How Chinatown’s Last Photo Shops Avoided Becoming a Relic of the Past

If the COVID-19 pandemic has been anything, it’s a waiting game – waiting for lockdowns to lift, cases to drop, and vaccines to become more widely available for all age groups.

For businesses, the wait – especially the wait for returning customers – has been excruciating because of the time and money they have sacrificed. But the owners who have lit their “Open” sign for decades see the health crisis as nothing more than the latest opportunity to evolve.

Raymond Hong and Henry Kee are the masters of the pivot. Hong, 62, and Kee, 85, own the last two portrait-focused photo studios in Chinatown: Rainbow Photography and Kee Photo. Their windows are a reminder of how much things have changed since they opened over 30 years ago: its hour-long photo service is still advertised on its awnings but it hasn’t offered that option since the mid-1990s.

“After the digital camera appeared, I stopped the service because the volume of orders is not enough,” Hong said. “The one-hour photo machine needs 30 rolls a day. Otherwise, the chemical goes bad. Every time I changed chemicals it cost me $100… The machine itself was $75,000.

Instead of getting caught up in the chaos of change, the pair turned their passion to shooting family and professional photos against plain and patterned backgrounds. And neither lens plans to ride its latest wave anytime soon.

“People will say, ‘You’re supposed to be retired,'” Kee said. “But I say if I retire I will stay at home. Why not stay here?

Photographer Henry Kee, 85, a photographer at his Kee Photo studio in Chinatown, with some of the many photos he has taken since starting the business in 1982. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Photographers face a challenge in the age of social media because so many people thought learning a few iPhone tricks meant they were suddenly an amateur photographer, Hong said.

“A long time ago there were no iPhones and I had (on picture day) students lining up, lined up outside the door, to have their picture taken. like this,” Kee explained.

Now Kee uses technology to his advantage. He taught himself how to use Photoshop images, move friends and chosen ones from one background to another, or add a whole new person to an existing photo – for example, moving a dead person into a photo of his relatives.

“If you have an iPhone, I can make an enlargement and I can print a photo here right now,” he said, inviting this journalist to sit next to him and explore his portfolio on his computer. Office.

A second challenge was a change in normal customer behavior. The demographic, made up mostly of Chinatown residents and clients who appreciate the skill of a credentialed cameraman to take their traditional headshots, no longer visits studios in Sacramento and Stockton for two reasons: inflation and the sickness.

“It’s really not easy to keep a photoshop (now). Fortunately, I have been here for a long time and try to do my best. I have my own clients,” Hong said. “After COVID-19, people have run out of money and prices have gone up on everything from gasoline to vegetables… But shopping in a small business is helping people keep their jobs. You should always remember that.

Rainbow Photography survived thanks to the help of the government and the understanding of the business owner. While Hong was unable to get a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, he was able to lobby for money from the state’s Employment Development Department.

Overall, Hong feels like everyone he interacted with did their best to support him as a small business owner as he prepared to reopen, a happy day that happened there. about 10 months old.

“This money has helped me a lot, and my landlord is so nice. I will be grateful to him all my life,” Hong said. “He reduced my rent by 50% and still gives me 25% off.”

Hong kept saying he was lucky. It’s his main message, the one that dominates his emotions as he gazes at Photoshop after Photoshop shuts down or is renovated into a one-stop-shop for most trinkets and toys.

“We really have the best Chinatown in all of the United States, but now I see it suffering more and more,” he said. “If you go down to Grant Avenue, a tourist spot, you can walk down and see the old buildings and they’ve all closed.”

Hong may be seasoned, but he’s not superhuman. He works as hard as he can to preserve Chinatown as he knows it.

“I’m sad and scared,” he said of the closures, closing his eyes and then turning to grab a pamphlet from San Francisco’s Chinatown Merchants United Association. “Our association started making these cards for tourists and you hope they come back.”

Kee channels her concern into community involvement. He has served the community he has been photographing since the 1980s by contributing his knowledge to organizations such as the California Chinese American Republican Association, an organization he chaired for years. This is how he preserves Chinatown.

As he watches the neighborhood change, Kee documents his accomplishments, such as the Miss China USA pageant. Copies of his own art, signed by the contestants, line the walls of his studio.

It is a contribution that has been noticed by such prestigious personalities as senior American officials. Kee has met, posed with, and photographed George Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Arnold Schwartzenegger, and Fiona Ma. He has made a career out of what he calls a “hobby.”

“Yeah, I went to the White House,” he said casually, but then took pictures he’d rather talk about: pictures of himself, the late Mayor “Eddie” Lee and his wife, Anita.

[email protected], @_melissahartman

Photographer Henry Kee shakes hands with Hillary Clinton, one of the many famous people he has met and photographed over the years.  (Courtesy of Henry Kee)

Photographer Henry Kee shakes hands with Hillary Clinton, one of the many famous people he has met and photographed over the years. (Courtesy of Henry Kee)

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