Chinatown is Empty – Shot by Yameen on Lomography and Ferrania Film

Chinatown is Empty – Shot by Yameen on Lomography and Ferrania Film

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Nestled in San Francisco’s downtown, Chinatown is one of the oldest parts of the city. Encompassing a distinctive twenty-four square blocks, it’s typically filled with the hustle-and-bustle mix of local residents, office workers hunting for a meal or libation, and tourists wandering about marveling at all of the sights, sounds, and shops. All types of automobiles pack its modest one-way streets: city buses, delivery trucks, Ubers and Lyfts more recently. Or so it was before Covid.

For the first year of the pandemic, I avoided traveling to San Francisco’s busy downtown; the last place I wanted to be was among a lot of people. But in March of 2021 with a national vaccine rollout just around the corner and a daily routine of face-masks and precaution, I felt safe enough to pack my cameras and head downtown. And frankly, it was about damn time: I missed this massive part of San Francisco that I had been abstaining from visiting. Somewhat shockingly as a photographer, I’d never taken pictures of Chinatown in any meaningful way before, so I was excited and inspired to finally return. But when I arrived, I found that Chinatown had changed in a mid-pandemic world: It was eerily vacant.

Reduced foot traffic due to stay-at-home orders and high rents forced many storefronts to shut-down; hopefully only temporarily, but possibly forever. I was saddened to see so many shops closed, gated, or boarded up. The downturn is tragic by any account, but I find a selfish silver lining: Seeing Chinatown so oddly barren, with only its native residents going about their normal routines, was cathartic. This is Chinatown in a new light, stripped of outsiders (well, myself excluded) and distilled to an everyday “normal” that I’d never experienced before. Even the historically busy open markets of Stockton Street were sparsely populated.

I unpacked my cameras.

Gear-wise, I was well-covered: I brought my trusty Mamiya 7 with a fairly new (at the time) 50mm lens to explore. The wide angle proved beneficial in hindsight, as it allowed me to capture much of the space above Chinatown, such as buildings that stretch high, as well as icons of the San Francisco skyline like the pointed Transamerica Pyramid. For more intimate street-style photography I brought my Nikon L35AF point-and-shoot, a camera I cherish for its on-the-draw autofocus and quality optics. I shot exclusively on color Lomography film (100 ISO for the Nikon, 400 for the Mamiya), with the exception of a single roll of Ferrania P30 black and white that I eagerly loaded into the 35mm camera as soon as I arrived.

Even though I’m a San Francisco resident, I feel comfortably out of place in Chinatown. No one paid me any mind as I began to take pictures. A man sat and read his newspaper on a park bench, never once lifting his head even as I crouched in front of him to compose a shot. Patrons ordered breakfast pastries, either oblivious to my presence or too carefree to acknowledge it. Elsewhere in a public square, students practiced in an ornately-decorated lion costume as I, the only “tourist” present, snapped away, delighted to watch my own personal show. My apparent invisibility allowed me to take the extra time to be more precise with my focusing. I could disregard my typical zone focus approach to street photography and ensure I properly lined up my rangefinder patch.

For what few pockets of people I encountered during my late morning in Chinatown, each scene was full of life and energy. After a year’s worth of pandemic-induced seclusion, re-experiencing Chinatown and embedding myself among its enduring community, safely and with a mask, was exactly what I needed. I found inspiration in shooting Chinatown once again, for the first time.


Our guest posts are submitted by amazing photographers and writers all over the world.

Today’s Guest Post was submitted by…

Yameen, a photographer and sifter in the land of fun. Based in San Francisco, California, he is always looking to capture the beautiful, the gritty, the absurd and the unexpected. See Yameen’s portfolio on their website here, and on Instagram here.

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Guest Author

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6 comments
  • You have succeeded catching “emptiness”.
    Your images have great colours.

  • In this article’s comments earlier today, Eric voiced some concerns about potentially controversial views on China and their place in the global community, while commenter Yuze mentioned that these sorts of comments are distracting and unnecessary. Both commenters were polite and kind, but I’ve removed those parts of their comments which were not related to the article itself here.

    I can’t do anything about Eric’s concerns, as I’m not a world leader, but I can help Yuze and remind everyone (with respect) that we should try to keep comments here on topic and friendly, as they are nearly 100% of the time here.

    I thank you, Eric and Yuze both, for visiting and for your comments which are always thoughtful and expressive!

  • Having lived in the City between 1988-98 I am quite familiar with Chinatown and actually have pictures dating back to the late 70s somewhere. The place was always crowded during the day time but usually I was not there during the day more than a dozen times in 23 years. I saw Chinatown more at late night when, after being out with friends, we would go to Chinatown around midnight or so to get something to eat in one of the hole in the wall restaurants. My friends, being Chinese, knew just where to go and if you want to see Chinatown really empty then see it at 3:00 AM in the morning back then.

  • These images show a Chinatown in a good way.
    There are many stories there and all over the world.
    To understand the truth and tradition of these stories, success, and so on, I check every day the cultural contents and others reviews from an excellent newspaper on line : The Epoch Times, for example one great article “A Portal Into an Ever-Present Spiritual Realm: Chin Lin Nunnery and the Nian Lin Garden”
    Ahhh 😉 this is not an empty media, and the pictures are good.

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Guest Author

In addition to our staff writers, we accept articles from passionate and knowledgeable photo people. If you have an article idea that you'd like to publish on Casual Photophile, please submit it to our email address for articles - [email protected]

All stories by:Guest Author