I remember this photo series from the New York Times way back in 2003. A Chinese immigrant family lives in a tiny, cramped, Chinatown apartment, and you can tell how crammed it is by the coats hanging over the table. The photographer, Thomas Holton, is half-Chinese, and in the book’s preface he writes how he felt like a stranger to his Chinese relatives. Maybe this project was a way of “reconnecting?”
The photos aren’t interesting at all; the kids ignore the camera (typical American kids who’d say “whatever”) and the parents are always preoccupied. Nobody seems happy at all, the mother looks worn out and the father looks depressed. In the text we learn that the father went through periods where he lost his job and had to move away for work. I wonder if being out of work damaged his standing in a traditional household? With succeeding entries, the kids get older, the parents separate, the father visits when he can, the kids become teenagers, the older ones go off to upstate colleges. Hopefully the apartment gets roomier. Lack of privacy must have pissed off their daughter.
There is one photo that got me thinking about what the Lams lack. In it, Mrs. Lam cares for an elderly Chinese woman, while the kids sit by themselves doing their homework. I wondered if lack of extended family was part of the problem, seeing as there’s no mention of the Lams having any relatives in New York. I see lots of immigrant families where the older relatives care for the kids while the parents work, but why is that not the case here? Were the Lams here with no other family? I also wonder why they stayed in that tiny apartment in the Lower East Side, when there must have been better options. They could’ve had a bigger place in Queens for the same price, and the husband left to work in New Jersey, so they could’ve lived there. The Jews who lived in their building 90 years earlier had no desire to stay, in fact they left as soon as they could, leaving the neighborhood half-empty by the 1930’s. The Lams look less like a family and more like a depressed group of people trapped in a box.
I would like to have read what the kids had to say about their lives. How did they like being crammed in there? What’s the secret to them getting along so well? What kind of schools did the kids attend, and did they ever visit kids who lived outside of the neighborhood? If so, did they notice the contrast?
I will give this book high marks, but I think the author still has work ahead of him. His own life story, of being an outsider to his mother’s ethnic group, would make a great premise for a book. As for the Lams, it would be interesting to see what happens to them as the children leave the nest. It remains to be seen if things will improve, or whether the kids flee the city.