“In Chinese, the name for the United States of America translates to mean ‘the beautiful country’,” explains An Rong Xu, who has been documenting Chinese Americans for the last seven years, as part of his ongoing series My Americans. “Chinese people have been migrating to America since the 1800s, and their history has been intertwined ever since.”
Xu was drawn to photograph America’s Chinese population after realising the extent to which they have been historically overlooked. “No Chinese workers are shown in the photograph of the Golden Spike when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, although it was largely built by them,” he says. “They have been considered the perpetual foreigner. Regardless of how many generations and countless contributions they have made to American history, they will never be seen as American.”
Xu’s photographs acknowledge and celebrate the enormous contribution the Chinese population has made to American society. The series is largely shot in New York City, where Xu resides. The images depict the city’s vibrant Chinatown, where traditional New Year celebrations involve Americanised floats, and a photograph of a Chinese dragon sits in a shop window beside a portrait of Obama.
The series is also shot in other, lesser-known Chinese American communities in areas like Boston, Massachusetts; Los Angeles and San Francisco in California; Seattle, Washington; Houston, Texas; and even Jerome, Idaho. Xu is particularly interested in photographing the meeting of cultures. In one image, a sign reads ‘China Village – American & Chinese Food’, in another, ‘Ranch Market’ is translated into Chinese. A typical barbershop has Chinese writing on its windows, and beauty pageants are adorned with both Chinese and American flags. “I like seeing people who are trying to attain their idea of the American dream, while also trying to preserve their cultural heritage,” explains Xu.
Xu’s work is heavily inspired by films, especially those dealing with “wasted youth, the unpredictable future, generational sacrifices, bad decisions, and falling in love,” he says, citing Andrew Lau’s Young and Dangerous, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Millenium Mambo as references. “All of those themes I related to heavily growing up as a Chinese American.” Through film, he learnt how to employ composition and lighting to communicate a mood, emotion and story, which are things he always considers when taking pictures.
My Americans is a project that exemplifies many of the pillars of Portrait of Humanity, a global movement seeking to prove there is more that unites us than sets us apart. “I think photography’s greatest power is its ability to create empathy,” says Xu. “I hope that when people see my photographs, they can understand and relate to the people in them, and can connect with someone they never thought of connecting with before.”
Together, we will create a Portrait of Humanity.