Mr. and Mrs. Chow, Baldwin, Long Island, 1981.
When I shared this photo in 2018 with my collegue, the oral historian Yuet-fung Ho, she reminded me of their story. Yuet and I went to the Chow's home to interview and photograph them. 37 years had passed. Memories had faded, but Yuet remembered them vividly:
Mr. Chow was a very lively, articulate man. He was an old hand laundry worker, and he really hated his work. He was bitter about his experience in this country because he left his wife (in China) and didn't see her for 30-something years. Eventually he was able to apply for his wife to come meet him. When they finally met, they didn't recognize each other. It was a bitter life, but he did come to terms with it. He was always very good to his wife. For them, everyday together was such a precious thing.
As Yuet retold their story she finished by saying the worst thing that happened to Mr. Chow was that he outlived his wife. He was devoted to her and did not want to live any more without her.
From that moment, I couldn't get their story out of my thoughts. I kept thinking about the Chows, their long separation and Mr. Chow's lifetime of work that he hated. Their personal story is emblematic of the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its consequences in the lives of countless Chinese Americans.
For me, the photograph expresses Mr. and Mrs. Chow's triumph over the injustice of Exclusion. Mrs. Chow is steadfast and present, anchored to the table, looking directly at the camera. Her body language says, "I am here." The weight and gentleness of Mr. Chow's hand, his embrace, and his fixed gaze upon her hold her to him. They are inseparable. They become one.