The workers and neighbourhood that make a city

Words & Photos by Cindy Trinh

“New York’s Chinatowns have a significant influence on the city as a whole.”

  Growing up in an immigrant house in Southern California, family meals were a part of daily life. My mom is an excellent cook and she would always get me to help her in the kitchen. She taught me traditional recipes from when she lived in Vietnam and gave me historical lessons about the food we ate.

  Meals were always eaten family style, sharing our food with one another. We reached across the table at the same time, using our chopsticks to grab different items into our rice bowls and shove the food in our mouths. We bonded as a family when we ate together.

  Our meals were more than food to fuel our bodies, it was a time when the whole family can sit together and enjoy each other’s company. Since I grew up eating this way, it is how I prefer to eat to this day.

  New York itself is home to the largest enclave of Chinese people in the Western hemisphere. It is estimated that the first Chinese immigrant to come to New York was as early as the year 1840. Today, the population of immigrants has grown exponentially with the nation’s largest Chinese American population of about 600,000 individuals. The influx of immigrants developed huge portions of New York with Chinatowns located in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Manhattan has usually been the most largely concentrated population of Chinese in New York, but in recent years, the growing Chinese populations in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and Flushing, Queens have started to outnumber Manhattan’s Chinese population.

    New York’s Chinatowns have a significant influence on the city as a whole. When walking through Chinatown, there is so much culture and food to experience. The restaurant scene is large and busy with hundreds of restaurants in each Chinatown. It has become a tourist attraction because of its vibrant atmosphere and phenomenal food. Self-proclaimed foodies flock to the restaurants in Chinatown to get a taste of the latest craze, whether it is soup dumplings or noodles and everything in between. With all this food to eat, family style is the best way to get a taste of everything. I regularly eat in Chinatown with a big group of friends so that we can order multiple dishes and share everything. Dining in this way becomes more than just eating; it becomes a social activity where everyone can bond with each other over food.

    Since I love to eat in Chinatown so much, I started thinking about the people who make it all happen. The hidden workers are the backbone of any restaurant, yet many of these workers in Chinatown are living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet. Much of this hardship and struggle goes unnoticed. Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant population in America yet they suffer high rates of poverty. Their problems are largely ignored and forgotten, in part because of the “model minority myth” that Asian Americans are wealthy, successful, and hold professional occupations. The model minority myth assumes that all Asian Americans enjoy success because some have become doctors, engineers, lawyers, pharmacists, and other well-regarded members of society.


    But those who do not fit this stereotype are then left to suffer because their plight is ignored. They are the workers that can be seen all over New York’s Chinatowns: street vendors, grocers, restaurant workers, shopkeepers, jewellers, fishmongers, nail salon workers, and so much more. The polite hustle and bustle of Chinatown's hardworking core is perhaps ironically the charm of the idealistic neighbourhood.

“Naturally, I end up eating in Chinatown quite often because of my preferred method of dining. Chinatown has some of the best restaurants for eating family style.”

    In response, I created a photo series titled “The Model Minority Reality” portraying Asian Americans working in low-wage jobs around New York’s Chinatowns. My series aims to combat the stereotype that Asian Americans are the model minority and also shows the struggle of an immigrant population to survive in a big city. Without these workers, neighbourhoods like Chinatown would not exist in New York. The food we love to enjoy is there for us because of the immigrant population that came to America in hopes of a better life. It is important to highlight their contribution to our society and the enrichment we receive from their tireless dedication to their craft. My photo series hopes to capture the tenacity of these workers and document their everyday lives.