In their 350-square-foot apartment in 2003 on Ludlow Street in Lower Manhattan, the Lam family pulled up a sixth chair to their dinner table. Their guest was Thomas Holton, a photographer who wanted to document Chinatown’s families behind closed doors. After several failed attempts to find people willing to participate, Holton stumbled upon the Lams. He explains he was initially drawn to their unique living space: three beds pushed together to accommodate their one bedroom, with plastic hangers decorating exposed pipes. Throughout his frequent visits to the family’s home, his photographic approach changed. Eventually, Holton—whose mother is Chinese and father was American—became as much of a fixture in the Lams’ home as the bathtub by the kitchen sink.
Fourteen years later, the family is immortalized in Holton’s project The Lams of Ludlow Street.
Roads and Kingdoms: Tell me about the first time you met the Lams. What was it about them that piqued your interest?
Thomas Holton: I was photographing regularly on the streets of New York City in Chinatown. After getting frustrated from just being on the streets, scratching the surface, I reached out to a housing advocate. Once a week they would walk from one apartment to the next and make sure the families’ issues have been resolved or were being addressed. I went with them and met about a dozen individual families. The times I was there, it was kind of awkward since I was a stranger that would only be there for 20 minutes taking pictures. When I went back to give the families their photos, some people wouldn’t open the door. Others would open the door, I would try to ask in my broken Chinese if I can take more pictures and they would decline or close the door in my face. Then there were the Lams. What made them special was their openness and willingness to let me into their lives. So really, they picked me. When I went back to give them copies of the photographs, Shirley Lam welcomed me in. Then she invited me back the week after and asked me to stay for dinner that same day. The kids were also young at the time so I was also entertainment.