I was born in 1957 in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, where my father was an administrator at the Institute of Technology, and my mother taught chemistry. I have two brothers. One is a doctor in New York, the other a scientist in Canada. But I always loved art. Some childhood friends I painted with became famous artists, such as political pop master Wang Guangyi, and the president of the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, Wei Ershen.

We were all influenced by the revolutionary-realism style of the Soviet Union back then. But Wang started to experiment with avant-garde style in the mid-1980s. He invited me to join him. I declined because I had just spent 10 years in the army as a soldier artist, and I couldn't tolerate the ambiguity of that style. In hindsight, I may have missed a big opportunity. But everyone has a different fate. Maybe that was my fate.

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OFF TO THE BIG APPLE After I was discharged from the army, I worked as an art editor for a magazine. It was a good job because I had plenty of time to paint. I won awards in national and local art competitions and had my own exhibitions. Gradually people started to know my name. (Food and drink conglomerate) Nestle even commissioned me to illustrate their brochures. Everything was going from good to even better. But, in 1995, my brother in the United States invited me to join him.

 I had always thought individualism was dominant in American culture and that Americans were self-centred. But 9/11 showed me how much people care about their country.

When I arrived, I found a job at a gallery in Manhattan drawing small landscapes. I didn't like to be pushed by the owner to draw as quickly as a machine - I had spent months on a painting to make it perfect when I was in China. So I quit after half a year. I started to draw portraits for tourists, at first in Central Park, then at Times Square. That's how I have been making a living. In those days, the Chinese artists working on the street were quite good. Nowadays, new immigrants who have no artistic sense are drawing portraits on the street here. I don't mention my achievements in China to them.

TEAM AMERICA When 9/11 happened, I was in bed because I had worked late the previous night. When a friend called and told me what had happened, I thought he was joking. But when I turned on the TV, my jaw dropped.

A month after 9/11, I went to work at a shopping mall in upstate New York. So many people came to me holding pictures of their loved ones who had died at Ground Zero and asked me to do portraits. That experience changed my view of Americans. I had always thought individualism was dominant in American culture and that Americans were self-centred. But 9/11 showed me how much people care about their country.

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Around that time I was deciding whether to stay in the US or go back to China. Life as a street artist is not easy. We are harassed by the police frequently. The tickets I get for ridiculous reasons are always dismissed at court, and it wastes my time. But after 9/11, I decided to stay. In 2005, I became a US citizen.

GROUND ZERO HEROES I had been wondering, as an immigrant artist, what could I do for the US? I wanted to salute the heroes who had died in 9/11 trying to rescue people. But I didn't know how to start, until I passed a firehouse in Flushing (in the New York borough of Queens) in 2010. It had a mural on its gate, with a stencil image of the twin towers and some clouds and angels. It also had the names of the 343 firefighters and paramedics who died etched on the sides of the gate. That gave me the "Aha!" moment.

When I started the project, I realised it was much harder than I had anticipated. I had wanted to contact the Fire Department of New York and the family members of those who died to get their photos. But I don't speak much English and cannot communicate with them. So I searched on the internet and went to 9/11 exhibitions to collect photos.

NO MONEY, MO PROBLEMS I don't have a studio and so I did the project in my bedroom. Each of the five panels (I have painted the murals on) is two metres tall and 1.5 metres wide. I have to keep them stacked one on top of the other because my apartment is too small to have them lined up.

... While I was doing the project ... my income suffered ... My wife, who I met in China 10 years ago, divorced me

I know there are a lot of grants in this city that support projects like this, but with little English, I was not able to fill in an application. I had to work on the street to make money while I was doing the project. Whenever it was raining, I felt so happy because I had an excuse to stay at home to work on the project. But my income suffered.

My wife, who I met in China 10 years ago, divorced me in April and our nine-year-old son no longer lives with me. A divorce is always complicated but if I had more money I think things would have been different.

HEROES OF 9/11 I cannot tell you how many times I thought of giving up the project. But every time I chose to continue - it always felt like the right thing to do. I don't know if anyone will be interested in exhibiting or purchasing the work. If the family members of these fallen heroes get to see it, I want them to know that after so many years people still remember the contribution their loved ones made to this country. As an immigrant artist, this is my way to show my patriotism.