The smell of sulfuric waste would begin to emerge on New York City’s Van Wyck Expressway before getting off at Northern Boulevard, entering Flushing proper. Having zoned out through most of the car ride to distract myself from the crowded backseat of our family’s green Ford Taurus, I, at around 11 years old, usually sat plastered to the left-side door to create a sliver of space between me and my sister, in the middle seat. But once the smell drifted in, I’d get a flutter in my stomach and look with excitement to confirm the sight of the U-Haul sign, which stood prominently above the surrounding structures. I did not know what U-Haul was, but to me it symbolized arrival and a promise of belonging.
My elation was rooted in Flushing’s Asian population and the prevalence of Korean on the storefront signage, which was not as visible where we lived in Elmhurst, another immigrant town in Queens. I also felt that, no matter what, I would not get lost in Flushing. How could I, in a town where every inch had been accounted for: a hair salon on top of a prep school on top of a cosmetics store next to an eyeglass shop? This type of interdependence meant a forced intimacy among everyone who participated in its economy — the smells on your clothes would give away where you had just eaten, and prompt questions like, “With whom? Is that the friend from your mother’s church, the one raised by her grandmother, who scored high on her practice S.A.T., and was caught smoking cigarettes in the back alley of her piano hagwon (a private prep school prevalent among the Korean population)?”
My conception of this place may resonate with those familiar with any tight-knit community. But to photographer Janice Chung and me, Flushing is an unmatched, irreplaceable epicenter, both symbolically and in reality, where the unspoken, lesser-known experiences of being an immigrant or the child of immigrants came together as a kind of negotiation. Where our homes may contain expressions of our families’ various regions of Korea, Flushing represented our heterogeneous Korean-ness set against an American backdrop — not in closed doors but in the open. And just like our lives, the only constant about Flushing was its state of flux, which signaled toward, or at least left room for, reinvention.
Chung describes her exhibition, HAN IN TOWN, which was on view at the Flushing Town Hall for just two weeks this past May, as a love letter to the community that raised her. The simplicity of that statement eschews the theoretical frameworks that can burden projects founded on the premise of love — as the art world is customarily suspicious of and looks down on such sentiments as being uncritical, even narcissistic. But for Chung, who was born in Flushing Hospital and still resides in the nearby Fresh Meadows neighborhood, this was a project she had always wanted to pursue, one that took off with some nudging from a nonprofit with which she often collaborates called KoreanAmericanStory.org.
Chung set off on foot beginning in 2020. She was slowed down by the pandemic in 2021, but started again with re-openings later that year. She went from store to store with a written statement in Korean describing her project, sometimes with a friend who had a better command of spoken Korean to help mediate. Some business owners read the statement and agreed to be photographed immediately. Others took more convincing — Chung showed up with bags of pastries, using her imperfect Korean to charm the owners by displaying earnestness: “I could be your daughter; I am an artist; I want to tell your story; this is important to me; you can trust me; my parents are like you; I grew up here; this is my 고향 (hometown).”
The photographs on view, chosen and categorized with curator Sophia Park specifically for the exhibition, were divided into five sections: exteriors, restaurants, hair stylists and barbers, skill labor (auto shops, tailors, shoe repair), and, finally, care work (nail salons and cleaners). Chung took every photograph after spending time with and getting to know her subjects; what thus comes across is the agreement between the photographer and the subject.
The biggest surprise were her photographs of middle-aged male business owners, familiar to me by their gruff demeanors. Chung photographed them standing either in front of or inside their store, making eye contact with her camera, shoulders and arms relaxed. In an especially striking portrait, a tailor named Yangduk Kim of Momo Custom Tailor faces Chung with a natural grin — the lines on his face indicate that he makes this expression often. His closed lips suggest active listening, his words meandering between his mouth and throat, formulating in his mind, and hinted in his eyes. Right above his portrait hangs an image of his shop’s interior; a tall bookcase holds files with his clients’ names and measurements, handwritten by Mr. Kim. Next to it is an end table stacked with a microwave and a rice cooker.
Some of the most poignant photographs are ones that capture intergenerational businesses. Ikhwan Rim and his mother, Hwa Soon Rim, stand inside their jewelry store, called Rim’s Fine Jewelry, Ikhwan’s arm over her shoulder. The inside corners of his eyebrows show slight creases from strain, that of concern, as the eldest son taking care of his widowed mother, but also of focus, from years of looking at gems through magnifying eyepieces. Meanwhile, his mother peers into the camera without smiling.
The thing about reinvention is that its success is based on an outward indifference to the old. This is not due to actual apathy toward the past, but because for an immigrant, time moves forward, not backward. That is probably what makes Chung’s photographs heartbreaking and captivating — the stillness of the photograph affords me time to slow down, which is so different from my lived time in Queens, so different also from the lives lived by those captured in these photographs. These places and people do not usually receive love letters, but perhaps, when we write to them, they will respond.
Editor’s Note, 11/12/2022, 12:53 pm EST: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that HAN IN TOWN was on view for one week in May instead of two. This has been corrected.