'My Home': An intimate look inside the lives of New York's Chinese immigrants

Story highlights

  • Louis Chan's photographs carefully document the rooms of Chinese American immigrants in New York City
  • The intimate images show symbolism through banal objects and record a disappearing geography

New York (CNN)The bookcase bursts with pink plush pigs, crammed so high it nearly touches the ceiling. Adorned with red and gold tassels, it looks like a shrine, built lovingly over many years.

In front of it lies a bare mattress and an open laptop. Who lives here?
We never glimpse the tenants but walking through Louis Chan's intimate exhibition of life-size Chinatown interior photographs, it feels as if they might step out at any moment to greet us.
Carefully documenting the rooms of Chinese American immigrants in New York City, the photographs invite you to become an investigator, to piece together the lives of unseen strangers in the sum of the objects they collect.
    "Untitled (37 Allen St) VI," by Louis Chan
    Each item is a clue to a practical need or sentimental attachment. A map of China. A flattened Cheerios box. A solitary orange.
    "I want the physical objects to do more of the talking," says Chan of his exhibition. "A lot of these spaces are so cluttered, you're always looking for new things. You could just keep decoding."

    Spatial expression

    The 35-year-old artist -- who says his own house is bare and uncluttered -- has spent six years on the project so far, which he sees as a personal exploration of "identity and assimilation."
    Born in New York City to parents from Hong Kong who didn't speak English, Chan had a difficult relationship with his heritage growing up.
    "I went to public school downtown; my clothes would smell like fish sometimes. As a young child you don't enjoy being bullied, so you think to yourself, 'man, I wish I didn't smell and look and sound like this.'"
    But over time he became fascinated with his family's history, the way it was expressed in their everyday space, and the similarities he noticed among other immigrants.
    With this in mind, he says he approached "My Home" as an ethnographic project, acting as an artist, sociologist, and historian at the same time. Everything is shot in high resolution, in a deadpan style that maximizes the legibility of each room's contents.
    "I don't arrange anything; I just let the personal items come to life," he says. "It's very sterile, scientific, like crime scene photography. It's almost like evidence, when you bring a photograph to court."
    Not wanting the images to be limited by material restrictions, Chan printed his works as large as possible -- "the biggest I could possibly afford," he says. "It feels like you're there, but it's still a photograph."
    "Untitled (82 Bayard St) I," by Louis Chan

    Banal symbolism

    At this size, tiny details -- previously unnoticed -- take on a new dramatic potential. A small motion-sickness tablet at the edge of one room suddenly suggests adventure. A closer inspection of the reflection in the mirror reveals what's on TV: a New York Knicks basketball game, during Jeremy Lin's famous "Linsanity" run.
    Chan saw how even the most banal objects could serve as symbols of surprising depth.
    "My folks, they always talked about how when they grew up, they had nothing -- a lot of hungry nights, you had to eat every grain of rice.
    "So when you come to America and you, see, okay, free napkins, 'why throw that out?' Takeout container? They'll use it."
    "Untitled (77 Columbia St) I," by Louis Chan
    By holding onto these objects, he realized his parents had unintentionally transformed them into vessels for a history that Chan was desperate to preserve and understand.
    And as gentrification reshapes and displaces Chinese American neighborhoods in New York City, Chan's photographs have become important objects in their own right: records of a disappearing geography.
    "This is for my parents," he tells me. "As you get older, you learn about your roots, you become proud of your folks being Chinese. So you start bringing that back into your life and keep that."
    "You can only hope that you haven't lost too much."