A Student from China and The Beauty of Philly

What if we tell you that the guy behind a popular Philadelphia Facebook page is a high school student from China?  

This is the first try of us translating our own stories. The original reporting of this story is done in Chinese by Hua Zong, who is going to graduate in December 2014 from Temple University with a B. A. in journalism. In Metro Chinese Weekly’s “Our Stories, Your Choice,” people voted to read it in English, and here it is.

Thank you for showing your interest, Philadelphia.

By Hua Zong and Bole Yuan

Street photography was accentuated in recent years by Brandon Stanton, a self-learned photographer behind the big-name Facebook page “Humans of New York (HONY).” Quoting pleasant chatters along with photographic sketches of the people in NYC, Stanton brought people’s appearances and their inner worlds to a test, and the result whatsoever keeps us confident in humanity. Since April, someone claims Philadelphia as a new test ground. In November, the “Humans of Philadelphia” page on Facebook has already gained 4000 likes.

Unlike Stanton, who might have seen more of life through losing a job in bond trading, the photographer behind Humans of Philadelphia is a 18-year-old high school student from China.

 

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From Humans of Philadelphia:
“What’s your scariest moment in your life?”
“I almost got shot.”
“What happened?”
“I grew up in West Philly. The neighborhood was pretty rough. One day, I was sitting on the porch with other friends. Some guy on the street just pulled out of his gun and shot us. “
“Why you?”
“Oh no, I was not the target. Someone who sat with me had some issues. Luckily, no one got hurt. “

 

Above: Hua Zong captured how Martin got the story of a subject.  

Below: Martin’s work.

 

Yuanxin Luo, who goes by “Martin,” is spending his third year in the US and the second year in Abington Friends School. Each weekend, Luo will leave his host family in Jenkingtown for a photo safari in Philly neighborhoods such as Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square. Generally, he looks for people who have a knack at dressing up. Sometimes people with unusual hair styles walk into his lens, too.

“I really, really like street photography in Europe and in America,” Luo said. One of his hobbies is to read photo blogs on street fashion. “Photography was like something I have always dreamed to do.”

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Last semester, he took his first photography lesson, filling a tight spot left by a classmate who dropped, and bought his first DSLR camera. But when he finally set up his first Philly trip with his photography teacher, Donna Russo, he felt nervous.

“It wasn’t easy for me to talk with strangers,” he said. “My teacher was by my side.”

Realizing Luo had never been in any part of the city other than Chinatown, Russo decided to take him to LOVE Park, and then the courtyard of City Hall, and then Rittenhouse Square. Walking through various social scenes at the center of Philadelphia, Luo became more and more enthralled. Encouraged by his teacher, he started to engage the people on the street.

“If he was nervous he didn’t really show it,” Russo said in an email. “It was so much fun for me to watch him ‘at work’ as he mingled, talked and shot people — all kinds of people!”

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Luo would sometimes ask the subject to recollect his scariest moment in life. In one of his earliest posts, a subject talked about twisting his ankle in wrestling. In a more recent post, another subject shared his story of “almost get shot” in West Philly.

“Conventional thinking” would simply assume it unlikely that a non-native English speaker like Luo could capture meaningful snippets. But he can. He manages to jot down intimate moments of life such as the first date of lovers, the witness of childbirth by parents and the farewell to the deceased. According to Luo, he learned a lot from reading novels and living with an American host family. But perhaps what helps most is the exposure to life he gets from portraying Philadelphians.

One of Luo’s tricks of getting good subjects is to show up in festive events, and Philadelphia has quite a few, such as Rittenhouse Row Spring Festival in late spring and Midtown Fest in fall.  “People dress up at festivals,” he said. To his satisfaction, Luo captured fashion and spirits in all seasons.

In fact, Luo’s Facebook page is the second one that bears “Humans of Philadelphia” in its title. Last year Philadelphia Inquirer profiled Chuck Putnam, a 71-year-old amateur photographer who created “Humans of Philadelphia: Honoring our human diversity thru photography.” Both photographers are exploring the city with their enthusiasm towards photography and the diversity in Philadelphia.

“If I can run into a street without traffic, and if I could have the fortune to meet a cool guy on a skateboard, it will be perfect!” Luo said, picturing a scenario. “I will ask him to pose in the middle of that street, and I will snap that photo.”

“There is always someone on the street who can touch my heart,” Luo said. “Who can make me to have the desire for their stories. And in the end, everyone has different stories to share.”

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The Last Call before the Election

While the conclusion of the 2014 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race seems so imminent, the young Asian American political activists are making the last call for power.

by Yuxuan Jia and Bole Yuan

The political apathy hurts feelings.

According to Asian Americans United, an advocacy group, in every 10 phone calls they made to potential Chinese voters in their latest “Chinatown Vote” initiative, three recipients would refuse to vote; in every 10 encounters they had with potential voters on the street, two voters would say no to their faces.

“In America, if you want something, you have to earn it by yourself,” said Xu Lin of Asian Americans United.

His organization has been running an intensive campaign to encourage Chinese Philadelphians to vote since June. Till last week, the campaign volunteers had done six rounds of what they call “tabling” – volunteers setting up tables on the street for interviewing and enlisting potential voters. They were also mobilizing forces on multiple frontiers, knocking doors and making phone calls to people who otherwise hear nothing about the election.

“While in whole the voter turnout rate in Philadelphia is low, we think it is an opportunity for Asians to be heard and their impact amplified, if more of them can vote,” said Lin.

“You can’t ignore the contribution that local Chinese people have made to taxes and jobs, since many of them are running successful businesses,” said Lin. “However, in Philadelphia alone, the resource that they get from the society accounts for merely 0.07 percent of the whole. Our analysis finds that their inactiveness towards politics and election is the reason.”

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(Youth organizer Wei Chen is urging a potential Chinese voter to go to a polling station after work. Photo/Bole Yuan)

Lin believed the only way to give local Chinese people a fairer share is to do so through political involvement: if more Chinese people vote on November 4, those who will be elected are more likely to listen to them.

In his team, the volunteers were originally asked to contribute a small portion of their time into the campaign. In reality, their weekly workloads often exceeded 20 hours. Fortunately, many students who heard of the effort asked to join. The team ended up having eight adults and 30 youths, most of whom are high school students born to immigrant parents.

“It’s a good opportunity for them to get a pre-voting experience,” said Wei Chen, Asian Americans United’s youth organizer. “These young immigrants will be able to participate in elections in the future.”

Where are the Asian voters of Philadelphia?

In Philadelphia, Asians account for less than 7 percent of the population, a number that more or less puts them in limbo. It looks better than the state’s 2.7 percent, making Philadelphia a must-check place for insights into the well-being of Asians in Pennsylvania. But when it comes to who cuts the cake, 7 percent is insignificant; it is dwarf against the 37.7 percent of West Windsor, NJ, a town that elected the first and only Chinese American mayor in the Mid-Atlantic region.

To give Asians a higher ground in politics, data miners often group ethnic Asian communities together. However, this practice becomes problematic in elections, mostly because of the great linguistic and cultural diversity within the 7 percent. Election overseers find it hard to monitor each ethnic community; candidates fumble to set foot in this 7 percent, only to find it hard to establish a common ground in the discrepancies. In the end, as observers often conclude, each ethnic Asian community is left to decide their own fate.

As Metro Chinese Weekly reported on May 20, this year’s primary election day, only 38 people voted in the polling station of Chinatown, which had 1308 registered voters. It is unclear how many will show up on November 14.

“There was a senior citizen who came over during our first tabling for just looking,” Chen said. “The second time he asked what we were doing. He registered to vote in his third visit.”

Chen said some Chinese people were uncooperative with the young volunteers because they were unfamiliar with their cause. He believed more media coverage and persistent youth volunteerism will finally change it.

So far, the lack of accurate information about Chinese voters is the one of the biggest hurdles that Asian American political activists have encountered. Without knowing who the eligible Chinese American voters are, political activists are unable to pinpoint the people they want to reach. In late April, during an interview with Metro Chinese Weekly, Councilman David Oh identified that in Pennsylvania, the source of the problem has two folds: the law does not require voters to acknowledge their ethnicity, while some voters themselves do not wish to be profiled ethnically. Oh was organizing a voter registration drive then.

Asian Americans United and another advocacy group, Boat People SOS, used a labor-intensive method in their campaigns. They pulled data from the City Commissioners office and searched for people with common last names from Asia.

On October 27th, 500 people with Chinese last names picked up calls from Asian Americans United. Among them, 350 said they were interested in voting; 30 said they are voting; 40 said they might.

For the whole campaign, the volunteers initially had a goal to get 100 voter registration forms and reached 400 people through door-knocking. By last Wednesday they have collected 120 forms and knocked open 800 doors.

The result seemed promising to the young activists, as over 100 people said they would go to vote.

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