Art

A Portrait of the Lives of Workers in New York City’s 2,483 Chinese Restaurants

A look at the daily lives of immigrants who make the city’s ubiquitous Chinese restaurants possible.

Katie Salisbury, “Lunch” (2017) (all images courtesy Katie Salisbury)

For more than a year, writer and photographer Katie Salisbury met with delivery people, cooks, and waiters employed at Chinese restaurants around New York City. She interviewed about two dozen of them about their personal and working lives, hoping to better understand the everyday conditions Chinese food workers face, which might go unnoticed by their patrons. She also photographed them during their daily routines, and the resulting images are currently on view in an exhibition presented by Chashama and the community group Think!Chinatown.

Installation view of ‘Thank You, Enjoy’ at Think!Chinatown Community Art Space (photo by Evan Hand)

Held in a temporary space on 384 Broadway in Chinatown, Thank You, Enjoy is curated by Salisbury and features work by other Asian-American artists bound by a broad premise: they center on narratives she believes are not typically found in the mainstream. On view are short films and documentaries that touch upon topics from undocumented youth to intergenerational immigrant experiences, by filmmakers including Brian Redondo and Erica Liu. Large-scale photographs by Louis Chan from his ongoing series, My Home, reveal the cramped apartment interiors of Chinese immigrants.

Salisbury, who is herself half-Chinese and the great-granddaughter of a Chinese immigrant and California restaurateur, contributes what might be the most widely familiar images of the group. As she’s found during her research, New York City is home to 2,483 Chinese restaurants; their neon signs are ubiquitous, as are their delivery men whose cargo is loaded with oyster pails.

Katie Salisbury, “J’s Wong” (2016)

Her photographs are shot documentary style, and each is accompanied in the show with explanatory texts. They tell stories of Chinese workers, saddled with debt to smugglers, who work long hours for pay rates that can dip below minimum wage; of cooks who spend their entire day standing over hot woks; of delivery men whose trusty mode of transportation, the eBike, has been banned by the city. Yet, none of her subjects seem defeated; instead individuals always appear dedicated to their duties despite the obstacles.

“I wanted to show that they have agency, and sometimes they accept the reality of the choice they’ve made,” Salisbury told Hyperallergic. “There’s a level of sacrifice you make to come here, which I think is often part of the narrative of immigrant communities.”

Among the locations she photographed for the project are Chinese restaurants in her neighborhood of Crown Heights, J’s Wong and Happy Wok — open 365 days a year — and the always-bustling Nom Wah dim sum parlor in Manhattan’s Chinatown. There are also scenes from employment agencies, where she first met many of her subjects before developing deeper relationships with them, often through WeChat social media program. The photographs in the exhibition represent only a portion of the stories she’s heard over the past year.

Salisbury also photographed rallies organized by the Chinese Staff and Worker’s Association, to raise awareness about local elections, The SWEAT bill, and other issues. The images of individuals speaking out against injustices not only emphasize how much conditions for the workers can be improved, but they also describe their identities far beyond what they do for a living. To participate in the democratic system is one marker of the American experience; their vocal activism speaks to everything immigrants have worked hard to attain as they’ve spread roots in America.

“There are a lot of harsh things about working in the Chinese restaurant industry, but I didn’t want it all to be negative,” Salisbury said. “I didn’t want these people to seem like victims because they definitely are not, in most cases. They’ve chosen to come here, and they’ve built lives for themselves, and in many ways, they’re success stories.”

Katie Salisbury, “Vincent Cao” (2017)
Katie Salisbury, “Waiting” (2016)
Katie Salisbury, “Delivery” (2017)
Katie Salisbury, “Nom Wah” (2017)
Katie Salisbury, “Employment Center” (2016)
Katie Salisbury, “Happy Wok” (2016)
Photo from Louis Chan’s series ‘My Home’ (photo by Evan Hand)
Photo from Louis Chan’s series ‘My Home’ (photo by Evan Hand)
Photo from Louis Chan’s series ‘My Home’ (photo by Evan Hand)
Installation view of ‘Thank You, Enjoy’ (photo by Evan Hand)

Thank You, Enjoy continues at Think!Chinatown Community Art Space (384 Broadway, Chinatown, Manhattan) through February 11.

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