Memories of Mike Wang – Stories from those who knew him

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They’d ask me why the people in my photos weren’t smiling.  I’d tell them it’s ‘cause they’re not happy.  I just got the picture.

–  Mike Wang; on colleagues’ responses to some of his documentary photography work

When he died July 28, my husband Michael Wang left a family who loved him fiercely and two young children who are a joy to be with. He left behind a body of work that is inspiring, beautiful and useful. And he left a circle of friends around the world.
Michael was born October 23, 1966 in Gaoshung, Taiwan. His family moved to the US when he was nine, eventually settling in Queens, New York, where he had a rough-and-tumble childhood. His mother worked with the Department of Labor, uncovering illegal sweatshops in Chinatown. When she disappeared it was suspected that the powerful Chinese tongs were responsible for her demise. Michael’s father could not bear to stay in New York after that. Michael,  only seventeen years old and recovering from two collapsed lungs, was left to fend for himself. He finished high school at the prestigious Brooklyn Tech while working as a doorman at Danceteria. He took photography classes at Queensboro Community College and finished his photo training as a lab assistant at the Parsons School of Design. From there he began to travel, working as a commercial photographer in Taiwan, a photographic printer in Manhattan, at a bookstore in Prague and as a dishwasher in Minneapolis.

From there he began to travel, working as a commercial photographer in Taiwan, a photographic printer in Manhattan, at a bookstore in Prague and as a dishwasher in Minneapolis.
Michael loved documentary photography, especially portraits. He took photos in Tienanmen Square, but had his camera and negatives confiscated by the police, who arrested him and took him to the police station on the back of a bicycle (Michael thought this was a hilarious story). Eventually he took at job at PATH, a Seattle global health non-profit, where he documented ongoing projects in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Kenya, and the Chech Republic. Everywhere he went, from a juvenile detention facility to a rural clinic, he made fast and close friends. His portraits are intimate, humane and profoundly respectful of the human condition. I encourage anyone seeking inspiration to look at them [http://www.lightstalkers.org/galleries/slideshow/15435] to see the world how Michael saw it. Whenever he took a portrait he offered the subject a Polaroid print, which people really loved. He did more than simply take photos: he used his art to transform people’s lives for the better.  He donated photos to the Rainforest Foundation, he sold pictures to raise funds to buy mattresses & blankets for impoverished children, he volunteered to teach kids photography and to make their own pin-hole cameras out of cardboard boxes.
Michael and I  met in New York in 1992. We were married in 1998, moved to Shoreline, Washington and had two children, Walter and Sylvie. He made friends in Seattle non-profits, in the youth basketball community, the cycling world, at the Photographic Center Northwest, at his children’s schools and in his neighborhood. He was known for his black sense of humor and for the tender heart it protected: an affectionate cynic. He was a man you could count on to tell the truth and to make you laugh about it. He was a close and loving father, a devoted husband, a friend with a ready hand to help, and a man who was eager to be interested in anything and anyone. We do not know what we will do without him.
When I met Michael I was overwhelmed by the sadness of his background. But in the past few years he became well-placed in the world: generous and light-hearted. Meaningful work, marriage and a close-knit family agreed with him. His last year was the happiest I’ve ever seen him, so it is particularly cruel that this is when life was snatched from him. He was the one who helped me make sense of the world, my comfort and my true companion.

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A memory- one of many: At family parties Mike was the one who took the kids aside for some special fun of their own.  Or, at the cabin when the kids were getting in everyones’ hair, it was Mike who took them to town for pizza.  Once, when the adults were taking some arty walking tour, Mike took the kids down to the shore where they built crazy structures out of old timbers that had washed up.  He loved kids.  It shows in the beautiful photos he took of children all over the world.   Mike left us so much, but it’s hard to accept that he himself is gone.  In just one instant – one driver’s hasty miscalculated turn into the bike lane and Mike’s gone.  One instant. (Luella Allen)

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Mike Wang was our next-door neighbor and good friend. He and his family moved into their home about 2 months after we did in 2003, and since both our families have children roughly the same age, we immediately bonded over child-rearing issues. Mike struck us as someone who raised his middle finger at conventions – (in a good way!) One could see it in his dress, his commentary and the way he carried himself. At his memorial, he was described as “a tall Asian dude wearing a cowboy hat and pajama bottoms.”  Mike was not content to lead an ordinary life. He and his wife, Claire, were a formidable team when they would decide to spring into action – for example, planning a BBQ party or a children’s birthday party, organizing an exhibition of Mike’s photographs, supporting their son’s basketball ambitions or putting together a fundraiser dinner for their local elementary school.  Mike was also the tech expert of the neighborhood and his extended family. His advice and expertise have been missed. Although Michael had not been taking as many photographs as he had when they lived in New York, he took numerous photos of our children (some planned, some spontaneous) that we will always treasure. We benefited from having a gifted photographer as a neighbor. He truly had an artist’s eye.  Our two families each have back deck balconies that face each other. Whenever Mike or Claire were out on their back deck sharing a cigarette, we would come out onto our deck and have a conversation – often concerning humorous events, sports news or issues at our children’s school.  Mike had a gift for always making us laugh with his wry comments and observations. It was a shock to our small neighborhood community when Mike suddenly and inexplicably passed away. Each afternoon, we still expect him to come home, riding his bike down the hill.  When we hear the thump of the basketball in our cul-de-sac, we still expect to see Mike out there, shooting baskets with his son. A gaping hole in our lives opened up on July 28, and I don’t anticipate that it will ever entirely close. Our friend and neighbor was taken from us way too soon. He is and will continue to be missed.

Kathy Lockwood

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Snapshots of Michael

I met Michael Wang in 2000. His son, Walter, and my daughter were born two weeks apart so it seemed only natural that our children should become friends.  And that’s how we met: through the kids.  Michael’s wife, Claire, and I hovered near them at our local playground one morning as our sixteen-month olds coveted the same toy hammer. Claire made a few wry comments about parenting, the kids moved to the sandbox, toddler-meltdown was averted, and we became friends.

The first time I saw Michael, Claire had gathered a few moms for a playdate. We were all having such a great time, enjoying Claire’s company and interesting adult conversation while our children riffled through the toy cupboard, that we didn’t notice how long we had been at their apartment, a renovated tenement on a street that would become filled with trendy shops and moms pushing expensive strollers a few years after they moved from Brooklyn. (Clair and MIchael were always a step — or a leap — ahead of whatever would later become popular.) We heard a key turn in a lock and MIchael walked into the apartment after work and gave Claire a kiss.  They made a striking couple: both tall and attractive.  MIchael was wearing a cowboy hat and biker boots. He, like Claire, personified urban cool without trying.

As I got to know Claire better, I saw MIchael more often.  Although we lived in New York City, our corner of Brooklyn felt, at times, like a small town.  Our families would meet at the playground, where Walter and my daughter would race around on tricycles or dance in the sprinklers.  We sprawled on blankets on the green grass outside the Prospect Park carousel in the summer, our kids tussling over Veggie Booty or other healthy junk food. Michael, Claire and Walter came over some evenings, to my apartment’s small backyard.  We’d toss something on the grill and have a beer while our children splashed in the wading pool, wearing rubber boots and goggles.  Claire always brought the most amazing desserts.  Small things, but it’s a collection of these small events that make up life.

Sue Sanders

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I met Mike Wang about 14 years ago, shortly before he married my sister Claire, and we enjoyed many vacations and family celebrations together. Mike took beautiful, luminous photos of our kids and of places we loved, but his most memorable quality for me was his genius for conversation and story-telling.  Mike was a true global citizen, having grown up in Taiwan and Brooklyn (which resulted in a marvelous hybrid accent) and traveled to Africa, South and Central America, Europe, and China.  One result of this was a trove of fabulous stories, some adventurous (“How I Got Arrested During the Tiananmen Square Uprising”) and others tales about people he talked with on his journeys (“I Was Talking to This Bolivian Potato Farmer and…”).  He was fascinated by the cultural and physical specifics of all the places he went, and by the common human threads. People opened up to Mike, possibly sensing his intense curiosity and his warm heart.  His photographer’s sharp eye caught telling details that enriched his recountings.  In recent years he developed a passion for bicycling and a corresponding set of interesting bicycling commentaries.  Unlike many people with large personalities (and his was large), Mike didn’t dominate or edge other people out.  He was both exuberant and humble. Our family is deeply sorry that his life ended so soon.  We will be missing him for many years.

Caitilyn Allen

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I offer an excerpt of the following while speaking at Mike’s memorial service on 08/04/2011:

 

Ever since I was a young boy and my parents demonstrated to me that it was okay, I have not liked being around second-hand smoke.  There have been few people from whom I will tolerate it and an even smaller number who I would seek out while they were smoking.  Mike counted among the precious few in that last category.

 

I would look around a gathering of friends and acquaintances and I’d realize that Mike had slipped away.  He’s smoking!  If I was quick enough on the uptake, I could get to him in time for the rolling ritual.  I could hear again why he wasn’t rolling Drum anymore.  Then the plume of the first exhale would reach me, carrying the beginnings of a story.  I would breathe it all in and the rhythm of the smoke and words would transport me.

 

We had a superficial point of commonality.  We both identified as latchkey kids.  Any similarity ended upon clarification of which side of the latch we tended to stay on.  The smoke would become the ambience of an urban summer morning, a six-year-old boy running through of the streets and back alleys of his home in Taiwan with his mates; the equivalent of five dollars’ worth of “don’t get into too much trouble” money stuffed in his pocket; given to him by his uncle, a local shopkeeper.

 

And the smoke would shift and become the aromatic bite of developing chemicals in a darkroom, working at the elbow of a mentor; a relationship that would catalyze magnificent artistic and personal transformation within him.

 

I got to hear many of these stories more than once, but always in new contexts.  “Kids are so dependent these days, lemme tell you about when I was a kid in Taiwan…”  “Our kids, they think they know what independence is.  When I was a kid…”  And the smoke would carry me there again and again as we talked into and out of the familiar; weaving in the new, the challenging, the comforting, the connecting, the sometimes unnerving, but invariably humorous.

 

And so I want to thank whatever part of generally indifferent-seeming universe that might be able and choose to hear me.  I want to express my gratitude for allowing the convergence of so many unfathomable improbabilities which saw a singular light running through city streets and then arcing cross a vast ocean; organizing, growing more beautiful, more coherent, and then merging with and sparking new light in the boroughs surrounding New York City.  Finally, I want express my thanks for seeing it cross a content once again where I was able to bask within it for even so brief of a moment.

 

I have been have inoculated by these stories brought to me on smoke and I will carry them with me and share them for as long as I have breath.

 

Russ Milham

Lake Forest Park, WA

 

They’d ask me why the people in my photos weren’t smiling.  I’d tell them it’s ‘cause they’re not happy.  I just got the picture.

–  Mike Wang; on colleagues’ responses to some of his documentary photography work

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