an unlikely photojournalist
EMILE BOCIAN IN CHINATOWN
In 1972, the Pagoda Theater in Chinatown hired midtown press agent Emile Bocian (1912-1990) to run a publicity campaign for the U.S. premiere of the Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury. This chance encounter began Bocian’s nearly two-decade long relationship with the community that lasted the remainder of his life. He spent his time in Chinatown as a resident of the iconic Confucius Plaza apartment complex, where he was rumored to have turned his bathroom into a dark room.
With a knack for self-promotion, Bocian became a photojournalist for The China Post, a Chinese-language daily. He photographed protests, celebrations, and crime scenes, as well as storefronts and streetscapes that provide a glimpse into a vanishing New York. These images, exhibited for the first time, also featured local luminaries and Chinatown visitors as far-flung as Cardinal Cooke, Muhammad Ali, and Big Bird.
Born in New York to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Bocian never learned Chinese, though he was a self-proclaimed “expert on Chinatown.” In order to explain his interest in the community and alleviate skepticism, he created a fictional backstory in which he claimed to have been born in Kaifeng (the oldest Jewish community in China).
During his time in Chinatown, Bocian befriended Chinese-American actress Mae Wong. She would rescue over 120,000 photographs, negatives, and contact sheets from his apartment after his death in 1990, donating them to the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in the mid-1990s.