Introducing the NY City Tour:
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.
Hung: Wow, I mean this is gold, guys. I wanted to segue into the topic of role models. Were there people that you looked up to and felt represented by growing up and is it different today?
Bowen: I grew up in the 90s and there’s more Asian-American representation now but there’s still not that much of it in film or TV. I remember the first time where I was watching something and I was like, I want to be like that, was in Rush Hour. I’m not referring to Jackie Chan even but there was this character, Jintao, and he was this villainous type character. He had a scar, similar hair to mine and he was masculine in the sense that he was an Asian person doing something bad. Even Jackie Chan, who's good at fighting, a “masculine” trait still ultimately plays goofy characters. It was interesting to see a serious character in an American movie who was an Asian male that looked honestly cool. I just remember seeing that and it opened my eyes to the fact that there is a possibility that I don't really necessarily have to follow the cookie cutter things that your Asian parents want you to do, I could look how I wanted to look and maybe do what I wanted to do. It still took me many years to have the confidence to go for that kind of thing but that was the first instance where I remember something changing my perception.
Hung: How did that feel for you to feel represented?
Bowen: You know it's interesting because even in all these 90s American films that had Asian male leads, they’re almost never romanticized in a way. For example, Jet Li in Romeo Must Die, his counterpart was Aaliyah but there's never a romantic aspect to their interaction because Asian males are emasculated in the opposite way that Asian women are fetishized. It’s not that we should be sexualized as that’s not necessarily the solve of that but I think there is something where even now, when you talk about a movie like Crazy Rich Asians, a film that features Asian American actors, it'd be great to get to a point where you have a film with a lot of Asian-American leads and it's just another movie, it's not treated like a specifically Asian-American focused film; because that's almost like saying, the stories that are allowed as traditional American film aren’t for Asian-Americans and we’re treated like the outsiders. Even though I grew up in this country and I lived in this country, I might not be treated as a person from America in the same way. I think the goal is always going to be, how do we take something that feels outside to a lot of people and normalize it? How can we have an Asian villain in a film and see him treated the same way as any other villain in that film would have been treated? To see that would be comforting.
Hung: Yeah I mean, I guess the goal is always to be treated as equals and not to be seen as different. I think the challenge when you're the minority is that you’re always getting the short end of the stick and it's always a push and pull. If we were all equal, then we wouldn't have to talk about being Asian, right? But unfortunately, today's not all equal. Jae, maybe if you want to chime in on role models, identity and representation?
Jae: Yeah I never really had a specific role model in media but just being raised by my single father, he was definitely a huge role model for me. He was probably the strongest male I've ever known in my life, he was always telling me that one day I would know how hard it is, one day I would know. The older I get I realize what it’s like to hustle and he worked his ass off, he's 65 and says he’s got another 20 years left at work, he's never going to retire and is just gonna constantly just keep doing his thing. At a young age, I also looked up more so to artists and photographers like Dash Snow, or Ryan McGinley, and just that whole scene of people who were just free-living, that lifestyle was something that I admired. I knew that I wouldn’t see my story in mainstream media and there was not going to be any representation for people like me and I just said, fuck it, I'm just gonna keep doing what I'm doing. Hopefully, something kind of catches on and projects like this are making and paving the way.
Hung: Do you remember consciously thinking that you weren't represented? Or was it more of a general understanding that that wasn’t gonna happen?
Jae: Yeah you know, obviously like Bobby Lee paved the way for a lot of comedians in the Asian community but he was leaning into the stereotype, right? Also people like Jackie Chan, I didn't see any of myself in them; and that happened at such a young age – where I decided that I was just going to make my own lane for myself.
Hung: That's super interesting because when we don’t identify with the images that we're given, we're gonna search for what we really feel like hits home and resonates with us. For me, there just needs to be more stories. I don't like to separate races and I don't like to harp on this fact but in just seeing similar images to myself nowadays, or meeting you guys, it makes me realize that this kind of representation is so meaningful, it makes you feel like you belong to something. Being a kid and feeling that kind of aspiration or resonance is such a powerful source of motivation especially through your teenage years. When I see two people like you guys that are strong, intelligent, sexy, Asian men, that can stand up and be role models, I think it's so important to have that image put forward.
Jae: I totally agree. I really admire and respect what you’re doing. Even being included in this conversation makes me realize that we do need representation but what I gleaned from being raised in New York specifically was that I was blessed to be able to learn from different cultures that I saw fitting for me. I love being able to fully feel like I fit into these different cultures. When you think about the motorcycle, chopper scene, it’s fully white but being able to just sit down and have a conversation with people that happen to just ride a Harley Davidson and to feel like I fit in, has been a personal journey of mine. If I approach situations with confidence and with love that's what I'm gonna get back. I wish I had people like you guys to look up to in my teenage years because then I wouldn't have had to go through this long journey with periods of self-hatred, but through all that I was able to build confidence in the way I move. I created that for myself because I didn't have anyone to look up to to help me navigate.
Hung: What I heard from that was a lot about connection, being at home and at peace with your identity. We all go through that long struggle to get there but once we get there – to feel good in your own skin and to understand where you've come from, and why – there’s nothing like that. Did you want to chime in on any of that Bowen?
Bowen: Yeah going off of what Jae said, there's something to be said when you spend so much time trying to prove people wrong. When I opened my first bar, there was no one that I knew in my area that was an Asian-American bar owner and when we started to throw parties, people would come in and they would start questioning me, where I came from and what my intentions were. In my head, the first thing I would think was that if I was a 55 year old white guy, they wouldn’t be asking those same questions. In the very beginning, I would hear that kind of thing all the time and over time, you kind of prove yourself. It's kind of shitty to have to prove yourself just because you don't fit into that specific mold but as Jae said, it kind of makes you stronger because you had to go through those things, you had to build that confidence in the face of thinking that I'm probably not supposed to be here, doing this exact thing as, but I am. The fact that you’re there anyway helps you get to the point of being able to overcome anything that people throw your way.
Hung: I wanted to jump into tattoos and tattoo culture. I know it's probably been a long journey for both of you but can you speak to that and how that kind of evolved? Jae, you were talking about it as an armor but how do you see your skin as a canvas and how do you express yourself through that language?
Jae: This might sound a little corny but it took me 29 years to fully get to the point of looking in the mirror and feeling like, this is me. Luckily I was blessed enough that when I was trying to be a tattoo artist years back, I was mentored under Leaf, who is Chinese and raised in Israel. He had a similar story and I became his apprentice. I looked up to him and could see myself in him for more than one reason and that's sort of where it started. We had mutual friends within the community who tattooed as well so there was this connection that came with getting tattooed and is why I have them. I could go out and get tattooed by anyone, but I chose specifically to get tattooed by these people because it's such an intimate thing as we shared this bond. You look at these images of Japanese body suits and I thought that was rad but I wanted to be able to mix different cultural references that are reflective of the different connections that I have.
Hung: Yeah it’s a visual depiction of this kind of multiculturalism, you’re taking bits from everywhere and then patching it together to make yourself whole. What about you Bowen?
Bowen: I was living in LA at the time when I started getting tattoos, I was influenced by the nightlife and DJ culture there. The style that I have is called “patchwork tattoos” and for me, it was a way to memorialize all these different things that happened to me in my life that were important to me. But beyond that, I think a lot of people start because they want to look a little unique, right? And then the racialized aspect of that is like when people say that all Asians look the same, right? So when you're clobbered over the head with that, at a certain age, all you want to do is look a little bit different. I started getting tattoos when I was 18 and right after I graduated college, I was working in corporate America and I was probably the only person on my team who had tattoos. I would try to hide them most of the time but then I remember the first time that I started showing them, people were actually cool with it, they weren’t judging me and thought it added another dimension to me. Over time, I started getting more tattoos and in a way, it was a way to give myself freedom. For me, the more tattoos I had, the less likely it was that I would work an office job for the rest of my life. As soon as I started getting neck tattoos, hand tattoos, and especially face tattoos, I was like now, no matter what, I'm never going to work in an office ever again for the rest of my life and that's what I wanted for myself. The journey shifted from me wanting to look unique, to me just wanting to look the way that I wanted to look.
It's funny, when a tattoo artist posts a photo of you, in the comments, people are saying nice things but then I’ll always see a few comments in which people are talking shit about the way I look and my selection of tattoos. I just think it’s so funny because I can't imagine criticizing the way another person looks but obviously, there are a lot of people out there that do that kind of thing. I love reading those comments because the fact that it doesn't really bother me makes me feel good about my decisions in the way that I look. I'm at a point where my goal in life is to never work for another person ever. Having these tattoos in the places that they are, people will think I only do a certain thing and might not want to hire me but I don't want to work for them anyway so it works out.
Hung: It sounds like you bet on yourself and chose to take your own path but you took it one step further in that most people just commit to a life, but you tatted yourself up so that no one else would hire you.
Jae: It was kind of like a no Plan B situation, right? When I got my neck done, I really remember telling Leaf, fuck it, like, let's do it. This is it, there's no going back from here. Obviously, as dramatic as that may sound, it was reflective of the fact that this is the lifestyle that I chose, this is who I am, and this is how I'm going to live my life. I'm with you on that Bowen.
Hung: I wanted to create a little bit of space to hear more about what you guys are working on in terms of upcoming projects.
Jae: For the past five years, I've been doing this cross country trip on my bike where I document through photos what I’ve seen. That’s sort of been the only reason why I go to work, so I can save up for this trip and fuck off for a couple months. I'm not your typical motorcycle dude, I’m not what you think of when you think of someone riding their chopper across the country, so this project is trying to capture how America sees me but also how I see America.
Bowen: Currently, I’m running two clubs in Brooklyn. We just released a book, an astrology cocktail book, which took a couple to come out. We’re also curating a few events and an installation at this museum called Fotografika. I'm taking on new things that weren't really offered to me in the past, like this project even, but it's so great to be challenged in a new way. I've never modeled for a brand or anything like that, or had conversations with a brand, so I'm saying “yes” to as many things that I can right now.
Working in nightlife to me is a young person's game. It wears down on your body and wears on you mentally. I've been working my job and had my life threatened many times, I've been shoved, I've been punched and I could run through the whole gamut of things that most people don't want to happen to them so I think there's a limited amount of time to do what I do now. Thinking long term, I like having the freedom of knowing that once my club shuts down, I'm gonna take a few years off, travel a lot and then, I would love to invent something. That's the one thing on my career bucket list that I want to do in my life. The greatest joy over the last couple years has been to have the freedom to now think that so many things are possible; even having that thought is really rewarding.
Hung: I can’t wait to see what that invention is. In both of you talking about Asian masculinity and the lack of representation of stronger Asian men, when you see our clothes, what speaks to you? I'm always curious to hear what people are really into to feed my design process and to see things evolve.
Bowen: In the first images that I saw and the way it was stylized, it reminded me of 90s yakuza imagery and I think it hasn't been done in a more Asian-American or more international scope that normalizes them in a way that simply allows them to exist. Yes, they dress in this way and look this way but that doesn't necessarily mean they're gangsters or assume specific roles in their life. I knew one of the models in the initial Campaign imagery shot by Jimi Franklin and in real life, he’s just normal guy. However, to see him stylized and shown in that way, made me feel like we can actually be cool in a way that is specific to us. We don't have to cater to other people's cultures, this is just how we are and what we look like and that in itself, is cool – so being able to see that in imagery for the first time was nice.
Jae: Yeah, on the same tip, when I saw where all the inspiration came from and the mood board, I thought it was so rad just because I thought, finally, it’s gonna get done right. Personally, just me wearing the clothes and seeing the photos, I felt sexy but in my way. When I was watching Bowen model the clothes and every fit that he had on too, everything just looks sexy and strong. Just the confidence I saw, I felt like that radiated from the clothes and I'm stoked to even be a part of it.
Hung: Thanks Guys! These thing are what feed me today, these conversations and connecting with other creatives refies the fact that there's so much strength in Asian history. It's not to say that we're the only minority that needs to have a voice, but I feel like our voice needs to be amplified throughout time because we've been sublimated and made out to be the model minority. It's time for us to take our place and to take that space that has never been available to us before. We’re gonna take this around the globe and I wanted to meet more people like you to inform the authenticity of the design process and to make sure that the stories are being told.
I wanted to circle back to one of the words that Bowen used, “competence,” because what’s also special about City Tours is being able to create space for these very conversations. I think when we think about masculinity and in tandem, competence, there’s this aspect of vulnerability to it. Being a guy, I feel like sometimes we’re not thinking about all the things we talked about, let alone talking to others about it. Do you guys talk about this kind of stuff with your communities? Do you feel like there's a space to do?
For me, I don't have these talks very often. It mostly happens in a space that has been created specifically to do so, like in this BIPOC meditation group that I’m in. When there’s specifically this intention or space, it allows people to connect because there is this shared history and certain things come out in different ways. For me, that's representation, that's why I do what I do, so that I can connect with other people.
Bowen: I think we’ve all had to deal with our share of racism and it could even be like a microaggression of people asking you where you're from and really, what they mean is, where are your parents from? Or where are your grandparents from? Because we still seem like outsiders no matter where we are.
This isn't necessarily a conversation I have with my friends, I have a lot of Asian American friends, but it's not something we talk about because it's maybe become normalized in our daily lives. We're just like, this is just how things are and is talking about it going to change anything? Probably not. Is it our role to educate people that are treating us a certain way? Again, probably not. I think it would take up too much of your life, too much of your day, too much of your mental stability to be going around and telling people, hey, you shouldn't talk like that. I think it's an important conversation to have and again, a lot of times, we just become so numb to our experience of these things that we don't really take time to reflect and admit that something was really problematic or hurtful. All my other Asian friends might mention a snippet of their experiences they have with people but then we just move on. I don't know if there's a solution for that.
Jae: But I think what we're doing here, all together, collectively, is sort of educating people. Not us, forcing or feeding, but it’s just us doing what we're doing in our own way. It’s sort of educating the community and saying, hey, this is what an Asian man is and it’s taking all of the right steps towards pushing that conversation.
Bowen: Yeah I think the other side of that is when people see that we're Asian and we're doing things that are not typically Asian, highlights us to a lot of people. There’s a positive side of that as well.
Jae: Yeah I stopped caring so much and I just keep moving forward, keep just keep doing what I'm doing and loving the people around me and my peers. I think we’re gonna get there eventually as long as we just do it the right way but who knows what the right way is?
Hung: These kinds of steps feel positive to me – just the fact that we're here together talking about these things is, like you were saying Jae, a step in the right direction. It’s getting better but I feel like there's still a lot of space for us to own, I’m really so grateful.