This Jewish photographer was the ‘unlikely’ chronicler of New York’s Chinatown

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(New York Jewish Week via JTA) — Photographer Emile Bosian grew up as the son of a Polish Jewish immigrant in New York. But when he died in 1990 at the age of 78, he left behind an unlikely legacy as a chronologist in Manhattan’s bustling Chinatown.

A hobby photographer, Bossian took about 80,000-100,000 photographs of the densely populated Lower Manhattan area from the 1970s to the 1980s, recording everything from crime scenes to parades to celebrities. Dozens of these photographs were published by The China Post, a daily newspaper that once had a circulation of 30,000.

However, the rest was left in a disorganized, obscure file box that was completely overlooked when my niece and nephew cleaned the apartment in the Confucius Plaza Apartment Complex. Bossian was one of the only non-Chinese residents during his lifetime. there.

However, in a remarkable event, the photo was rescued by a longtime friend, a Chinese-American actress May Wong. The American Chinese Museum has partnered with the Jewish History Center to showcase Bosian’s work in an exhibition entitled “Impossible Photojournalist.” The exhibition was held directly in August and has recently been extended until March 21st.

“I was amazed at the amount of photos he took in Chinatown and was confused by how little recognition he received,” Kevin Chu, assistant director of the MOCA collection, told New York Jewish Week. “I wanted to talk about the relationship between Bosian and the people and places he was recording.”

Bossian captured the excitement of the neighborhood and took many shots, such as when Muhammad Ali was honored in Chinatown, New York on December 9, 1974. (Provided by Emile Bosian, Jewish History Center)

The partnership between MOCA and the Jewish History Center appeared in 2016 as part of a grant project under investigation. The crossroads of Jewish and Chinese immigrant and refugee experiences. As a result, MOCA archives have been digitized by Jewish institutions.

“For generations, Chinese and Jewish migrants and refugees lived side by side in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Chinatown districts,” said Head of Archives and Library Services at the Jewish History Center. Rachel Miller said during New York Jewish Week. “These communities not only felt the familiar weight of American alien exclusion, exclusive practices, and assimilation pressure, but also followed similar labor patterns in the garment industry, with problematic stereotypes of” model minority. ” Attracted. “

“A serious comparative analysis of American Jewish history and Chinese-American history is hard to come by,” she added. “But inter-community projects like us encourage new research and promote greater awareness of everything that connects us in our overlapping struggles and successes.”

Archivists in both museums throughout the digitization process Despite his status as an outsider of Chinese culture and the fact that he didn’t speak the language at all, he was drawn to the photojournalism achieved in Chinatown by a Jewish photographer who wore glasses and bowed. rice field.

Protests against police atrocities in 1975 after the murder of Peter Ichii, a member of the Chinatown community. (Provided by Emile Bosian, Jewish History Center)

Bossian, who was doing public relations, may not have been doing a “serious comparative analysis” job between the Jewish and Chinese communities (interest in Chinatown when he pressed the kung fu movie). Was first stimulated). But through his photographs, he immortalized the Quarteyian aspect of life shared by the immigrant community throughout New York. Anonymity of big city life.

Bossian was relatively unknown while working in Chinatown, but his photographs show attention to detail and enthusiasm for the liveliness of New York’s niche community. Co-curator Chu and Lauren Gilbert, senior manager of public services at the Jewish History Center, have several documents about his life illuminating his character, including communication with mentalist and magician Chan Canasta. Was able to be recovered. Polish Jewish family.

In his letter, Bosian He explains that he created the story of being born in the Chinese city of Shoji, once the home of a small Jewish community, not only as a joke, but also to win the trust of the locals. “”As a veteran public relations officer, Bossian never allowed the facts to get in the way of a good story, “exhibits the exhibition.

In a 1976 letter to Canasta, Bossian humorously compares his observations of the Chinese and Jewish New Yorkers. “I have become an expert in Chinese affairs,” he writes. “I know more Chinese groups than the average Chinese in New York. It’s easy. I think it’s Jewish. There are Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, Westside, Uptown, Westchester Jews. The same is true for Chinese. Chinese on Fifth Avenue do not talk to “downtown” Chinese. Don’t let the Jews in Uptown talk to the Jews in the Lower East Side … Anyway, this is the first time a New York Chinese in “Downtown” has a professional press to help them. ”

Bossian captured the joys of everyday life of all ages with thousands of photographs. Above, a group of teenage girls are laughing and posing for shots. (Provided by Emile Bosian, Jewish History Center)

The “impossible photojournalist” also saved Bosian’s work. On January 23, 2020, MOCA’s historic building at 70 Mulberry Street was set on fire. Hundreds of relics were damaged, but the Bossian photo box was safe because it had been moved as part of the Jewish History Center. In anticipation of digitization efforts and exhibitions.

(With the support of the community and thorough conservation efforts, 95% of the materials from the museum were finally recovered, Chu said.)

The fire and the subsequent pandemic delayed the opening of the exhibition.But Chu and Gilbert Large, interactive online exhibitionThe second photo gallery in December 2020. It’s still online.

The co-curator said that dozens of people have contacted them since they came online, some of whom lived in the neighborhood, relatives of those in the picture, and some in the picture.

“It was great,” Gilbert said during Jewish Week in New York. “Much more people were able to access these photos than they were in the actual picture, and could fill so many gaps in knowledge from those who contact us.”

In one such example, Bocian was filming a double date for two young couples. A person who saw it online contacted Gilbert and informed her that one of her couples eventually got married and lived her long life.

“I wonder how many other materials and collections are lost forever, because no one wanted to save them,” Chu said. “I think this show has given people a chance to record their community.”

The “Unlikely Photojournalist” is currently on display at the Jewish History Center on 15 W. 16th St. The exhibition was recently extended until March 21st.

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