It started as a fashion project. When writer Valerie Luu and photographer Andria Lo met in San Francisco in 2011, they became fast friends—they bonded over food and quickly established a weekly dim sum date. During these dates, which always took place in San Francisco’s iconic 173-year-old Chinatown, they began to notice a very distinct style among the neighborhood’s silver-haired set: lots of layers, colors, patterns, and wide-brimmed hats with puffy jackets.
“We had this mutual appreciation for a style we were seeing in Chinatown,” Lo says.
Adds Luu: “We really wanted to know: How did these senior citizens compose their outfits? And more importantly, where did they get their shoes?”
So they decided to hit the streets, Lo with a camera in hand; Luu with a pen and notebook. The original goal was to stop any senior citizen with that certain je ne sais quoi and document their outfits on a blog, “Chinatown Pretty.” They quickly discovered, however, that “the fashion is really a good lens in which to learn more about their immigration stories, their life histories, and their values.”
The pair started to do deeper dives, to spend more time with the people who agreed to talk with them. As they did, the project evolved from a style blog to “this love letter to Chinatown as a neighborhood,” Lo says.
Most travelers to San Francisco’s Chinatown (it occupies nearly two square miles of San Francisco’s 47 square miles, the largest Chinatown outside of Asia) only see its surface. There is the artful Dragon Gate (whose 120 ceramic tiles were gifted to San Francisco by the Republic of China in 1970); the ubiquitous red lanterns drifting in the wind; and the fortune cookie factory, where thousands of cookies are still made—by hand—each day. But at least 14,000 people live in Chinatown, many of them low-income or elderly residents. Beneath the tourist sights thrum thousands of stories—stories that most travelers never see.
“Senior citizens are the heartbeat of Chinatowns,” Luu says. “They’re the ones that are out there early in the morning, to get fresh groceries every day, to exercise in parks with their friends. They’re the ones that take up physical space.”
Through their interviews, Luu and Lo discovered that most seniors wear a brilliant assemblage of clothing. “It’s really a patchwork of clothes they brought from Hong Kong 30 years ago combined with, like, a Dora the Explorer backpack they got from their grandchild, mixed with a hand-knit sweater they made themselves.”
Over the past decade, the pair has documented Hon Ng Fan, dubbed Elegant Earth Tones for her tailored brown coat and contrasting jade jewelry, and Dorothy G.C. Quock, or Polka Dot, an elegant woman with a penchant for red—and yes, polka dots. They’ve also met You Tian Wu, or the One, who was originally captured on the Tumblr blog Accidental Chinese Hipsters, and who wore “an all-red suit and a handmade bolo tie out of Mardi Gras beads and other found objects,” Luu recalls.
Each elder shared a story that added to Lo and Luu’s widening picture of Chinatown: Hon Ng Fan had fled to Vietnam to escape flooding in China, then came to the United States in 1995 to be with her 12 children; Polka Dot was born in Chinatown and, as a child, worked alongside her mother in the Levi’s factory. “We first learned how to trim hems,” she told them. “At 10, I mastered the button hole. We got 2 cents for every button hole we made.”
Eventually, Lo and Luu decided to shift this lens to other cities, traveling to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Vancouver, B.C. “That’s the really beautiful thing about Chinatowns,” Luu says. “The Chinese diaspora is so large and vast that they’re everywhere.” The duo was, at times, surprised by the differences. People in Chicago and Vancouver, for example, were much easier to talk to. (In San Francisco, they say they have a 10 percent success rate when they approach someone on the street.)
The fashion, too, differed from city to city. San Francisco, with all its delicious microclimates, “is really the best as far as layering,” Lo says. “Just all the contrasts and patterns clashing that come from all the layers.” New York is darker; L.A. is brighter and more casual (lots of T-shirts, Lo added.) In Chicago, they noticed that everyone wearing a bucket hat or bonnet all had an added strap beneath the chin. “We asked them about it,” Lo says. “And they said, ‘Well, it’s windy here.’”
In 2020, Luu and Lo gathered all the stories and photos they’d collected over the years into a book, Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom from Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors (Chronicle Books, 2020).
They donate 100 percent of their proceeds from bookshop.org to Chinatown nonprofits (such as Chinatown Community Development Center), over the years, their passion for preservation has only increased, especially as Chinatowns have become increasingly endangered. In fact, over the past 20 years, Chinatowns throughout the United States have shrunk substantially. One gentrification report in the early aughts estimated that the Asian population had fallen by nearly 50 percent in New York’s Chinatown.
“There’s always this threat of development encroaching, which would essentially displace a lot of Chinatowns and the residents that live there,” Lo says. “There tends to be that threat, but there are a lot of nonprofits that are really actively working to help maintain Chinatown as a neighborhood—not just a place where tourists go.”
It’s not, Lo adds, something she would’ve ever noticed as a casual visitor. It took exploring, learning, photographing to understand “how special the neighborhood is and how important it is to really promote it through this project.”
There’s a wistfulness to their work, too, a reminder that whenever we visit a place, we’re seeing it at a specific moment in time. Things change, especially on the heels of COVID.
“A reality of the project is that the senior citizens are up there in their years and since we started the project some of them have passed on,” Luu says. “I think [our work] is a snapshot of a certain place in time and that is going to change. We will still get some of that patchwork of old and new, handmade and gifted, thrifted and found, which made up the Chinatown Pretty aesthetic, but I imagine with time and different immigration waves and different income levels that that look will change.”
Yes, in case you were wondering: Luu and Lo have been sartorially inspired by their senior subjects. “When we first started this project, I used to wear all black,” says Luu. “But after doing this for a few years you can’t help but be so inspired. Now my closet is just like all colors and I ask myself, ‘Would a Chinese grandma wear this?’ If so, I totally rock it.”
Three ways to see beyond a city’s surface
How to engage a new city, beyond the superficial.
Don’t be afraid to ask (respectful) questions
Luu and Lo just started talking to people, using questions about their clothing as an ice breaker. “It’s helpful to talk about something concrete,” Lo says. “So I like to compliment an article of clothing that looks like it has history or a story that might be unique to them.”
Sit and watch
It’s tried-and-true advice, but we’ll say it again: Pick a neighborhood, then pick a spot to sit down and just people-watch. Luu and Lo have spent more than 300 hours observing Chinatowns in North America—and said jou san or good morning to about 1,000 senior citizens, they said—absorbing the fashion and sensibility of its residents.
Pursue your passion like an anthropologist
Luu and Lo also use their work as a way to explore a new city. “I do try to check out if there’s a Chinatown when I’m traveling, not for the project,” Lo says. “I try to make a point to go whether it’s in Zurich or Hawai‘i, however small it might be. I’m just so curious about that now.” Maybe your lens is pastry-making or bird-watching‚ but whatever it is, pick a subject and seek it out in each city.