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the Golden Mountain
Photographer documents uphill lives of Asian immigrants
15, 2002 Lawrence Journal World
Mindie Paget, Arts Editor
When Pok Chi Lau was 19 and living in Hong Kong, his parents borrowed
enough money to pay for two cameras, a plane ticket and college tuition
for their son.
He ended up in Toronto, living with his cousin in an Italian neighborhood
and longing for the familiarity of home.
Everything was supposed to be bigger, better, faster in the Golden Mountain,
the name given by Chinese immigrants to the United States and Canada,
where they went to escape oppression. But at a "Chinese" restaurant
in Toronto, Lau's watered-down wonton noodle soup made him realize he
"did not get the true story of Gaum Sahn (the Golden Mountain)."
What he began to see instead - as he traveled in the late '70s from
one Chinatown to the next as a photography student at Brooks Institute
of Photography and California Institute of the Arts - were entire generations
of Chinese immigrants who had tossed their dreams aside to take jobs
at gold mines, railroads, laundries and restaurants.
Their children and grandchildren are now beginning to reap what they
"These are the people who paved our roads, so I acknowledge them,"
said Lau, a 52-year-old Kansas University professor of photography .
He tells their stories in "Dreams of the Golden Mountain,"
a volume of text and black-and-white photography due in bookstores soon.
The sizable collection takes viewers into the Chinatowns of Philadelphia,
New York, San Francisco, Boston and other cities. There, Lau found tenements
stacked with one-room homes where seven-member immigrant families lived
in poverty. One photo shows an "apartment" - temporarily vacant
- with a closet just big enough for a toilet and an adjacent room large
enough for a single bed to fit snugly.
"These aren't comfortable photographs," Lau said. "I
don't make photographs to make people happy or make the room look pretty."
there is a stark beauty in the human condition, captured eloquently
in Lau's photographs.
He reveals a bit of himself in the book as well, though he's always
the photographer, never the subject. Readers learn about Lau's mother
and father, longtime owners of a general store in Hong Kong who later
moved to Canada. Viewers also see his son, 14-year-old Tyler Lau, as
a Japanese-Chinese infant on the book's cover and later in a Halloween
costume, holding a banana - white on the inside, yellow on the outside,
just like Tyler, Lau said.
"The whole issue of identity is a very mixed one," Lau said.
That comes through in his photographs of the spiritual spaces in Chinese
immigrant and Chinese-American homes. One shot shows a small space in
one San Francisco home where two cherub sculptures hang on the wall
above an image of Mary and a statue of an Eastern deity.
"When you migrate from a place of origin, you begin to change,
you begin to adopt," Lau said. "Yet, they want to hang on
to that belief system."
Cultures also have blended in more literal ways through decades of immigration.
The last chapter of the book, "The Rainbow Coalition," contains
portraits of men, women and children of mixed race: Korean-Caucasian,
In one frame, a Vietnamese teen-ager of Chinese descent clings to her
African-American lover. The text explains that May and Quincy must keep
their relationship a secret because May's parents wouldn't approve.
Explanations like this one and lengthier stories about the subjects
fill the book, written in English, Chinese and French.
"Photography is not expressing 100 percent what I want to say because
it is two-dimensional," Lau said. "I think words are important.
I think words can provide depth that I may never get in a photo."
Lau has spent three decades documenting the Chinese diaspora. He has
ventured into the seedy depths of urban areas, carrying his photography
equipment in "cheap, worn, not-so-tidy-and-flashy, vinyl or canvas
bags" so as not to flaunt his means or be targeted by thieves.
And, he said, despite the hardship his elderly subjects have endured,
they never utter a single word of bitterness. Their tenacity has enabled
their children and grandchildren to move away from Chinatowns and into
suburbs to achieve a different version of the American dream.
Lau's own cousin and wife in the early '70s swam from China to Hong
Kong amid sharks and dead bodies. They immigrated to New York, and after
five years working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, they paid cash for
a house. Their oldest son recently graduated from Princeton.
Lau has traveled the world capturing life in Chinese communities in
his social documentary style. He became a KU professor in 1977 and this
year received the Excellence in Teaching Award. His work has been exhibited
nationally and internationally.
Lau hopes for a good life for his own son. He closes the book with this
I never have to leave home again
like my parents
and the parents before them
who had to run
for a better and safer life.
won't be called Chink or Jap
and I make sure he won't use the words
and absorb whatever rotten cultural heritage
may be passed onto him
whatever new may come up.
in the face of all differences
he will love others just the same.
he will earn the wisdom
the cycle of ignorance
Gaum Sahn (The golden mountain)
University photography professor Pok Chi Lau's book "Dreams of
the Golden Mountain" will be sold at The Raven Bookstore, 8 E.
Seventh St., where a book signing will be at 7 p.m. Jan. 16. The book
also will be available on Lau's Web site, www.goldenmountaindream.com
Alumni No. 5, 2002
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Magazine Sep./Oct. 2002
Exhibition Previews through June in Kansas City
Pok Chi Lau
Reception: 6-9 p.m.
through December 31
Chi Lau's black and white photographs have been standouts in several
recent group shows at Jan Weiner Gallery-particularly his images of
individuals of mixed-race. A series of portraits of men frequently mistaken
for Arabs, taken in the wake of 9-11, poignantly confronted the complex
issues surrounding personal, cultural, and racial identity and affiliation
at that moment. Those images continue to resonate with great potency
as civil liberties issues and racial profiling haunt us a year later.
From Hong Kong With Love, opening at Jan Weiner in November, offers
a welcome opportunity to see more of the KU professor of photography's
work. It will feature images from his newly published book, Dreams of
the Golden Mountain, which draws together work of the last 30 years,
spanning from Lau's migration from China to the birth of his son and