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More Lia Chang
Interview with Justin Lin

Interview with Ron Domingo

Flower Drum Song: Making of the Cast Album

Flower Drum Song: An American Story

The Romance of Magno Rubio

Mercedes Benz Fashion Week 2003

Documenting a Community on the Brink: New York Chinatown Post-September 11

The Notorious C.H.O. Part 2

A Look at Another Vietnam

The Notorious C.H.O.

Up Close and Personal with Margaret Cho

The APEX of the Times

MOCA Memories

Documenting a Community on the Brink
New York Chinatown Post-September 11

by Lia Chang
and Suzanne Kai

What a difference a year makes.

Photo 1: Lia Chang at the Asian American Journalists Association annual convention.

Last summer I was thrilled to accept the first National Award for New Media from the Asian American Journalists Association at their annual convention for Port of Entry -- my article about my grandmother and her experience of being detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station -- in my hometown of San Francisco.

Upon my return to New York, on September 10, I got the great news from Katherine Toy, the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation that she would be featuring my Coming to America art exhibit which is based on my Port of Entry article, in the Angel Island Immigration Station Museum.

I recall on that day, feeling extremely gratified as an artist, as an actor with my recurring roles on As The World Turns and One Life to Live, as a photographer, I had a retrospective of my work in May in Las Vegas, and as a writer. It had been a busy year and I was looking forward to the rush of the Fall season.

Less than 24 hours later, the world stopped and the sky fell in.

The first plane hit the World Trade Center when I was still in bed in my New York apartment in the middle of Times Square. I was resting up for the bi-annual frenzy that is Fashion Week in New York.

In 1993, I began my personal project of documenting my colleagues and contemporaries in the arts, in fashion and in journalism. Many of those images have appeared in history books, magazines, newspapers, and exhibitions. I am drawn to photograph images of a timeless nature and to help fill a void of images and documentation of our Asian American society. The moments that I captured in the weeks and months after the September 11th terrorist attacks document a Community on the brink and the fragility of life. On September 11th, 2002 twelve of my photographs documenting the despair in New York Chinatown will be featured in several exhibitions and fundraisers in the two cities that I call home, New York and San Francisco.

- Lia Chang

In New York: The Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MoCA) presents "Chinatown 9/11 Collection Project." MoCA will open its doors for free, September 11, 2002 12PM-8PM, 70 Mulberry Street, NY. Click for more information.

In San Francisco: The Chinese Historical Society of America and Learning Center (CHSA) presents "From Clay Street to Canal Street: Remembering New York Chinatown" - a memorial event to remember the victims of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and its impact on New York's Chinatown community. CHSA will open its doors for free, September 11, 2002, 10AM-7PM, 965 Clay Street, San Francisco, CA. Click for more information.
In San Francisco: The San Francisco Chinatown Merchants Association, as part of its September 14-15, 12th Annual Moon Festival, is spearheading fundraising efforts and raising awareness "in support of the forgotten victims of New York Chinatown." The San Francisco Chinatown Merchants Association will be selling a reprint of one of Lia Chang's lantern photographs on a bookmark, as part of its fundraising efforts to benefit New York's Chinatown community. Click for more information.

My first scheduled photo shoot of the day was to be designer Yeohlee's show at Bryant Park at 11AM. My phone rang at 9AM. My sister Marissa was calling me from Daly City, a suburb just south of San Francisco, to tell me a plane had just hit the World Trade Center and to see if my sister Tami and I were okay. I assured her we were fine.

I turned on the television. The images I saw were unreal, at first it seemed like an accident, then another plane hit and then the towers came down. My sister Tami, who was working just two blocks away was sent home and we both huddled around the television watching the surreal horror.

A plane had crashed into the Pentagon, and another went down in Pennsylvania. The world seemed like it was coming to an end. All the major areas around the country with tall buildings were being evacuated. If Times Square, which is where I live was going to be next, my only thought was to be with my sister. I debated with myself, on whether I should run out and cover the event and get into who knows what or be with my sister. I chose to be with my sister.

New York immediately went into lockdown mode. The Frozen Zone of the city was designated as all areas south of 14th Street down to the tip of Manhattan - cars and non-local pedestrian traffic were strictly prohibited.

I watched on television as the debris at Ground Zero burned, large crowds gathered in candlelight vigils, and Walls of the Missing and makeshift memorials sprang up all over the city. Thousands of volunteers gathered to help with the recovery efforts at Ground Zero, and many people lined up to give blood.

I didn't leave my house for three days. I just couldn't. Part of me felt guilty. As an artist, and a journalist who covers the arts, I celebrate talent, beauty, life and passion. I was still recovering from the unexpected death of my mother in 1999 and death, destruction, pain and suffering were just not in my professional vocabulary.

Then a friend, Suzanne Joe Kai, the co-founder of, and an award winning broadcast journalist from San Francisco, called from the west coast to check on how I was doing. No pun on words, but she really connected with me. She helped me get over my sense of personal horror and motivated me to document as best I could the devastation that happened to my people in Chinatown. I say "my people" because of my ethnicity, but this horrible event and Suzanne's mission for me indelibly demonstrated that we are all one people.

Photo 2: Police Officer David Lim and Police Dog Sirius.

We had met through a mutual friend, Ben Fong-Torres, a former senior editor of Rolling Stone. Also Suzanne and I had been invited to Harvard to serve on a panel where we addressed the lack of Asian Pacific American representation in the Media. Just moments earlier, Suzanne had finished doing an exclusive interview by telephone with New York Port Authority Officer David Lim, one of the last survivors rescued five hours after the first attack, from an unstable piece of staircase sticking five stories in the air in the rubble of the Twin Towers collapse. A true hero, Lim and his explosive detective dog Sirius, who perished, had been helping countless people to their safety.

Other AsianConnections team members were sharing their experiences. Suzanne's friends in New York, including writers and reporters at Reuters and CNN were sharing their personal experiences with her. Ben, who is also a columnist at AsianConnections had gotten permission from his friend, novelist Amy Tan to share her personal emails she sent to him about her experience in the City during the attack. Even Suzanne's son Mike, a freshman at Yale and the founder of AsianConnections was sending images and stories from his dorm room on the East coast about the aftermath, but here I was right in New York, a writer and a photographer and I told her I hadn't been out.

I told her I felt helpless.

I didn't weigh enough to give blood; there were too many volunteers and no survivors to save. I couldn't handle the pain of getting caught up in the huge gatherings of memorials around the city.

She encouraged and coached me -- as only a friend could do -- that as a photographer I needed to get back on my feet and get myself in gear. I was in the middle of the most devastating attack on United States soil in modern history and that it was, in a sense, my responsibility as a member of the community to go out and shoot, to face the reality, be careful, but to take action. And of course she reminded me, to photograph how our people, our Asian communities are doing and bring those images back to share with the world.

Related AsianConnections articles:

Amy Tan at Ground Zero by Ben Fong-Torres

An Interview with Officer David Lim by Suzanne Kai

Asian American Voices on September 11: Sunny Kim by Lia Chang

Never in a million years did I think I'd be called on to document a catastrophe of this magnitude.

Armed with my Canon Úlans, and 3 lenses including my 75-300 lens and my film that was supposed to cover fashion models on runways, instead I made my way down to Ground Zero for the first time to bear witness for myself.

The northern boundary for the prohibited zone had been moved south to Canal Street, finally giving me access to Chinatown and possibly Ground Zero just 10 blocks away. As I got closer, it was difficult to breathe. My eyes were burning.

I realized, it was just so not real on TV. In person, I saw burnt out shells of what once was the World Trade Center complex, it was like being in a war zone. I've never seen so many emergency vehicles in my life - for the power outages, for the phone service, and trucks of armed state troopers.

I could feel the devastation, I could smell the death, and I could sense the restless souls of those lost in the instant that the Towers came crashing down. I could see it, I could smell it, it was much worse than the images on television. Some people had little white masks on, police officers had gas masks on and others covered their mouths with scarves. I walked around in disbelief. I tried not to inhale. Buildings, blocks from the Twin Towers, were still covered in the dust of the destruction. Inside clothing stores, the clothes were covered in the dust. Windows were blown out.

Photo 3: The eerie skeletal remains of one of the trade center's outer wall.

Photo 4: National Guard troops securing the immediate area around the WTC.

Photo 5: Smoke rises into the sky, carrying unseen souls upward.

Photo 6: Police officer wearing a mask. Masks were de rigeur for crews working at the site.

Photo 7: Shattered glass and dust-covered facades.

Photo 8: Abandoned fire hoses.

There were huge cracks in some of the sidewalks, as if there had been an earthquake. Abandoned fire hoses, fallen street signs, and scattered papers from the offices of the Twin Towers littered the sidewalks and streets and the dust - from burned computers, burned rugs you could smell and it tasted like gritty, bitter, burnt rubber.

New York State Troopers and National Guard troops manned barricades and guided street and pedestrian traffic. Many of the subways servicing Lower Manhattan were not operating.

I walked to Mt. Sinai Hospital, near Chinatown and found fliers of the missing covering the windows at the hospital's entrance. The names and ages listed on the flyers will forever be in my memory, like Jennifer Wong, age 26 who worked at Marsh McLennan and Yang-Der-Lee, an employee at Windows on the World.

I shot by day, and Suzanne and I collaborated by night going over the results of my photos shot that day. She told me that someday those photos of mine would end up in a museum, and encouraged me to do more.

On September 21st, I headed to Brooklyn to work at the television studio where for the past 7 years I have played Nurse Chang on the daytime soap opera As The World Turns. It was a surreal experience having just been out in the streets photographing the horrors. Now, as cameras rolled, we were acting in a scene about the death of a major character on the show.

Photo 9: NY State Troopers and the National Guard manning barricades. Trinity Church is seen in the background.

Photo 10: A wall of wailing. An undeniable sense of anguish emanates from such walls, as families and friends try to desperately connect with faces that no longer respond.

Photo 11: Jennifer Wong, age 26.

Photo 12: One of the many make-shift memorials around the city.

Photo 13: A Chinese man looking out his window.

Photo 14: Empty streets, an unsettling silence.

On September 23rd while the world watched on TV as crews were working around the clock at Ground Zero to find the missing, drawn to what I saw earlier, I made my way back to Chinatown, a community less than ten blocks from Ground Zero, and photographed makeshift memorials on Canal Street.

I could see from the faces of the residents and people working in Chinatown that they were going through their own hell.

New York Chinatown on the weekends is normally bustling with shoppers and people waiting in line to get into the restaurants. On this particular Sunday afternoon, it was a warm day and the sky was a brilliant shade of blue. Instead, I was overwhelmed by the silence.

Because of Chinatown's close proximity not only to Ground Zero, but to government offices, streets were barricaded for security reasons and the mood was grim. Children lit candles at the makeshift memorials in Chatham Square, and looking South from this vantage point, a cloud of smoke was visible in the hole in the sky where the Twin Towers once stood.

Restaurant workers and barbers were looking out of their storefront windows waiting for customers to come. On Eldridge Street, an American flag had been hung with a line of fresh laundry and was blowing in the wind.

I encountered frustrated residents using wireless pay phone trailers. Telephone service in the area south of East Broadway was disrupted, and would be for nearly two more months. Trailers were set up in 27 locations around Chinatown. Some of the businesses that suffered from lack of phone service included restaurants (takeout), pharmacies (prescriptions), banks, and travel agencies. The garment industry was decimated. Initially with streets barricaded, manufacturers could not fill orders, receive or deliver clothing, their contractors went to other sources and contracts were simply not renewed. Former garment workers have had to find work in other fields like home health care or were forced to retire.

Photo 15: Idle workers in front of the Nom Wah Tea Parlor after 9/11.

Photo 16: In Memory of the Americans of Chinese ancestry. At the Kim Lau Memorial Arch in Chatham Square, a little boy lights a candle at the makeshift memorial to honor the victims of the World Trade Center destruction.

Photo 17: Waiting for customers.

Photo 18: An American flag hanging from a Chinatown apartment on Eldridge Street.

Photo 19: One of 27 wireless pay phone trailers at various locations around Chinatown. As of October 15th, telephone service had still not been completely restored in Chinatown.

Photo 20: The barbed wire around this abandoned lot symbolizes the economic damage to Chinatown in the wake of the WTC attacks.

The losses suffered now a year after September 11 by Chinatown's residents, businesses and restaurants are staggering.

A month after the attacks, the New York Times reported that Chinatown had been "transformed into a near ghost town." Outside of that headline, the condition of New York City's Chinatown has been little reported by mainstream media outlets in the U.S. One reason, besides the constant obvious lack of Asian representation in the media, may be the Asian American community's strong tradition of insularity and self-reliance. Many New York City Chinatown residents do not know where or how to ask for help, while others are reluctant to do so due to cultural and legal barriers.

It is heartbreaking that many lives were lost on that day. Victims of Asian descent were aboard the planes that crashed and of the 6,000 individuals initially tallied during recovery efforts as missing on the ground, many were Asian American.

Thanks to her encouragement, my friend Suzanne was right. In fact, it's been beyond my wildest dreams. My photos originally featured at will now be exhibited by not one, but by several museums as part of their fundraisers and exhibitions to help New York's Chinatown community get back on its feet.

I remember back to that panel discussion we had at Harvard on the topic of the lack of Asian representation in the media. While others were ranting and raving about the problem, Suzanne and I both felt that the best way was to use your energy to create positive change, and just get out there and do it. Be part of the solution. I'm very grateful that our features will be used to bring attention to help the victims, families and Chinatown community recover from the September 11 tragedy.

I'm glad that my images will be part of the healing process.

Photo 21: On the road to recovery

Photo 22: Children playing once again in Chinatown.

Photo 23: The Site, nearly a year later.

Photo 24: A cross of steel, made from broken rebars recovered from the Site.

Photo 25: Still standing tall.

Photo 26: The NY Skyline forever altered. What will the future hold?

Related AsianConnections articles:
Amy Tan at Ground Zero by Ben Fong-Torres

An Interview with Officer David Lim by Suzanne Kai
Asian American Voices on September 11: Sunny Kim by Lia Chang

AsianConnections Arts and Entertainment Editor Lia Chang is an accomplished stage, screen and TV actress, fashion and art photographer and writer based in New York City. To contact Lia, please write

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