Inspiring images at reception for acclaimed Chinese American photographer

When Chinatown civic leader Andy Toy was out on 10th Street in August registering Asians to vote in the November election, renowned photographer was there to capture an image of him.

“Voting is a big issue,” said Toy, the 53-year-old managing director of the Eastern Tower Community Center and neighborhood leader of more than two decades.

“This photo is important,” he continued, “because it shows that we are trying to empower the Asian American communities and make sure they understand that they have a voice in America.”

Voting was just one of many themes when the Asian Arts Initiative held a Friday night reception to celebrate Lee’s “Into the Picture: Images of Asia Pacific America” project which included 58 photographs that also spoke to Asian American protests and diversity.

Storied history

In 1975, Lee’s photograph of a middle-aged Asian man holding his bloodied head with one arm while being dragged away by police made the cover of the New York Post and jumpstarted his career.

Lee’s other photos focus on scenes from everyday life, including a Chinese craftsperson folding origami dragons in Philadelphia’s Chinatown and Jerry Benares, a Filipino, dressed in a stripped white shirt presenting a pizza in his 1989 New York Pizzeria.

Lee’s exhibit drew visitors from Temple University, Swarthmore College and, among others, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC).

Reaction to the photographs

Jennifer Zarro, an adjunct arts professor at Temple University, brought 44 undergraduate students to the exhibit as part of their “Race, Identity, and Experience in American Art” course.

John Sabbatelli was drawn to an image from a memorial for Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old man beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by autoworkers who mistook him as an employee of a Japanese company, the rising competition at the time.

Though Sabbatelli had been unaware of the history, he learned about the issue as the background displayed white signs saying “racism,” and the foreground showed a taiko drummer with eyes closed and dressed in black.

“When I see drums, you can almost hear the drums,” said Sabbatelli, a senior media-and-arts student. “When you see drums, it adds an extra layer.”

Edward Feller, a sophomore chemistry major, bent his knees and played an invisible guitar as he discussed his impression of Jack Hsu, a frontman for the rock band Hsu-nami.

Hsu is dressed with a sideways cap, and his body bends as he strums an erhu (Chinese violin) while a band member strums a guitar. That the band members were playing in the photo with knees bent and mouths open reminded Feller of Chuck Berry.

“If I went to a string concert, [the musicians] would not have their mouths open. [Jack] is doing it but with a Chinese sound, which is mixed with an acoustic guitar,” Feller said. “I think that would be a unique sound.”

Locals photographed

Diana Lu pointed out a photograph of her friend Wei Chan, who was one of 50 South Philadelphia High School students at a 2011 summit on bullying in the wake of increased assaults on Asian students in previous years.

Lu, 25, works in business, economics, and community development at the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. She said she thought Lee’s photos bring a deeper awareness “about years and years of struggle that [she] is only at the tip of being involved.”

Like that of Grace Lee Boggs, a 96-year-old civil-rights activist and Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr who was photographed with a boy-cut white hair, celebratory smile, a pen in one hand, and an opened jacket revealing a black t-shirt with “{r}evolution” in white letters.

Yin Guan, a senior at Swarthmore College, liked how the photo demonstrated Boggs’ role as “an advocate of civil rights, women’s rights and youth rights.”

“For me, it’s more than a picture, it’s the story behind a picture,” said Lee, 65, who speaks with a New York accent hinting his Queens roots.

The exhibit, which runs until Oct. 5, represents a mere snapshot of Lee’s career which, the day after the reception, put him behind the camera at the city’s 17th Annual Mid-Autumn festival.

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