From the tumult of a daily commute to the serenity of a game shared among friends in the park, seven photographers set off across the Chinatown International District to document the constantly-evolving neighborhood during the Lunar Year of the Tiger in 2022.
The result is Through the Eyes of a Tiger, an exhibition of photographs capturing the endurance, challenges, and prosperity of the CID. Led by longtime CID photographer Rick Wong, the project includes seven local photographers, alongside community organizers and contributors.
Each of the seven main photographers had a specific style in mind when producing their individual photographs. Photographer John Pai focused on the interplay of shadows and subjects in street photography, while Tim Mar focused on food and restaurants in his photos. Together, the many perspectives in Through the Eyes of a Tiger provide a holistic, not homogenous, view of the CID in a critical time of regrowth and development.
Wong, the genesis and director of the project, recruited each photographer and coordinator. With Wong’s deep roots in the CID community, long history of local photography, and a network of friends and artists, the exhibition came together.
“Rick was and is the key driver to this whole project,” Mar said. “He’s the reason it happened. He’s the reason it has the vision that it does.”
Funding for Through the Eyes of a Tiger came from a grant from City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, applied for by Ron Choi, the coordinator and grant writer for the project.
“Our application was due Sept. 12, and we didn’t hear until Halloween that we got awarded the money,” Choi said. “People normally get a year to do the project, but we were already hitting the ground running. So our target was to present our exhibit during the coming AAPI Heritage Month celebration.”
The exhibition is set to be shown at the Nisei Veterans Hall starting May 6, comprising 100 printed photos, 70 of which were taken by the main seven photographers. The other 30 were curated from various community events in the CID.
“We conducted three photo walks during the winter and the participants there were allowed to take photos and then submit them to be credited with ours,” Choi said. “Then we also created an open contest that began in [the] middle of February and ended April 1. And we’re now selecting photos from there.”
As the project progressed, each member saw the scope and quality of Through the Eyes of a Tiger grow. Mar, who focused on restaurant and food photography, was initially concerned that his work would comprise only Chinese restaurants due to his experience and network.
“I ended up shooting one Chinese restaurant and one Cambodian restaurant, one Vietnamese coffee [shop], one Filipino coffee,” Mar said. “And what’s interesting was age, so one [restaurant] was old, very old. One was [from] the 80s, 90s, I think. And then, the coffee shops were relatively new. So it kind of showed the progression, at least in my mind, … of Seattle’s Chinatown International District now, and how that’s all changed over time.”
For Pai, Through the Eyes of a Tiger represents a return to the art form of photography — he chose to focus on his own style of street photography, directing attention to the outward elements of a photo, such as the relationship between shadows and light.
“Rick just said, ‘Photograph the way you photographed before,’ because I had been actually starting to revisit my Instagram account,” Pai said. “So I went back out and started photographing the way I used to photograph when I was a kid in New York City or when I was living in Chicago.”
Dean Wong, a lifelong CID resident and one of the seven photographers, is especially proud of his contributions to the exhibit. Following the deaths of both his wife Janice Ito and best friend Donnie Chin, Dean Wong embarked on over half a decade of community photography across the West Coast, all of which contributed to his work in Through the Eyes of a Tiger.
“Everything I do is rooted in my growing up in Seattle Chinatown,” Dean Wong said. “This ‘Tiger’ exhibit kind of wraps up everything I’ve done in my life.”
Through the Eyes of a Tiger was submitted for consideration to a show at the Wing Luke Museum, but with the five-year backlog of new exhibits at the museum, the group hopes that the photos will make it into a future exhibit, remaining an important chronicle of the neighborhood.
“Our photos will be seen maybe in the year 2027, 26, and then people can look back at it as a historical record,” Choi said.
The free photo exhibit at the Nisei Veterans Hall will be open Saturdays and Sundays, May 6 to May 28, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. An online gallery, with the hopes that the images will one day be available for free use, has also been published.