Where Did All The Flowers Go?
An Interview with David Zheng

Interviewer: Callum Beaney

Callum Beaney: So you started Where Did All the Flowers Go? in response to both the anti-Asian racism sweeping through the US over the COVID-19 epidemic, and in response to the economic hardship this brought about in New York City’s Chinatown — was there a particular moment that started you working?

David Zheng: I can’t take credit for consciously making the decision to work on a project on Chinatown. In March 2020, New York City had a government-mandated lockdown that required all non-essential workers to stay at home. For two weeks I quarantined, spending my days constantly checking in on the news and social media about the situation. The negativity coming out of these media outlets consumed me and frankly I was becoming cynical of humanity. I knew that wasn’t who I was or who I wanted to become, so I decided to take really long walks daily through Lower Manhattan with my camera, not really worrying about what I was photographing, but really just an excuse to be out of the apartment. Then one day, one of my best friends Winston called me up about his emergency initiative to feed Chinatown that he was about to launch and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. Without hesitation, I agreed and that led me to being involved in Chinatown. Everyday for 3 months (the duration of the lockdown in NYC) I would volunteer in the morning distributing meals to the community and then spend 7 hours of the rest of the day just roaming through the streets of Chinatown with my camera. I guess I began to think that there was a possible book project in my hands when I returned to my darkroom 2 months later to develop my film and see the work on the contact sheets.

I see the little flower post-its dotted around the show — some have writing on. Could you tell us a little about where the flower motif/title came from, how it came to scaffold around everything else you were working with for the show?

The early stages of the lockdown was during my favorite time of the year, when New York City’s flowers bloom. I remember walking through the empty streets and thinking to myself “It’s such a shame that people aren’t out enjoying these beautiful flowers that engulfed the city.” At the time, things were quite unpredictable (I’m not sure if that still isn’t the case) and we did not know whether the pandemic would last a few weeks or a few years and when people could resume their regular lives again. So with that sentiment, I wrote in a journal that day “Where Did All the Flowers Go?”. Many months later and having been as involved with Chinatown as I ever had, I had to come up with a title for my book. In 2018, I was in Guangzhou (Canton), China working on my first book titled Reveries, and I learned that Guangzhou was nicknamed “The City of Flowers”. I think naturally I began to draw comparisons and relationships with the two projects. The flower is a recurring symbol in the arts, spanning through all mediums. I like the ambiguity of it.

In the weeks leading up to the exhibition, we had engaged with the community in several portrait events that offered people an environment to come together and to just be happy around others again. We invited these same people who came to sit for a portrait back to the show. At the show in June 2021, we had flowers cut out of colorful construction paper and asked visitors to place a flower wherever they liked to. I liked the idea of an exhibition that continued to build and grow itself even to its last days. It was important to me that the project encouraged participation and not just being a spectator. Although the flowers were initially meant to be placed in the portrait room as a sign of a gift, we saw flowers slowly take over the next room where my pandemic work was hanging. Some people even kept some of the flowers to give to friends who couldn’t make it to experience the show. I thought that was so beautiful.

Given the challenges many Chinese in the USA have faced over COVID, how did locals react to your work? A lot of your street images hit at that isolation and emptiness, shots of things like unadorned mannequins having a darker significance to them than just being good photographic subjects like how they’re normally shot etc. But then there’s that gorgeous “FORWARD” and the studio portraits section.

To key into one emotion and sum up the roller coaster of last year would be difficult. The pandemic had exposed many complex issues that we had in Chinatown, and not just pertaining to the neighborhood itself, but larger issues of representation and the role that Chinese Americans play within America. Although the photographs I made of Chinatown during the height of the pandemic depicts a deteriorating neighborhood, in the images you can find little messages of hope. Chinese people are very resilient people, and this is not the first time we had faced adversity. So even in this bleak situation, there was a silver lining, which saw grassroots movements led by the younger generation stepping up to figure out a way to take care of ourselves and to move forward. I had many conversations with visitors, and their reactions vary, but the really cool ones was when someone was provoked by the show enough to express that they want to volunteer in these efforts. Another visitor also mentioned that she felt a sense of vulnerability and visibility because the exhibition was filled with people who looked like her. At the moment, many new galleries are sprouting up in Chinatown, but almost none of them represent the Chinese American experience.

Out of interest, did anything in particular anyone wrote on the post-its really stand out to you?

Yes, there was one flower that was posted up on the last day of the show right in the middle of the two large portraits. It read “Community not Competition!” Although there were many efforts to help revive the neighborhood, I felt like unfortunately some egos began to grow and instead of working together, internal politics began to come into play. It was interesting to see that someone else shared that same point of view.

I saw that picture of what I’m guessing is your upcoming book’s sequence up on the wall. How are you finding transferring from one to the other? Your installation wasn’t just more people-facing than the usual cold white cube, but also had video, music, those huge prints hanging in the middle of the space etc.

Designing a book and an exhibition space presents different challenges, but it was a much welcomed change of pace especially after having obsessed with editing the book for the past year! When I was given the opportunity to build my own show, I knew immediately that I wanted to break out the confines of a traditional photography exhibition. Photographing during the pandemic on empty city streets was such an experience and I wanted to bring that sort of energy and sentiment to the show. I hung the photographs in different scales and heights, so that everything in your line of vision and your peripheral layered into a collage. In another room, we played audio of sound bites and collected stories from individuals, which echoed through the entire exhibition space, acting as a subconscious voice to the visitors mind. I was listening to a lot of Phillip Glass while shooting the project so I incorporated that into the show as well. Actually, sometimes I still hear “Distant Figure Passacaglia” in my head on walks through Chinatown on an empty night.

It’s actually really cool to know that you were listening to Glass! I’ve heard a few photographers say they approach street work with headphones on, and it kind of changes how I appreciate their work (I have noise on when I shoot, it’s like a sound-cocoon to keep me focused). You know Jason Evans was listening to this droney, ethereal ambient music while he was shooting NYLPT? Kinda makes that work hit differently for me…

Yes! (Would you share your music? [ed. here]) I listen to music throughout my process. From shooting, to printing, to editing my books. In this case, it was this Phillip Glass album. Did you know that he use to drive a NYC taxi cab while working on his music early on? Actually one of my favorite things to do is sit down with a good photo book, light a joint up and listen to good music.

With that community>competition note in mind, do you have any ideas or plans for collaborative work moving forward, building on what you’ve done with Flowers?

When I launched the WDATFG? Community engagement projects, I reached out to two groups (Feed Forward and Heart of Dinner) who were leaders of battling food insecurity with a strong focus on Chinatown’s senior community The idea is to use portraiture and food, two very powerful tools for uniting people. Together on 2 Saturdays, we served 350 grocery bags filled with culturally sensitive produce/food, handed out 100 meal vouchers and took over 150 portraits of Chinatown’s senior community, giving each of them a print. We also partnered with the Chinese Benevolent association, the oldest community service organization who provided their space and resources. In a way, that gesture was symbolic of the older community passing on the keys to our generation, putting their trust in us to take care of the community. As for future plans, it’s hard to say what’s next for this project in terms of collaboration. I think sometimes we don’t want to overdo a good thing. The project spanned 10 days in the month of June and we were able to leave an impression on so many people, it was brief and beautiful; sort of like the lifespan of a flower. Through the project I did get to meet many community organizers, so maybe I can leverage these relationships to do something else. I will always try to think of ways to participate in my community using what I am good at. I have some ideas.

Maybe this is a bit off track, but speaking more generally how do you find the way those Chinese American experiences, or even Chinese cultures in general are represented in “Photoland”? Recently there have been a few furores over galleries and institutions being run by often racist white curators in the UK, and I’ve heard about similar in the US.

They have a saying that “History is always written by the winners”, and that holds true with art. Those privileged and entitled enough will be the ones who dictate what’s cool and what’s valuable. I guess they also have influence on the narrative. Honestly, I don’t even think some of these people are aware that their actions can be deemed as racist. So there needs to be a rewiring of the way we do things. I do believe that we are living in a time where we see push back not only in the arts but all angles of culture. It is up to us to stand for what we believe in and for Chinese/Chinese American artists to fight for a bigger piece of the pie.

All Rights Reserved: text © Callum Beaney & David Zheng; all images © David Zheng except for: article header © Marina Wakil.