Photo Essays

Capturing Optimism in Photographs of Chinatowns Around the World

From Bangkok to New York City, Cindy Trinh’s documentary photography series No Boundaries captures Asian and Asian-American experiences through food, labor, and culture.

Cindy Trinh, “New York (08)” from No Boundaries (all images courtesy the artist)

Cindy Trinh, a Vietnamese-American former lawyer, first rose to fame as a photographer and visual journalist with her 2015 series The Model Minority Reality. In it, through gritty, black-and-white photos, she detailed the struggles of working-class Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants as they try to make a life for themselves in America. Her intent was to show that the definition of “model minority,” which carries a connotation of wealth and privilege, does not actually hold true.

As an expansion of this project, she put together the collection No Boundaries, now on view at NY Arts Center, which aims to offer a zoomed-in snapshot of various Chinatowns across the world. Unlike the dark, somberness portrayed in The Model Minority Reality, this is a world full of color, texture, and vibrancy, with food being a welcome protagonist, and with a strong human element: nearly all photos consist of half-length portraits of people. Featured Chinatowns include, but are not limited to, the ones in New York (in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens), Montreal, Paris, Bangkok, and San Francisco.

Cindy Trinh, “Flushing (35)” from No Boundaries
Cindy Trinh, “Bangkok (43)” from No Boundaries

It’s a project rooted in nostalgia. “My earliest memory of going to Chinatown was in Southern California, where I was born and raised,” she tells Hyperallergic. The daughter of two Vietnamese refugees, she grew up in a predominantly immigrant town in Orange County, California and was constantly surrounded by Asian Americans and other people of color. Upon moving to New York in 2008, she was instantly drawn to its Chinatown. “It gave me nostalgic feelings of home and growing up in an Asian-American neighborhood,” she explains. “The food, the smell, the people, the noise, and the colors all reminded me of my childhood past.”

Through this series, however, she wants to correct  a common misconception, namely that Chinatown indicates a predominantly Chinese neighborhood.  “Chinatown was built because immigrants were forced to create these communities due to racism and discrimination,” she explains. “There are many other Asian ethnic groups within Chinatown, for example Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Indonesian.”

Cindy Trinh, “Brooklyn (02)” from No Boundaries
Cindy Trinh, “Montreal (02)” from No Boundaries

Each Chinatown she visited, of course, was different from the others: The Paris one,  for instance, has a predominantly Vietnamese population. “Bangkok, Thailand is unique in that it is a “Chinatown” within a Southeast Asian country,” she says. “Bangkok was definitely the most vibrant Chinatown I have ever visited so far. The streets are packed with people and it is always so busy.” The San Francisco one has a historical significance: it is best known for being the oldest Chinatown in the United States. The one in Montreal, Canada, has, Trinh explains “the unique feel of the French Canadian, Quebec culture and architecture.”

What ties the series together is the wide-spread presence of food, whether it be lush market greens, sausages glistening with fat, or packages of various comfort foods. “I am a real foodie and I love Chinatown because of the food there, so of course a lot of my photos showcases food,” she tells us. “When I enjoy my food in Chinatown, I think about the workers that were vital in getting this food to me. It’s actually the main reason why I started this series in the first place.” Food was an essential part of the daily lives of her family, friends, and community, not to mention her culture, “I wanted to really highlight the people that make food for others to enjoy because I have so much respect for them,” she says.

Cindy Trinh, “New York (25)” from No Boundaries

In all, No Boundaries reaches the opposite conclusion of the one in The Model Minority Reality. Where the previous series painted a dark picture made of strife, No Boundaries  presents a more optimistic message, showing the way each individual portrayed is an integral part of the Chinatown they live in, a small, but indispensable force in their own immigrant community.

No Boundaries is on view at NY Arts Center (78 Bowery, Chinatown, Manhattan), until September 30.

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