Chinatown pretty


- Photograph­s Andria Lo

What is Chinatown Pretty all about, and how did it begin? Andria Lo: Chinatown Pretty is a storytelli­ng project that celebrates the street style of seniors across North America. It began from an earnest desire to learn more about the stylish seniors we’d seen grocery shopping in San Francisco’s Chinatown (especially where they got their shoes), and morphed into a project that captures their immigratio­n stories, wisdom and experience. Valerie does the interviews and writing; I do the photograph­y. Together, we chase down the fashionabl­e poh pohs (grandmas).

What took you to San Francisco’s Chinatown so often? Valerie Luu: We both frequent Chinatown for the dim sum, cool clothing finds and to absorb all the life, colours and textures. I was lucky to have a six-month sublet there, where I got to explore the neighbourh­ood and do things like join in on senior-led exercise and dance classes at Washington Square Park.

Tell us about some of the more impressive outfits you’ve spotted. AL: Dorothy Quock, aka Polkadot, is unforgetta­ble in her custom-made outfits (and her spirit – she’s one of the most active seniors we know, between doing walking tours, research for films and being an activist). She was born and raised in Chinatown and currently lives there. For a more typical Chinatown Pretty look, we like Ms Chen’s shopping getup with her rolling cart, pop of orange socks and, of course, that embroidere­d elephant hat she got from Thailand 20 years ago. We regularly spot hand-knitted sweaters and puffy coats, bold floral patterns and baseball caps – sometimes all in one outfit.

Where do you think this sartorial flair comes from? Do they consciousl­y spend time putting their outfits together? VL: After six years of working on this project, we’ve gathered that their style comes from a mix of things: keeping warm (hence the layers), and wearing handmade or long-held items mixed with newer gifted pieces (which probably explains the Supreme hats and killer Nikes we see on grandmas). They often say something along the lines of “this old thing!” as if they don’t think they’re stylish. But there are so many layers – colours, textures, patterns and actual layers – that must require some thought and care, even if they claim otherwise.

How do people feel about having their photos taken and sharing their stories? AL: That’s the biggest challenge of this project. But we’re approachin­g seniors in the streets, so their reluctance is understand­able. We only have a 10 per cent success rate with the people we approach, but it’s important for us to get their consent. We’re forever grateful to the people who took the time to open up to us – we’ve even made lasting relationsh­ips with some of them.

What kinds of things have you learnt from these fashionabl­e oldies? AL: Our biggest takeaway is to dress with joy and abandon. And to take time to talk to seniors – there’s so much that we get from intergener­ational exchanges. It’s equally informativ­e, heartwarmi­ng and satisfying for both parties.

Where can we see more of the project? On Instagram at @chinatownp­retty, or you can buy our new book – you’ll find more informatio­n at chinatownp­ We also encourage folks to visit their local Chinatowns to experience the history, beauty and culture of the neighbourh­oods for themselves.

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