Mr. Louis, Seattle ©Sara Jane Boyers

Why do I photograph in the Chinatowns?


When I finally found Doyers Street, I scanned the buildings for Number 15.  Walking down an alley where the scent of freshly steamed char siu bao lingered in the air, I felt immediately that I had entered a world where all things were finally familiar.

(Pause)  An old woman bumped me with her shopping bag – screaming to her friend in Cantonese, though they walked no more than a few inches apart.  Another man – shouting to a vendor in Sze-Yup.  A youth, in white undershirt, perhaps a recent newcomer, bargaining with a grocer in Hokkien.  I walked through this ocean of dialects, breathing in the richness with deep gulps, exhilarated by the energy this symphony brought to my step.

David Henry Hwang, TRYING TO FIND CHINATOWN 1996

Hallway, New York City ©Sara Jane Boyers

David Henry Hwang, one of our foremost American playwrights, wrote these words in a short 1996 playlet.   Benjamin who speaks them is a Caucasian male, fresh off the bus from the mid-West.  He has asked directions to an address in Manhattan’s lower East Side Chinatown of Ronnie, a Chinese-American who is on the street with an electric guitar; a busker playing Hendrix.  The irony is that Benjamin, an adopted child of Chinese-American parents, is looking for his roots; the place where his father grew up.  Ronnie, rooted, is hoping to get as far from Chinatown as he possibly can.  Identity, characterization, Hwang seems to say, is not necessarily in appearance but in the heart.

Facade, Victoria, BC ©Sara Jane Boyers

Perhaps that is the story that has been revealing itself to me in my almost two-decade+ project photographing in the Chinatowns of the United States and Canada.  It is an American story for here on this large continent and in these two countries, has occurred a breathtaking tale of immigration and assimilation, interweaving and constantly redefining the concept of culture, history and identity.  With a multitude of avenues to explore, I have chosen one that fits for me.

Chu Building, Arkansas ©Sara Jane Boyers

I have been a photographer with a passion for the arts since my teens but my working life was directed elsewhere for decades.  Just after the beginning of this century, the Chinatowns project brought me back to my focus, professionally and personally.


Lunar New Year, Los Angeles ©Sara Jane Boyers

It started on an early morning in San Francisco’s North Beach, one block from Chinatown.  There to tour potential art schools for my son, we stayed in a legendary hotel near Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore where the echoes of the Beat poets still reverberate.  Early morning as always I was out with my camera.  The dramatic light and early activity of the Chinatown markets captivated me and prints from there still remain among my most significant.


Milk, Fresno ©Sara Jane Boyers

Returning home, I was soon exploring LA’s Chinatown where I had so often wandered with my parents on the days we traveled downtown for theater or visits to my father’s photo labs.  A multi-generational American with little specific ethnicity from an era when assimilation was key, I was brought up to embrace the breadth of American history as my culture and Los Angeles in its incredible diversity as my neighborhood.


Offering, Still LIfe, Los Angeles ©Sara Jane Boyers

Fifty+ Chinatowns later, this initial perspective remains in my work and my soul.  My latest: the Chu Building in Forrest City, Arkansas of which one side was a market that served both Chinese and Black clients during segregation and the other, a black cinema.  Standing by the railroad tracks, the Chu Building is now a state “historic site” and is presently seeking funding for preservation.


Dim Sum Express, Monterey Park ©Sara Jane Boyers

And while I must acknowledge that this history is not my specific story, at the same time it behooves us to understand that within this two+ century contribution to the ever-changing fabric of our North American countries does exist the American tale.  There certainly are other ethnic enclaves and portals into the American dream but if we look closely, we will discover that in each the narratives of family, culture, history and identity are stories that define us all.


At Incense Ceremony, Los Angeles ©Sara Jane Boyers

From a photographic perspective, within the Chinatowns I found the visual inspiration to document our history in the way I do best: focusing on the detail of the everyday in a manner that raises questions about those who pass through.  The work is intentionally ambiguous, neither geographic nor photojournalistic.


In The Bakery, San Francisco ©Sara Jane Boyers



Los Angeles-based Sara Jane Boyers returned to a fine art photography practice after successful careers in music & publishing. Her interest is the American story, searching for presence and social meaning in everyday perspectives that challenge common perception.

A print from her long-term project on her birth city, DETROIT:DEFINITION, was exhibited at the Venice Biennale/Architecture2016 and others were included in China’s 3rd International Exhibition of Industrial Photography2019 at Beizhen, Liaoning Province PRC. Other projects include FINDING CHINATOWN: AN AMERICAN STORY exploring the USA & Canadian Chinatowns; GRIDLOCK, photographs shot with her little Leica D-Lux while stuck in traffic; SACRED.SILENT.WAITING, a contemplation of light and empty space; and REVISIT_RENEW_NEW, a mid-century architectural exploration. Her most current project is THE GHOSTLIGHT PROJECT, a photographic essay on live performance venues, dark and at risk during and after the pandemic.

Her photographic work is exhibited, published in major media and collected internationally in public and private collections.

A published writer/editor, the 25th Anniversary Edition of Sara’s award-winning book, LIFE DOESN’T FRIGHTEN ME, pairing Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art with a 1978 Maya Angelou poem, was released by Abrams Books in 2018. Two other books for youth have been published and this year, a photographic book on THE GHOSTLIGHT PROJECT is presently in stores and online.

Boyers is concurrently working on literary and photographic projects.       @sarajaneboyersphoto

Further work can be seen on both my website,, as well as my partial archive:



Given the length of this project, images are captured both in film and digital process with cameras ranging from a Contax SLR 35mm, Contax 645 to. Canon’s 5D, and the little Leica D-Lux109.