-making. A fleeting image emerges from light, silver, iodine and mercury on a piece of metal (then later glass and paper). Life moves ever faster and photography is a way to capture it. That’s why taking pictures goes hand in hand with mobility and travel. And it is why photography is so important to those that permanently dislocate: immigrants. As immigrants from all over the world poured into America after World War II, taking pictures became a primary way that people mediated their expectations of a place relative to its reality. The land of the gold rush, of opportunity, Hollywood, Times Square, Grand Canyon, cowboys – how did blustery descriptions of the promised land match up to those risking it all to come here?
Sontag again: “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism.”
For my purposes, I would substitute “tourism” with “immigration.” For my dad I’m sure that part of the appeal of taking pictures in America was that it proved the value of leisure time that hard work bought. And each picture he took of our lives in America validated the decision he and my mom made to escape China during its cultural revolution. Each picture from a developed roll coming back from the Walgreen’s photo counter was a trophy of this.
At the Organization of Chinese Americans’ (OCA) annual convention in the Grand Hyatt, which stands awkwardly like a fragile, tall ugly sister next to the robust grace of Grand Central Station. Cobalt blue vinyl table skirts hide only what everyone already knows – that underneath this plastic table is pathetic emptiness. Under the dull bright lights of this hotel’s ballroom, with its architecture of vagueness, enthusiasm is conjured, rehearsed then recycled.
A bronze colored curtain partially, inconsequentially, covers a section of wood veneer wall. A neglected table sits in front with pitchers of ice water and bowls of mints. A woman (Her description escapes me. I only remember that she carried 3 different bags.) drifts towards our table drawn by a weak magnetism. A conversation emerges, one that is expected and satisfactory, and ends with her cramming one of her bags with informational brochures.
New York Life, the insurance company, has the booth next to ours, separated by a low bar on which hangs a vinyl skirt like the one decorating our table, hiding its emptiness – the divider skirt, however, is cadmium red. Staffing their table is a mild-mannered, middle-aged Chinese man who smiles sympathetically towards me sometimes and who, with professional eagerness chatted with the interested about his company’s business either in Cantonese, Mandarin or English.
Inside their booth was a standing banner dominated by a black and white photo illustration of a business-suited man who’s shadow looks like a mideival door key. He looks up at a key hole which is out of reach, but through which a holy light shines at him. Above the illustration is the phrase “You hold the key to your success” and then underneath, the motivational punchline: “Opportunity knocks…but you have to open the door.” Finally, at the bottom, the banner proudly notes that New York Life’s credit ratings are triple A across the board.
This week, America’s credit ratings were downgraded by Standard & Poor’s in an unprecedented stumble for this country’s mighty economy and self-confidence. Towards the end of my time at the convention, as most were downstairs at an awards luncheon, a young Chinese woman walked briskly up to the table and announced herself as Echo. She lives “near the Belt Parkway” in Brooklyn and is here studying finance at NYU, and eventually looking to land a job. I could tell from the way she talked, directly and with an unleashed smile, that she felt the winds at her back and that she knew she couldn’t be stopped. She’s being carried along by the turbulent waves caused by her country which is shaped like a rooster.
Today, a sunny mid-morning on the corner of Hester and Centre streets. That same corner where you can get 5 items and a soup for $4.95 in a vast buffet of various Chinese cuisines. Outside, a young Chinese man departed from two women; he headed east towards Centre and they west away from it. They were all wearing sunglasses and casual, colorful weekend wear – tanktops, jean skirt, flip flops, skinny jeans, a purposely crumpled short sleeve button down shirt, Diesel sneakers.
The guy, holding a large ice coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts in one hand, and a muffin and the brown paper bag it came in in the other, swiftly approached a trashcan at the curb when he turned his head back around, uttering a forgotten remark. At the same time, he blindly let go of the crumpled paper bag, missing the garbage can badly. It landed with surprising loudness on the ground a foot from its target.
It’s unclear whether he noticed this or not, but he kept tracking across Centre as the two women looked towards his purposeful strut. It’s also unclear whether they were fixated on him or on the paper bag which was now being taken by a gust of wind downtown on Centre. They simultaneously turned forward and began to step, but then paused and looked back again towards him, towards the bag, in identical glares of amazement and disgust. They finally made their way down Hester Street into the shadows of scaffolding. They became shadows themselves as their friend’s garbage sat unattended, left to the wind, on Centre.