Asian Humans of New York

Guest Post by Minh-Ha T. Pham

I'm on vacation! This week, I'm taking a much-needed break to recharge the batteries and get a change of scenery. To keep things going around here, I've enlisted the help of several friends of the blog to submit guest posts on various topics of their choosing. Here's one from Minh-Ha T. Pham, author of 'Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Bloggin.'

My guest post pays tribute to New York City, with a special focus on my home borough of Brooklyn. In it, I spotlight Asian New Yorkers in the fields of fashion, food, and photography. Here are their stories, told mostly in their own words. (All photos are used with permission and courtesy of the featured individuals unless otherwise noted.)

Hana Tajima: an Asian who wears clothes on the Internet

Hana Tajima's eponymous blog (formerly called Style Covered) has made her a fashion superstar and icon of what some are calling "high-style modest fashion." Unlike most other fashion bloggers, though, Tajima is also a fashion designer who once had her own label called Maysaa. Earlier this year, she collaborated with the Japanese clothing retailer Uniqlo to create the Hana Tajima Lifewear collection of modest fashion.

She was born and raised in England but eventually found her way to Brooklyn where she's been living for the past three years.

On identity...

  • I have always lived on the fringes of other people's definitions of home. I still feel like the only half Japanese girl in an all white school. When you spend so much time on the outside you realize that those rules that come with being part of a particular group don't apply to you, so you start to make them up for yourself.

On her design process...

  • I left school at 16, half way through a foundation course in fashion. I was aware that it would mean having to learn technical skills myself, but there was something about the atmosphere, in being graded for personal creative choices, that I just couldn't connect to. But also, what did I know at 16? My feeling was that I would learn more by starting a label, making mistakes, and still being naive enough to start over. And so I started Maysaa. Years later, I'm still making mistakes and starting over.

  • I start [a garment] with a feeling and try to find a way to translate it so other people can experience it. Maybe I have been obsessing over this feeling of water on the skin. How do you create this softness and movement but also give it weight and depth? So I'll drape on the stand and create soft pleats that will feel like ripples when you move, or cut on the bias to give that feeling of a second skin when you come out from the water. The idea is not for a person to feel the starting point of a body in water, but to feel that deeper level of how it feels when your body is in water.

  • I have some idea in my mind and start to drape or make a pattern. (I use paper and sketches less and less.) It doesn't matter if it's wrong, because sometimes doing something wrong gives a better result. This way of working is as close to improvisation as I can get; at the same time I have to know exactly how it will be constructed, the order of sewing the seams, where to put openings. I'll spend many hours trying to sleep but not actually sleeping since I'm constantly constructing garments in my head.

On her fashion blog...

  • Modest fashion is one aspect of [my blog] just as my style is one aspect of an individual expression.

  • Initially, I started creating outfit posts to see if what I put together looked good. Having said that there are some things that look great in a photo that don't work in person, or the reverse. After a while I wanted to think more about the composition and create a mood and entire aesthetic for the picture. Almost always it's in my home so I look for angles or corners or colors that might work and take the photographs myself.

On modest fashion and her fashion sensibility...

  • Modest fashion for me is about exploring another definition of beauty. The fashion industry is not very diverse in its depiction of beauty. I want to find a version of beauty that has nothing to do with being sexy, or even attractive—a beauty that is closer to the way objects can be beautiful, light can be beautiful, a feeling can be beautiful.

  • In the past couple of years I made a decision to only wear things that were comfortable. It wasn't so much a change of heart, more that I realized I should have always been doing it this way. I shop mostly in vintage stores or wear what I make. Going into high-end stores or shopping in general gives me anxiety. I have some loose rules that if I can make it I won't buy it, so mostly I look for denim and knitwear.

On the Hana Tajima Lifewear Collection with Uniqlo...

  • The Uniqlo collaboration has been an incredible experience for me. They approached me about a year ago to create a collection of modest clothing, but I don't think they were expecting it to be so appealing to a wider audience. They have been very supportive, and have given me the kind of creative freedom that you hardly dare to dream about as a designer. There is a lot of skill and experience in the company, but more than anything the people have so much kindness and are truly excited about the project.

  • Now that I've been wearing pieces from the collection for a while, I have gotten to know them in a different way. I style them in different combinations that I never thought of when I was designing them.

Red Star: An Asian American sandwich shop

Johnson and Gibson Ho opened Red Star in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn in July 2014. Graduates of University of Michigan Law School and the French Culinary Institute, the brothers who were born and raised in Manhattan's Chinatown, run the sandwich shop together. Like many of its neighboring restaurants, it offers higher quality food in a fast, casual setting. In its short life, the restaurant has attracted the notice of The Gothamist, Village Voice, and New York Magazine. But Red Star stands out from others along the Smith Street corridor (Brooklyn's own "restaurant row") because it's an explicitly Asian American restaurant. As they emphasized to me, this is not Asian fusion.

Photo Credit: Brian Camarao

On not being an Asian fusion restaurant...

  • A few months back, we had two Filipino-American customers who looked at the menu, and kind of sarcastically asked, "This is not one of those places that are owned by white hipster chefs with beards, is it?" No. No, it's not.

On their family and its food service history...

  • The name Red Star comes from the restaurant equipment and construction company our family owned in Manhattan's Chinatown. In 1983, my grandfather with my father and uncle opened R-S Restaurant Equipment & Supply on Bowery Street near Houston. For about 30 years, they sold restaurant equipment and custom-built hundreds of restaurant kitchens—the majority of them Chinese immigrants opening a restaurant for the first time.

  • R-S Restaurant Equipment & Supply was on the ground level and we lived on the second floor.

  • On family trips to random towns up and down the East Coast, we'd visit Chinese take-out restaurants whose owners were our parents' clients.

On their Asian American menu...

  • As kids growing up with working immigrant parents, our refrigerator would be stocked with rice, soy sauce-braised pork feet and hard-boiled eggs, frozen pizza, frozen Ore-Ida tater tots. So that would be dinner: a bowl of rice with pig feet, stir-fried vegetables, and tater tots. It's important to us that our food is known as Asian American, instead of Asian fusion or Asian-inspired, etc.

  • There aren't very many restaurant menus where you'll see fried chicken sandwiches next to pork dumplings, spring rolls with Mexican ingredients, and homemade tater tots.

Note: This year, Village Voice named Red Star's Korean Fried Chicken sandwich one of the Top 10 fried chicken sandwiches in the city. Pictured below with this glorious sandwich is their Miso BLT.

On Dale Talde...

  • Dale stopped in the first week we opened. We got some press early on where we describe our food as "Asian American" and I think that's what caught his eye. Actually, the idea to call our food "Asian American" comes from Dale. I read an interview years ago that he did in New York magazine where he calls his food "proudly Asian American" and it stuck with me.

  • Before Dale's interview, all I saw was "pan-Asian" or "Asian-inspired" or (possibly the worst) "Asian fusion."

On being inauthentic...

  • Early on (less so now), we were cautious about people misinterpreting certain menu items as authentic; as in, we (two Chinese kids) made the best, most traditional and authentic Korean Fried Chicken. That's not what we're trying to do. We don't want anyone to think that the food we make is authentically one thing or another.

  • We're not trying to bring some ancient culinary technique to Brooklyn. Someone asked me at a food event a few weeks ago if we used some traditional Cantonese oven to make our crispy pork belly (siu yuk), and I all but rolled my eyes.

Adrift in Suffering: A Novel Idea

Brian Camarao is one of the principals in a bi-coastal creative effort to reimagine the graphic novel. (Full disclosure: he's also my partner and baby daddy.) A graphic artist and photographer by training, he's turned his talents to a new goal: photo novelist. Digitally manipulating, layering, and editing photos he shot with the help of a network of San Francisco Bay Area Filipino Americans, the images are being designed to tell old stories in a new way.

On the "photo novel"...

  • It uses photos instead of hand drawn artwork to tell a story. It was a really popular form of storytelling in the 1970s and 1980s—less so in the States but definitely in parts of Europe, Latin America, and Africa. People would appropriate stills from popular films or TV shows captured on their VCRs to create new or sometimes derivative stories that had a lot of the features of comic books (e.g., dialog balloons). Our photo novel actually returns to the hands on form of graphic novels and comics in that the images are created with actors I hired, scenes I staged, and then are painstakingly manipulated digitally.

  • As an example, here's a two-page spread from the novel. It shows a dream sequence in which one of the main characters is dealing with the guilt of his girlfriend's beating at the hands of a man she married for the passport. It consists of a composite of pieces of three different photographs. I exaggerated or de-emphasized the colors in different places to give a ghostly or dream-like quality to the scene. It also foreshadows his own death later on in the novel. The lines and noise were added to suggest movement and a sense of chaos.

On the book ...

  • The book is titled, Adrift in Suffering. It takes on a number of superstitions that many Filipino Americans will be familiar with. Filipinos have a lot of superstitions and most of the people involved with the book grew up hearing about them and sometimes living with them. The book, in some ways, brings the superstitions to life by imagining the real world effects that beliefs in superstitions have. So the superstitions—like a dropped fork as a signal that a man is about to visit you—make up the subplot. The main plot is about the different kinds of violence that immigrants -- especially women -- are subjected to.

  • You can see in the image above that there's no text. There will be text when we're finished but we're still playing with ideas about how to present the story in a way that relies more on the images than on any text. For instance, the text might serve as something like "title cards" in silent films. There will be dialogue but it'll be used sparingly. We're trying to keep the emphasis on the photographic dimensions of the photo novel.

On iPhones and insta filters ...

  • We are in a time when anyone with an iPhone and a good set of image filters can create a nice snapshot. But the filters on Instagram or on your phone only allow you to sharpen or soften the colors of the entire image. What I do is saturate and desaturate specific sections of a photograph to convey different depths, movements, and tensions within a single image.

On Instagram ...

  • I'm late to it but I really love it. I follow mostly photojournalists and street photographers and it's really some of the best work I've seen anywhere—right up there with some of the Magnum photographers I've worked with or studied. At the same time, one of the most popular Instagrammers I follow is my 12 year-old cousin-in-law who documents her life as a middle-schooler in Seattle and gets hundreds of Likes in minutes.

If you want to Like Brian's Instagram photos, follow him here.

Minh-Ha T. Pham is an academic and culture critic who writes about fashion, capitalism, and power. She is also author of a newly published book called Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging (Duke University Press 2015) that extends the scholarship on "Asian fashion work" to the digital context. Focusing on the social, economic, and technological factors that condition blogging as a new mode of "Asian fashion work" as well as the public's perceptions of it, her book argues that the phenomenon of Asian superbloggers is part of a longer history of racially gendered fashion labor.


angry archive