New York belongs to no one. It’s a place as much as it is an emotion, a writhing catalyst whose duality is wrapped in instinct and extremity, tangible but subjective. It’s a story we tell ourselves over and over but can never commit to writing its ending because it changes every time. Living under shadows cast by scaffolding and cold concrete, we string moments together and call it “fulfillment.” Going over the bridges between boroughs is a metaphor whose meaning is a secret we all keep.
It is here that we meet Bowen Goh and Jae Kim, both first-generation Asian-Americans who call New York home. They did not know each other before this introduction but their stories wreathe and intertwine the same way their tattoos do – up shoulders and necks in wry reflections of each other, the black ink settled deep into their skin.
Bowen is Chinese-American and a renaissance man in many configurations of the word. He owns two bars in Brooklyn, Mood Ring and Heaven or Las Vegas, just published an astrology cocktail book titled Margarita in Retrograde, and dreams of inventing something. There’s something giddy about him, when he flashes a smile it’s endearing like peeping the devil in the details.
Jae is a Korean-American photographer and has ridden his chopper cross-country multiple times, black hair blowing behind him like an innominate flag. With every click of his shutter he disarms those he meets along the way in roadside diners and empty highways, framing them and each encounter with a calloused devotion.
Bowen and Jae belong to distinct but disparate communities and have created space for themselves within these communities that doesn’t normally exist for Asian Americans. This notion of creating space and occupying it is something that New Yorkers know to be necessity. Call it dog-eat-dog or the city of dreams, these adages about “making it” here are testament to the fact that “fulfillment” only comes with a little fight and a big backbone.
In the same vein, the New York City Tour has created space for Bowen and Jae to talk about their identities and vulnerabilities when it comes to representation, fostering connection between individuals the same way the bridges do.
*The conversation was moderated by LỰU ĐẠN founder/designer, Hung La.
The images were shot by Brooklyn-based, Malaysian-Chinese photographer, Danny Lim. Danny has shot for the likes of Numero Berlin, Vogue Japan, office, V-Man, The Last Magazine, GQ Portugal amongst others. Growing up in a household with a strong medical background, his family always advised him to excel in science but he had a stronger inclination and appreciation for the arts. He started drawing and painting from an early age and eventually pursued an undergraduate degree in art and design. Upon graduation, he began traveling to different cities shooting a wide range of subjects. As he continued to travel and explore, he developed a deep interest in fashion photography and moved to New York in 2014 to pursue his passion gaining valuable experience.
He started working at Milk Studios and then moved on to assist a variety of photographers for five years before going it his own way. His visual language is one that marries intimacy with rawness, translating to images that yield to an understanding of character while bolstering identity. To develop this language Danny takes a hands-on approach and in this case that became an on-bike approach as he was more than ready and willing to do whatever it took to get the shot, hair blowing in the wind. While nuance is everything, Danny’s proclivities gravitate towards the unpretentious, alluding to a kind of honesty only available to those who emanate purity.
Hung: You guys both grew up in NY — can you begin by telling us a bit about your childhoods?
Bowen: I was born and raised initially in Queens in New York. From the ages of about three to six, my mom was working a lot so she kind of shipped me back to China. I lived in China for about three years and when I came back, my mom had become an acupuncturist so she was doing a little bit better. As a result, we moved to Long Island. Moving from both Queens and China, which were predominantly Asian populations, to Long Island where it was almost all white people, was a culture shock.
It pushed me outside of my comfort zone because I was used to interacting with people that looked like me and all of a sudden, I was interacting with people that didn’t. It must’ve been the same for them as they treated me differently probably because they didn’t see many Asian people in Long Island.
You try to adapt as best you can but in that setting, but you‘re automatically going to get whitewashed because this new means of being is seen as normal. As a kid, all you want to do is be able to fit in with your peers and I think a lot of Asian Americans have that struggle of growing up in and around your family in one setting, and then being in another surrounded by white people which you try to blend in with.
After a certain point when you go out into the real world, you have to unlearn a lot of that stuff and be proud of your identity, understand why it‘s unique and important to retain. I‘ve spoken to a lot of Asian Americans who have that exact same experience of unlearning and relearning to affirm your identity and this process kind of dictates who you are as a person.
Hung: I can definitely relate to the clash of two worlds. For me, it was almost like an internalized racism in a way where all of the heroes and role models I looked up to were not of the race that I was born of. There‘s such a conflict of values that you grow up with and it‘s really beautiful to hear that you‘re kind of embracing and reawakening to your story and heritage. We‘ll dig a little bit deeper,
but I‘m gonna pass it over to Jae.
Jae: That‘s actually kind of a trip Bowen, we have very similar stories. I was born in Korea and I came to the States with my family and we landed in Flushing, Queens in 1998. With my parents it was an immigrant story in the sense they were working a lot and weren’t really around that much so I was raised by my community. I didn‘t have a curfew, I was out to like 10 every night and just bopped around.
My family then moved out to Long Island too, we landed in Littleneck first and then we moved to the tip of Long Island. It was a similar story as I was surrounded by a bunch of white people and I was the only Asian there essentially other than a valedictorian and a group of foreign exchange kids from Cambodia. I was called chink, Bruce Lee, all the terms that you can think of.
My parents split up in middle school and then my dad moved me to Leonia in New Jersey which was probably the best decision that he‘s ever made just because we landed in such a liberal, artsy and diverse town. That‘s where I found my peers, where I found photography, the arts and music and started dabbling in all of that. I started going into the city at a young age, hung out with the older kids but was still going through the same situation where I was losing my identity while trying to fit in, growing up and not knowing who you really are.
I think that struggle stuck with me for a long time and when I went back to Korea for the first time, I spent six months there visiting family but I didn’t necessarily didn‘t fit in there either. I couldn‘t speak the language, I didn‘t have the same mannerisms and also my outward appearance and tattoos made me sort of an outcast. Even the place I was born in, didn‘t accept me. When I got back to New York, I got to meet more people like you with the same sort of story and I found my heroes and role models in them.
Hung: Yeah, it’s crazy how we all share similar stories. Growing up, I felt so isolated and I found that my being Asian was just like this point of difference. I was trying to assimilate and fit into other cultures, but always felt a bit removed.
Maybe Jae, if you could talk a little bit about growing up and fitting into diverse groups and relating it to your experiences and feeling at home in New York? A part of City tours is really about the additional character of the city where you’re from and how that comes out in your style and who you are. We want to show how Asian masculinity in New York is different from Asian masculinity in Tokyo or anywhere else around the globe. I feel like both of you have found a space where you can express yourself and be who you really are.
Jae: I think just being raised in New York, you’re surrounded by people who have a similar story, which is the immigrant story, and this is the one that’s most important for me personally. It doesn’t matter where you came from because we’re all sort of in the struggle together. I got to relate and find my peers in that realm.
For example, when I was initially asked to walk in the Willy Chavaria show, I felt like I didn’t fit in per se because the brand wasn’t necessarily for me, or for Asians, it was primarily for the Latino community. When I was in that space I questioned if I was taking the place of someone else that actually belonged there? I put my concerns out there and their response was that while Willy is about uplifting the Brown community, in tandem, it strives to uplift everyone that’s attached to it.
It carried this notion that the immigrant story and its encompassing diversity was more important than a singular demographic and that really stuck with me.
Hung: Amazing. You looked great and I love what Willy does, it’s very cool and inspires us. What about you Bowen?
Bowen: In New York, like a lot of major cities, it’s a melting pot where you can interact and meet all these different kinds of people, but it’s also very sectionalized right? If you go to Flushing, it’s mostly going to be Chinese people, there’s Indian neighborhoods, Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods, so there’s a lot of people that still only interact with people that look like themselves.
But on a daily basis, you can take a subway and see and maybe talk to people of all different kinds of backgrounds, and a lot of times, it’s a personal choice. What I love about living in New York especially doing what I do, I physically work in one space and people come to me. In a way, I’m forced to interact with all these people that I would never meet that have all these different stories and come from all over the globe.
It’s special to be in a position where part of my job is to interact with people and learn their stories. In regards to the question about Asian masculinity and what that means, you have to ask yourself why the term “Asian masculinity” exists in the first place? Like in many cultures, Asian men a lot of the time are expected to fend for their family. Therefore, they’re put into certain pockets, where they have to look a certain way, they have to have certain jobs and to make a certain amount of money.
In my experience with Asian masculinity, I used to have long hair that was dyed and whether I would go to a bodega or a club, someone would purposely misgender me or whatever it might be. It wasn’t really offensive getting misgendered, but specifically, I could tell that people were fucking with me.
They specifically were targeting me being like, oh, this, here’s this little Asian guy, I can say whatever I want to him and he’s not going to do anything to me. Of course that bothered me but over time, you realize that there’s something unmasculine about wanting to be masculine in a way.
If you’re so focused on looking a certain way or acting a certain way, in order for other people to perceive you as masculine, that somehow makes you not masculine. Masculinity to me and femininity as well, is really about competence, whatever that looks like to you.
I think everyone has that personal journey with their race and with their gender but not everyone is able to come to terms with it in a way that gets them to the other side, where they have the competence of showing up exactly how they want to.
It definitely took me many years to come to terms with that on a personal level. It also brings up the question of: how does the way we look dictate or determine how people categorize us? For example, Jae and I have these tattoos but these tattoos don’t determine who we are, they don’t create our identity, they’re just little doodles on our skin. For me at least, it was a way to affirm my appearance and a lot of people think I look dumb but I kind of like not caring about that. What’s nice about New York is that people look as crazy as they do here so no one really bats an eye.
You could be wearing whatever you want, look however you want and people don’t really bother you. That’s one of my favorite parts about living here, you can move through life and for the most part, do whatever you want to do.
Jae: You can be who you want here. To touch on your point about tattoos, initially my tattoo journey started because I simply thought they were cool and I wanted them. With time though. they became more of like a shield and a confidence boost that went along with more of a “fuck you” attitude.
If you don’t like me just because of my tattoos, I wouldn’t even want to interact with you anyway in the first place.
It created security for me that parallels living in New York because you can kind of feel invisible here, you’re not always getting stared at and having that sense of being is a great thing.