2020 Portfolio Prize Winner - Jessica Chou
A short distance east of Los Angeles sits the San Gabriel Valley, a cluster of majority Asian suburbs that is home to a large immigrant community. Monterey Park, located in the San Gabriel Valley, was the first city in the United States to reach a majority Asian-descent population, and it is where photographer Jessica Chou grew up.
In her series Suburban Chinatown, Chou tackles the notion of the suburban landscape and how immigrant communities fit into that narrative. Inspired by the work of Stephen Shore and Larry Sultan, Chou approaches Monterey Park with an urgency to document a space she’s called home for most of her life. Chou describes growing up in Monterey Park as living in a bubble, aware that her childhood experiences were drastically different from what she read in novels or watched on TV, which was often an idealized white suburbia.
Chou explores the importance of recontextualizing suburban ideals and the American dream in today’s social landscape. Her title, Suburban Chinatown, is a nod to how society typically thinks about Asian immigrant communities in America: what often comes to mind is a space like Chinatown. “Chinatown has this timeless, exotic foreignness and otherness that often mimics what people want to see,” notes Chou. The San Gabriel Valley, and specifically Monterey Park, offers a different entry point into American life for Asian immigrants.
Chou’s photographs capture subtle moments of intertwined Asian and American identities in Monterey Park. They often showcase the subtlety of Asian culture in Southern California in small details, like Chinese characters on the side of the building or hymns sung in Chinese during a church service. A photograph of a cactus—a symbol of the desert and the Southern California landscape—graffitied with both English and Chinese writing, symbolizes an immigrant community carving its mark on American identity. Chou’s work is a gentle reminder that not all suburban spaces look the same, nor are they occupied by the same type of people. “There are many interpretations of the American dream,” she says. “And I hope this work updates both the immigrant and suburban story.”
—Emily Stewart, manager of education and engagement programs
Jessica Chou was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, in the suburbs of Los Angeles. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a degree in history with an emphasis on the Middle East. In her photographic work, Chou is interested in chronicling contemporary events that are shaping conversations around how we understand ourselves. She regularly contributes to publications such as the New York Times, California Sunday Magazine, and Bloomberg Businessweek, among others. Chou’s work can also be found in the permanent collection of the Tweed Museum of Art, Duluth, Minnesota. She currently lives and works between Los Angeles and San Francisco.