In a Brooklyn Chinatown, One Chance to get the Shot

Posted on October 13, 2015 by UNITED PHOTO PRESS MAGAZINE


Yunghi Kim often pretended she wasn’t taking photographs when she started documenting Sunset Park’s Chinatown. She got in the habit of shooting from the hip rather than raising the camera to her eye in the bustling, if camera-shy, Brooklyn neighborhood.

“I’ve been all over the world,” said Ms. Kim, who herself lives in Brooklyn. “I’ve traveled to 40 countries, and of all the places I’ve gone into, this one was one of the hardest.”

The Chinatown in Sunset Park is in fact just one of many Chinatowns in Brooklyn. It has the distinction of being the first, with a direct connection to Manhattan’s Chinatown via the N and D express trains. The enclave grew as Manhattan’s Chinatown became saturated and the city’s Chinese immigrant population swelled. Today, its residents come mainly from Fujian Province.

“My sense is, it’s the entry point,” Ms. Kim said. “It’s very raw. You walk around and everyone is speaking Chinese,” she added. “All the signs are in Chinese.”

Ms. Kim made this series over the summer. In addition to having a language barrier, many people “didn’t have a sense of freedom of the press and street photography,” she said. As she tried to capture images of Eighth Avenue, this Chinatown’s main commercial strip, people often demanded that she stop. As a result, Ms. Kim said she often had only one chance to take a picture. Her project became an exercise in observing from a distance, waiting for the right moment and, sometimes, gaining trust without words.

This series is part of a larger effort by Ms. Kim to document New York City neighborhoods. In Sunset Park, Ms. Kim said, she was struck by the youthful energy of the residents.

“I was surprised by how many families with little babies were there, just running around, grocery shopping, really busy,” she said. She was reminded of the city she first encountered as a young immigrant from South Korea, in 1972. “The city has changed, and it hasn’t.”