Photographic love letter to the Korean community of Flushing
The smell of sulfuric waste would begin to emerge on New York’s Van Wyck Freeway before descending to Northern Boulevard, entering Flushing proper. After zoned out for most of the car ride to distract myself from the crowded backseat of our family’s green Ford Taurus, I, at around 11, usually sat glued to the left door to create space between me and my sister, in the middle seat. But once the smell caught on, my stomach fluttered and I gazed up excitedly to confirm the sight of the U-Haul sign, which stood prominently above the surrounding structures. I didn’t know what U-Haul was, but to me it symbolized arrival and a promise of belonging.
My elation was rooted in Flushing’s Asian population and the predominance of Korean on storefront signage, which was not as prominent where we lived in Elmhurst, another immigrant town in Queens. I also felt that no matter what, I wouldn’t get lost in Flushing. How could I, in a city where every square inch had been taken into account: a hair salon above a prep school above a cosmetics store next to an eyewear store? This kind of interdependence meant enforced intimacy between all who participated in its economy – the smells on your clothes would reveal where you had just eaten and prompt questions like, “With whom?” Is this your mother’s church friend, the one raised by her grandmother, who did well in her SAT practice, and was caught smoking cigarettes in the back aisle of his piano hagwon (a private preparatory school popular among the Korean population)? »
My conception of this place may resonate with those who know any tight-knit community. But for photographer Janice Chung and me, Flushing is an unparalleled and irreplaceable epicenter, both symbolically and in reality, where the unspoken and lesser-known experiences of being an immigrant or a child of immigrants have come together as a kind of negotiation. Where our homes may contain expressions of our families’ different regions of Korea, Flushing represented our Korean heterogeneity in an American context – not behind closed doors but out in the open. And just like our lives, Flushing’s one constant was its state of flux, which signaled or at least gave way to reinvention.
Chung describes his exhibition, HAN IN TOWN, which was presented to Flushing City Hall for just one week last May, as a love letter to the community that raised her. The simplicity of this statement avoids theoretical frameworks that can weigh down projects grounded in the premise of love – for the art world is usually suspicious and dismisses these feelings as uncritical, even narcissistic. But for Chung, who was born at Flushing Hospital and still resides in nearby Fresh Meadows, it was a project she had always wanted to pursue, a project that took off with a few nudges from a non-profit organization she often collaborates with called KoreanAmericanStory.org.
Chung went on foot from 2020. It was slowed down by the pandemic in 2021, but started again with reopenings later in the year. She went from store to store with a written statement in Korean describing her project, sometimes with a friend who was more fluent in spoken Korean to help mediate. Some business owners read the statement and agreed to be photographed immediately. Others were more convincing – Chung showed up with bags of pastries, using his flawed Korean to charm the owners into being serious: “I could be your daughter; I’m an artist; I want to tell your story; its important to me; you can trust me; my parents are like you; I grew up here; this is my 고향 (hometown).
The exhibited photographs, chosen and categorized with curator Sophia Park specifically for the exhibition, have been divided into five sections: exteriors, restaurants, hairdressers and barbers, artisanal work (car workshops, tailors, shoemakers) and, finally, care work . (nail salons and cleaners). Chung took all the photos after spending time with his subjects and getting to know them; what transpires then is the agreement between the photographer and the subject.
The biggest surprise was his photographs of middle-aged male business leaders, who are familiar to me for their gruff demeanor. Chung photographed them standing in front of or inside their store, making eye contact with his camera, shoulders and arms relaxed. In one particularly striking portrait, a tailor named Yangduk Kim of Momo Custom Tailor faces Chung with a natural smile – the lines on his face indicate that he often makes this expression. Her closed lips suggest active listening, her words snaking between her mouth and throat, forming in her mind and hinting in her eyes. Just above his portrait hangs a picture of the interior of his shop; a large bookcase contains folders with the names and measurements of his customers, handwritten by Mr. Kim. Next to it is a stacked end table with a microwave and rice cooker.
Some of the most poignant photographs are those that capture intergenerational businesses. Ikhwan Rim and his mother, Hwa Soon Rim, stand inside their jewelry store, called Rim’s Fine Jewelry, Ikhwan’s arm over his shoulder. The inner corners of his eyebrows show slight creases of tension, that of concern, like the eldest son caring for his widowed mother, but also of concentration, after years of looking at gems through magnifying eyepieces. Meanwhile, her mother stares at the camera unsmiling.
The thing about reinvention is that its success is based on an outward indifference to the old. This is not due to any real apathy towards the past, but because for an immigrant, time moves forward, not backward. This is probably what makes Chung’s photographs heartbreaking and captivating – the stillness of the photograph gives me time to slow down, which is so different from my time lived in Queens, so different also from the life lived by those captured in these photographs. These places and people don’t usually get love letters, but maybe when we write to them, they will respond.