“Herman, 1976” is the first photo Wong took when he realized he “had something,” and it appears on the cover of his book.
“Seeing the Light: Four Decades in Chinatown”
Former reporter garners international attention after publishing first book
Aside from his camera, most people wouldn’t think Dean Wong to be a photographer who has attracted the praise from the New York Times and the South China Morning Post. He’s not a large man. There’s some graying stubble on his chin. He wears faded sneakers and an old bomber jacket. However, during a conversation with Wong, one quickly finds themselves to be in the presence of a keenly observant, introspective and deeply experienced person with a lifetime of story telling.
Wong, a former Ballard News-Tribune staffer, has published a book that has drawn international attention and given an inside view on China Towns in major cities including Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Wong is a second generation Chinese American Seattle native. He’s also a self taught photojournalist and writer.
Wong’s book, “Seeing the Light: Four Decades in Chinatown” (Chin Music Press), captures the lives of people living in China Towns across decades, starting with one image captured in an alleyway of Seattle’s China Town in 1976. The image, called “Herman, 1976” is the first photo Wong took when he realized he “had something,” and it appears on the cover of his book.
Many Ballard News-Tribune readers will probably remember Wong as someone they called when they needed help. Wong wrote for this publication for eight years. He said he was first hired to write a few articles a week and answer the phones at the old office on Market Street.
“News Tribune editor Tony Brouner then asked me if I wanted a job at the newspaper writing stories, putting together the community calendar and answering the phone back in December 2000 and I accepted,” wrote Wong in his parting article from 2008.
Wong covered much of the Ballard High School (BHS) athletics and worked extensively with the BHS Foundation. He said he enjoyed writing about sports but really liked writing about people and telling their stories. He mentioned a story about Ronnie Robinson, a homeless man who died in an abandoned shack. Wong said he aimed to write stories that changed attitudes. He also said that he enjoyed writing things that let the community know when someone was in need or in trouble, and recalled when the freezer went out at the Ballard Food Bank. He wrote about it, and the next week the community came together and bought a new one.
“That’s just the way the Ballard community works.”
However, Wong said it took a little while for the community to warm up to him; He said at the start it was difficult to connect with readers or for them to connect with him, a Chinese American in a predominately white Scandinavian community.
Wong said when he first arrived on the beat people looked at him like an outsider.
“When I first showed up in Ballard people wondered who the hell I was. … I think I was the first person of color to work for the Robinsons (publishers of the BNT). It took a while for my writing to connect with them (readers).”
“Before coming to Ballard, I did not know anything about the community other than the Ballard Locks that I visited as a kid. … I quickly learned how much people cared about this neighborhood.”
Wong immersed himself in the job, and made the commute from his home in Beacon Hill sometimes twice a day, and soon Ballardites sought his coverage. Parents would call Wong wondering why he couldn’t cover their child’s big game. The truth was he couldn’t cover everything; he was the only sports writer. But he did care.
Wong said when he was first hired, Jerry Robinson, owner and publisher of Robinson Communications, asked him at a Christmas party, “Who are you!?” Wong had been with the paper for just three weeks. He said Robinson later told him he could tell he cared about the people and the community because he saw it in his writing.
But the BNT wasn’t Wong’s start in photojournalism. Wong began taking pictures with his sister’s camera while he was still young. She was an art student at University of Washington. Wong also wrote for his high school newspaper, The Cleveland Journal at Cleveland High School. He later enrolled at UW to study communications. But Wong said college wasn’t for him, however he did know he liked to tell peoples’ stories. He moved to San Francisco and volunteered for the San Francisco Journal, doing anything that needed to be done like delivering papers to writing and taking pictures for articles. He later returned to Seattle and wrote for International Examiner.
Wong said his work was mainly photojournalism up until the 90s. It was during that time when he received an art grant from the City of Seattle and spent some time traveling to the places in his book and learning about photography. He rented a dark room and taught himself how to print his photographs. He also identified his lens in which to witness the world: a 35-millimeter. However, while photographing people on the streets of China Towns, Wong said they hung back from his camera, so he developed stealth techniques in order to photograph them in their natural state.
“Chinese people are kind of camera shy. ... I’m not trying to bother people; I’m capturing life as it is, and it’s really beautiful.”
As Wong moved around he became part of the communities where he lived, chronicling lives, capturing circumstance word-by-word and frame-by-frame.
Up until publishing his book, Wong said he hadn’t been out taking pictures; most of his efforts were toward caring for his wife while she underwent chemotherapy treatment during a long battle with cancer. Wong’s wife, Jan, passed away last year. Around he same time he also lost his life-long friend, Donnie Chin, after he was caught in the crossfire of a shooting in the International District. Chin ran a community emergency center there. Wong helped Chin start the program while they were in middle school. Wong said putting his book together was all he could do to distract himself after the death of the two most important people in his life.
“It was a tough period for me, and the way I responded to being sad and depressed was to go back out with a camera again. Its kind of therapy for me.”
“Seeing the Light: Four Decades in Chinatown” focuses on the daily life of “anyone who caught my eye,” said Wong, and the images reveal profound moments found in the course of the daily mundane. Reading his book one will find an image of a young Chinese American soldier coming home from the Gulf War, a grinning Dalai Lama and Wong’s stunning self-portrait consisting of the reflection of people on the street in the back of a shining helmet worn by Wong. All of Wong’s photographs communicate something unsaid, something powerful and subtle that imbues the story of America, the story of immigration, of beautiful strength and belief at odds with ugly oppression and at the heart, the dream of belonging to a tribe, a group in the face of alienation in a foreign land. At the surface the book tells the stories of others across China Towns in North America, but in essence, it shares Wong’s life as a story teller and helper as he moved through the decades, observing, witnessing, capturing the moments of experience that make up our lives.
Wong will be at the Wing Luke Museum (719 South King Street) on Saturday, May 28 at 2:00pm – 4:00pm for a book celebration.
Jack Straw Cultural Center Front Gallery is showcasing Wong’s work June 17 through September 2. Wong will be giving a talk the opening night.
For more information visit http://bit.ly/DeanWongSeeing