• May 5, 2016

Life in New York’s Chinatown—Unscripted

Alexa Keefe

“I had dinner with the Lams last night. It was probably the 300th time,” says Thomas Holton, a photographer who’s been documenting one family—mother Shirley, father Steven, and their three kids, Michael, Franklin, and Cindy—for 13 years.

Picture of the Lam family inside their apartment in New York City's Chinatown
Conversation, 2005

Holton first met the Lam family in 2003 while accompanying a housing advocacy organization on home visits to immigrant families around New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood. He was a graduate student looking for a way to photograph behind Chinatown’s closed doors—and to explore his own Chinese heritage (Holton’s mother is Chinese, his father American).

Picture of laundry drying on the roof of a tenement building in New York City's Chinatown
Drying Laundry, 2004

While most of the families he met were wary of return visits after allowing him to photograph them once, the Lams welcomed him into their tenement apartment on Ludlow Street with open arms. Shirley, whose kids were two, five, and six at the time, invited him back for dinner. “They chose me,” he says.

Picture of the Lam family inside their apartment in New York City's Chinatown
Super Girl, 2015

He slowly became part of their lives, bonding over Shirley’s home-cooked meals. Holton was reminded of family dinners with his grandparents and cousins—all of whom spoke Chinese. “It felt strangely normal to be lost while other people spoke a language you didn’t know,” he says.

Picture of a table set for a meal
Dinner for Seven, 2011

A typical afternoon would involve Holton showing up after class, going with Shirley to pick up the kids from school, and shopping for groceries. Back at the apartment, she would cook and he would entertain the kids—also giving Shirley and Steven some time to catch up when he got home from work. Holton was like a nanny, he says, or an uncle.

Picture of flowers in a bathtub inside a tenement apartment in Chinatown, New York City
Flowers in the Tub, 2005

Holton prefers to take his time as a photographer. And there is little that will make you slow down like spending time with the same family, mostly inside the same 400-square-foot apartment, alert for fresh moments to reveal themselves. His early pictures reflect the energy of the time—the kids were small and things were chaotic in the small space. The family all slept together in one communal bed.

Picture of the Lam family inside their apartment in New York City's Chinatown
Break Time, 2010

He took a break for a few years though remained in touch. When he started photographing them again in 2010, things had changed. The boys had become teenagers. Steven had lost his job during the recession and Shirley had taken a live-in job caring for an elderly woman. She lived there with their daughter, Cindy, while Steven and the boys were on Ludlow Street. The air was tense. The bedroom had been reconfigured with bunkbeds, each separated by sheets as a way to create private space.

Picture of the door to a tenement apartment in Chinatown, New York City
Front Door, 2004

The tone of his photographs changed too. But rather than approach the story in a straight documentary style, Holton chose to pull back. “There is something about being [in] the home with them for a few hours—boredom kicks in, something natural occurs, the right light, right position,” he says. “As a photographer, I think it’s really amazing what a quiet, nuanced, melancholy photograph can say,” he says. “I don’t want to put the whole story in the picture. It is a narrative; one photo leads to the next. As kids got older they became more involved in screens, wanted to be alone. They became calmer, more reflective.”

Bored, 2011
Bored, 2011

Fast forward to the present. One of the sons is now in college and the other lives in the Ludlow Street apartment. Steven and Shirley are divorced and Steven has his own apartment in Jersey City.

Holton is taking another pause from photographing right now—”I learned to let some time go by to let the narrative flow,” he says—but still brings his camera along on his regular visits with them, just in case. And now when he does photograph, his focus is mainly on Cindy, who is “a willing accomplice” he says, even though “right now she’s just like ‘whatever’—a totally sassy, snarky teenager.”

Life has changed for Holton too, over these past 13 years. He got married (Cindy was the flower girl at his wedding), and he became a father. And what has he learned?

Picture of the Lam family inside their apartment in New York City's Chinatown
Spring Break, 2010

“I’ve discovered life is messy. It’s unscripted. I thought I would be better able to understand what it’s like to be a Chinese immigrant, but the Lam’s story really is about family. I think why it resonates is that many people can relate to it regardless of race or region. It’s about a family trying to do their best for their kids. ”

Thomas Holton’s photographs of the Lam family have recently been published as a book, The Lams of Ludlow Street. You can also see more from the project on Holton’s website.

There are 7 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Joseph Hopkins
    August 11, 2016

    Thank you for your beautiful photos and details of being crowded in Chinatown, esp. sleeping atop the piano and using newspaper as table cloth. I like your attention to detail. I am ordering your book through Amazon. I am writing about Hazel Ying Lee (1912-1944) who grew up in Portland, OR, Chinatown.

  2. Charles
    May 25, 2016

    I would like to know how Lam (and his wife?) immigrated to the US in probably the late 1990s. The surname Lam tends to suggest that he is not from mainland China but most likely from Hong Kong or Vietnam (ethnic Chinese), speaking little English and working as a laborer ……

  3. Liz
    May 23, 2016

    Very beautiful and heart-warming.

  4. Kati
    May 21, 2016

    Beautiful family life in 400 square feet. Thank you Lams and Thomas.

  5. Nath
    May 8, 2016


  6. Amy van Wyk
    May 6, 2016

    Wow. Beautiful, and powerful. So many favourites, but I love “Bored” the most. So much happening in that picture.

  7. Kamla
    May 5, 2016

    Great pics that tells a real story. A story repeated millions of times since the first of many waves of people seeking the American Dream.

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