What a difference
a year makes.
Lia Chang at the Asian American Journalists Association annual
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
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.
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.
New York: The
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.
for more information.
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.
Francisco: The San
Francisco Chinatown Merchants Association, as part of its September
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
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 AsianConnections.com, 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Never in a million
years did I think I'd be called on to document a catastrophe of
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
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.
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
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
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.
The eerie skeletal remains of one of the trade center's outer
National Guard troops securing the immediate area around the
Smoke rises into the sky, carrying unseen souls upward.
Police officer wearing a mask. Masks were de rigeur for crews
working at the site.
Shattered glass and dust-covered facades.
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.
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.
NY State Troopers and the National Guard manning barricades.
Trinity Church is seen in the background.
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.
Jennifer Wong, age 26.
One of the many make-shift memorials around the city.
A Chinese man looking out his window.
Empty streets, an unsettling silence.
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.
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.
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.
Idle workers in front of the Nom Wah Tea Parlor after 9/11.
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.
Waiting for customers.
An American flag hanging from a Chinatown apartment on Eldridge
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.
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 AsianConnections.com
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.
On the road to recovery
Children playing once again in Chinatown.
The Site, nearly a year later.
A cross of steel, made from broken rebars recovered from the
Still standing tall.
The NY Skyline forever altered. What will the future hold?
Amy Tan at Ground Zero
by Ben Fong-Torres
Interview with Officer David Lim by Suzanne Kai
Asian American Voices
on September 11: Sunny Kim by Lia Chang