Stranger 09/100 – Mars

I photographed my ninth stranger in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

It was a morning of déjà vu. Like the day before, I slipped out of my hotel room while my wife slept and walked a few blocks to the heart of Chinatown in hopes of finding my next stranger.

Sunday had been a dud. Now, as the city awoke to start the work week, I again found myself strolling down Grant Avenue, racking up rejections. First was an elderly man in a faded green dress shirt, shuffling his way up a hilly side street. He smiled when I caught up, bespectacled eyes magnified and bulging, but quickly shook his head ‘no.’ Next was a stooped woman with white hair and one eye clouded by a cataract. She scurried away the moment I started to speak. I asked a young man with her to translate, but it did no good. “Old people stubborn,” he said.

It went on like this. Eventually I was leaning against a street lamp, thinking about breakfast, when a Chinese voice piped up, “You won’t find your strangers here.” It was the man in the green shirt. He spoke English well, and I was embarrassed for having assumed he simply hadn’t understood me earlier. I told him that many people are surprisingly open to being photographed. “Not in Chinatown,” he said. I asked if it was a matter of culture. “Language,” he said. “No one understands you.” I smiled. “You understand me.” He laughed, wished me luck, and walked on.

I decided to heed the man’s advice and began heading back to my hotel. That’s when I saw Mars. I liked his flannel and the cut of his hair, so I crossed the street. Mars told me he was 21, that he had moved to San Francisco from China seven years ago, and that he was on his way to the restaurant where he works. As we talked, I sensed a mild sadness about Mars, which made think of a mural I had seen a few blocks away. So that’s where we went to make his portrait.

The year 1889 is painted in the upper corner of the mural. Curious, I had done some research on my phone the day before and learned it depicts the years following passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a dark era for the city’s immigrant enclave. The sullen Chinese men smoking in the mural represent the uneducated workers who migrated en masse during California’s Gold Rush, many of whom were later left without wives or families due to restrictive immigration policies. This brief history made me wonder about the Chinatown of today’s San Francisco, which is apparently home to the largest concentration of Chinese outside of Asia.

None of this of course had anything to do with Mars, but I hoped it would make for an interesting background. Mars gave me a rather flat expression for several frames, and I considered trying to coax some emotion from him. But his look seemed to match the mood of the mural behind him, and I decided to leave it at that.