Painting a Chinese-American portrait to honor 9/11 victims

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/8 18:28:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

As a reporter, I learned very early on to be emotionally detached from the people I interview. "Journalists are not social workers," I was told when I was a young reporter. 

Our role is to tell the story so people who need help can get it, not from us directly, but from readers or viewers.

Generally, they are right. Journalists often get the urge to help troubled interviewees. But many times, it would only make things worse and make our stories, and our lives, messy.

Occasionally, though, I would make an exception by donating to the family whose main bread winner was paralyzed in a car accident or by picking up the phone and trying to comfort the lonely old lady who was beaten up by her own son after my story about senior abuse was published.

The latest case involved Yang Yi, a Chinese artist living in New York. Yang is a little different from the other people who made me immediately reach into my purse or offer a helping hand.

He is not struggling with any imminent hardship. When I got to know him in 2013, he was drawing portraits in Times Square, not a rich man's occupation but enough to pay the bills.

I was writing a story about the lives of Chinese artists living in New York for the Chinese edition of The New York Times, and thought the life of a street artist could add some flavor to the story.

And despite a little hesitation, Yang answered all my questions honestly.

But behind his openness was his belief that he was different from other street artists. He had been working on a giant five-panel oil painting of all 343 firefighters who died at Ground Zero during the 9/11 attacks.

Speaking little English, Yang didn't know how to navigate New York's art scene. He didn't know how to reach people who might be interested in such a work. He didn't even know what he would do with the work once it was finished. He just felt, as an immigrant and naturalized US citizen, that he needed to do something to show his patriotism.

He completed the work on the anniversary of 9/11 last year. It took him five years to finish. During that time, many things had happened to him. Most importantly, his wife had left him because he wasn't bringing in enough money.

I followed his progress and wrote another story about him and his work for a few Chinese- and English-language media outlets, which were reprinted. My job was done, I thought.

But I couldn't get this work out of my mind. So I contacted Bob Lee, a veteran art curator in Chinatown, and asked him whether he'd be up for something amazing.

Lee runs the Asian American Arts Council that supports Asian artists. But as an American-born Chinese, he doesn't speak Chinese and therefore, cannot communicate with Yang directly.

But he immediately went to work. The result is a showing at a small gallery called Chinatown Soup on September 10.

Lee and I both knew why we had to put on the exhibition, especially now.

As a reporter covering immigrants, I saw in Yang the struggle of many immigrants who love this country, try to fit in but don't always find an easy path.

As someone who participated in the human rights movement in the 1960s, Lee saw Yang as a shining example to counter the vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric of this election season.

All in all, many immigrants were killed in the terrorist attacks, wounded both physically and emotionally. They breathe together with this country, and they feel its pain. This is what the presidential candidates, and all Americans, need to know this 15th anniversary of 9/11.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: Columnists, Viewpoint, Rong Xiaoqing

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