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streetwear at its finest: celebrating a decade of chinatown pretty
One of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received was a copy of Chinatown Pretty. Unlike most street style books, you won’t find photos of fashion mavens in 4” Alexander McQueen boots and Acne Studios scarves hailing from places like Manhattan and Helsinki.
Instead, you’ll find tender photographs and stories from seniors who live in Chinatowns across North America. It’s a special book that celebrates elders: their individuality, history and of course—their signature style.
Chinatown Pretty is a storytelling project, founded by photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu, that documents senior citizens' street style in Chinatowns. Since 2014, they’ve photographed and interviewed hundreds of the seniors in historic Chinatowns across North America. Their first book was published Fall 2020 by Chronicle. Learn more on Instagram @chinatownpretty and at chinatownpretty.com.
Andria Lo is a freelance commercial and editorial photographer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, National Geographic, and Wired. She lives in Berkeley.
Valerie Luu is a writer and one-half of the Vietnamese pop-up restaurant Rice Paper Scissors. She lives in San Francisco.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. FYI, you can listen to an audio version of all posts via the Substack app. This post would make a nice morning podcast :)
Hi Valerie and Andria!
You started this project started in 2014. That’s almost a decade ago! What do you think has been the biggest impact of Chinatown Pretty?
Valerie: We did this project for almost 10 years: going out at least once a month, taking laps around Chinatown, hoping to meet fabulous pòh pohs and gùng gungs. That process of engaging with neighbors and having serendipitous encounters became a part of my lifestyle.
Every day, I walk up and down the same blocks in the Inner Richmond and I know the senior citizens. Today I said what’s up to a guy in a silk 49ers bomber with matching pants. He had a Theragun in one hand and a cane in another. Oh, and a Von Dutch rhinestone hat.
That’s what we encourage people to take away from the project. Engage with your neighbors, especially if they’re older. And never hesitate to give a compliment.
Andria: After we started doing Chinatown Pretty photo shows, it was impactful to hear that people started appreciating the little details more about their neighborhood and grandparents. As a photographer who always looks out for those details, it was cool to hear people say that our project helped them observe the everyday. On a bigger cultural level, people were really craving stories about Chinatown: its history, its vibrancy, its elders. That was powerful for us, to know that we were on the right path with sharing these stories.
“Chinatown Pretty” captures the aesthetic of the stylish seniors you interviewed: a delightful mix of modern and vintage, high and low, bold patterns and colors, and contemporary streetwear.
What was the process of coming up with this term?
Andria: I remember thinking of other names inspired by other street style blogs that were popular at the time, like Chinatown Looks or Chinatown Sartorialist. But I’m really glad we didn’t go with those. We rarely see seniors represented in street style media, and Chinatown Pretty feels authentic to the spirit of the project.
Valerie: When I hear Chinatown Pretty, I think of a patchwork. Like clothes you brought from Hong Kong, a sweater your sister-in law knit and a backpack your grandkid gave you. It’s a big mix that represents core values: making the best of the what you have and taking good care of it. And at the end of the day, it’s really pretty and joyful.
Did this project change your own relationship to fashion?
Valerie: Definitely. I had a pop-up restaurant for a decade, so I liked having a uniform that was minimalist. I wore all black all the time. But after a few years of doing Chinatown Pretty, the joyful feelings of the seniors’ outfits sinked in. I started integrating colors, patterns and textures into my closet. Now I don’t wear black at all! I wear all colors. And I’m searching for that feeling of joy when I get dressed.
Now, sometimes a pòh poh will see me and yell ho leung! at me. And I tell her ho leung! back. We’ll go back and forth, catcalling each other on Clement Street.
Even though I don’t work in food anymore, I do still wear Danksos (#cloglife for life). And I do love a fashionable chef…
Danny Bowien always looks great
Kenzie and Isa at Yo Tambien Cantina: their apron, sock and clog combos are always strong
Jessie at Bicycle Banh Mi: She designed Vietnamese ao dai's that were so beautifully art directed with so much meaning and story. We used to share a commissary kitchen too, and I loved how she wore her everyday kitchen clothes too—perfectly rolled sleeves, jeans with great fit, a beanie folded just so!
Andria: Doing this project helped solidify what I’ve always been innately drawn to: clothes that look like they have a history. I also kinda love ugly pretty things.
You know, society often tells women we should look pretty. But the heart wants what it wants, and sometimes I just want a weird ugly thing. Because the Chinatown Pretty look is open-ended and more about creating a patchwork of clothes, it’s conducive to personalization. Now, I mix pieces with different histories and don’t care if it matches.
Chinatown elders love their fleeces. I am curious what you think about the increasing visibility of the Chinatown Pretty aesthetic in high fashion (ex: Sandy Liang and Sundae School fleeces).
Andria: Keeping warm is a priority for them, so the fleece is very practical in that sense. You can get a dope SF souvenir fleece easily—it’s affordable. We see a lot of fleeces and puffy jackets because utility is a big part of what drives the style.
In terms of the Chinatown Pretty aesthetic we see reflected in these designers’ clothes, I think it’s the appeal of mixing high and low. For the elders, a “high” piece might be something that looks vintage because they’ve had it for decades. Like a dress that was custom made in a tailor in Hong Kong. And the “low” might be a new puffy jacket or fleece. They also love hats: beanies, caps, etc. This style of dress translates well to streetwear. We look at the seniors and see streetwear at its best.
Valerie: It’s peak streetwear. They wear it literally in the street whereas some of us wear it in our offices. Most of the Chinatown grannies we met were wearing SF souvenir merch like fleeces and tote bags. What other population is repping SF so hard?!
Your book features heartfelt personal histories, wisdom, and longevity secrets from Chinatown elders (arguably the best wellness influencers, haha). Is there any particular story or advice that has stuck with you?
Valerie: We met a senior in Brooklyn who said he’s bummed that younger people don’t talk to older people as often. He told us, “one day the sun will set for you too.”
We will get old. Treat elders the way you want to be treated when you’re older. I would love compliment catcalls when I’m 88!
Andria: Talking to seniors, the sentiment we heard many times was that they were just grateful for the exchanges. It can be very lonely at that age, and I think we all want connection.
So now, if I’m thinking about a compliment—I just say it. There’s nothing to lose and it can make someone’s day. Connecting with seniors in your life is a great lesson.
Thank you Valerie and Andria!
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