S.F. Chinatown Through Maury's Eyes


Maurice Edelstein still remembers when he was “the only non-Asian” on his high school basketball team. A San Francisco native, the veteran photographer has forayed into the city’s various neighborhoods – camera in hand – for almost half a century. San Francisco’s Chinatown remains a favorite haunt for Edelstein, who has witnessed and documented the changes in the community and its urban backdrop over several generations.
Edelstein’s Images of Chinatown: Four Decades of Photography inaugurated the Chinese Culture Center's latest exhibition series, Episode, on Sunday, January 13. The solo exhibition of street photography paints a portrait of Chinatown and its inhabitants in saturated color and dramatic contrast. 
“Maurice is a dear friend to the Chinatown community,” said Jenny Leung, a program associate at the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco. A familiar figure among Chinatown’s denizens, Edelstein’s constant presence over the years and knack for seeing the district behind the tourist-oriented façade suggests that he holds a measure of privileged access. The roots of his enduring interest in Chinatown relate to the immigrant heritage of his own family (which traces its ancestry to Eastern Europe) to the struggles that have defined the lives of many in Chinatown’s community.
Many of the exhibition’s other photographs demonstrate a similar attentiveness to the bric-a-brac of everyday life in Chinatown. Newspapers, grocery bags, and political graffiti animate the neighborhood that Edelstein calls “Hong Kong West”. Scenes of repose and waiting accompany those depicting individuals at work or on domestic errands. His street photography technique of “shooting from the hip” surreptitiously captures glances, head-on stares, and unaffected expressions. 
Edelstein does not shy away from the privations afflicting the lower strata of Chinatown society. A particularly sober observation of one of Chinatown’s archetypes recurs among the many characters he captures: the destitute elderly woman picking through the recycling, occasionally accompanied by an infant slung on her back in a cloth carrier.
The Chinese Culture Center has exhibited photographs by Edelstein before and his work is part of the Chinese Historical Society’s permanent collection. Eschewing romanticization and challenging the clichés associated with San Francisco’s Chinatown, his photography represents something of an honest cultural memory of the ethnic enclave.
Edelstein’s prolific output and his frank, incisive perspective are epitomized in two collages of smaller prints on display. With numerous scenes of children playing hopscotch, exuberant Chinese New Year festivities, and elderly men on red benches sparring over checkerboards, Edelstein seems to have assembled a family album.
The Chinese Cultural Center’s exhibition, Images of Chinatown: Four Decades of Photography by Maurice Edelstein, ends February 2.
Reported by Nicholas Seow