Photos Capture Complexity of Chinese-American Identity

Brian AKA Buddha, 2011
Brian AKA Buddha, 2011AnRong Xu

AnRong Xu is a 25-year-old photographer based in New York City. He shared with NBC News a selection of photos from his groundbreaking series, "The Chinese Americans," documenting the complex and diverse experiences of this community across the country.

Xu, who says he aims for universality in his work by seeking out personal, intimate moments, began the project when still in school, working on a collection about New York's Chinatown.

"Then I traveled outside to California for the first time, and my perspective changed. I saw a larger country, I saw more stories, and more faces," said Xu. "So I did what I do, I took pictures, and just kept making pictures. I go in with a loose idea of what I’m looking for, but also open to new paths and new adventures."

The project, he says, is still a work in progress -- a broad scope in many ways born of his own, personal story.

"This work is inspired by the hours I spent watching my mother work in the sweatshop, looking at the burns my father has on his arms from working the wok all day, and the Chinese American people," said Xu. "The intention of the work is to simply make a statement, to provide a look into life as a Chinese American. I hope that this work can serve as the litany of photographs that show my America."

Grandma the day after Grandpa died, 2013.
Grandma the day after Grandpa died, 2013.AnRong Xu

"At the time I was living in Boston, doing an artist in residency at East Meets West, and I received a phone call from my sister, telling me I needed to get home right away. By the time I got home, it was too late. My grandfather had left us, and the next couple of days were rough for everyone. A lot of my work deals with milestones in life, and at the end of the day we’re all facing death at some point."

Hollis Wong Wear, 2014
Hollis Wong Wear, 2014AnRong Xu

"Hollis is one of my hardest working friends. I loved her music and everything that she was doing. I finally had the chance to meet her last year in Seattle on one of my trips out west. Hollis took me to one of her favorite pho restaurants in Seattle, Pho Bac, and it was literally one of the best bowls of pho I have ever had. Often when I meet people that I’d like to photograph, food is one of the most powerful things to bring us together and allow for two strangers to bond."

Raymond Chow, 2014
Raymond Chow, 2014AnRong Xu

"Raymond, I met through his sister, Ashley, who I dragon boat with. Raymond is currently enrolled in the Naval Academy. With the long history of Chinese Americans in the country, many forget that Chinese Americans have also served the country in the armed services, and have given their lives for this country."

East Broadway, 2013
East Broadway, 2013AnRong Xu

"My work draws deeply from nostalgia and my upbringing in Chinatown. It’s often a common site to parents and grandparents carry around their children."

Ryan Takemiya, Grand Canyon, 2014
Ryan Takemiya, Grand Canyon, 2014AnRong Xu

"I met Ryan many years ago while I was still in high school in 2007. Ryan had led a workshop at an Asian American student conference, centered on the idea of creating an Asian-American renaissance. In 2014, Ryan and I traveled from Oakland to the Grand Canyon, because we had a few days, and we thought, 'why not?'"

The Crimson Kings, 2013
The Crimson Kings, 2013AnRong Xu

"Every year on the founding of the Republic of China on October 10th, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolence Association and the Chinese school within it have a big parade down Mott Street to celebrate. They proudly wave the American Flag along side the flag of the Republic of China aka Taiwan. In America the older Chinatowns were often established by those backing the Kuomintang, and it hasn’t been till recently that the flag of Mainland China, The People’s Republic of China, that you would see them in Chinatown. There is a layered history within the politics of Chinese in America and every little custom and history has a part in it."

Shawn Wu, 2012
Shawn Wu, 2012AnRong Xu

"Shawn is my 2nd cousin, and I met him for the first time at my Grandpa’s funeral. After my first grandpa died, I went forth to find out more about our extended family. Shawn and I share the same great grandfather. Through this project, I have found out more about my family history, and also the stories of those who I’ve met a long the way. As humans the best thing we can do is share our story, because when we do that, we empathize and create bonds to bring us closer together."

Brian AKA Buddha, 2011
Brian AKA Buddha, 2011AnRong Xu

"I met 'Buddha' back in 2011 when I was still in school at the School of Visual Arts. I had been working on a project on the handball courts in Chinatown. It was a hot summer day, and I’d have a few interactions with 'Buddha' previously. I was originally drawn to photograph the kids at the park because it reminded me of my adolescent and the cool kids who cut school and hung out at the park. 'Buddha' is the encapsulation of the cool kids I saw back in high school."

All photos by AnRong Xu. The full collection can be seen on his website.