Chinatown’s Seniors Are More Stylish Than You

The proof is in 'Chinatown Pretty,' a new photobook that spotlights the fashionable elderly.

The key is layering: a plain black baseball cap overflowing with heavy enamel pins; silk scarves tucked into printed blazers; puffy jackets over animal-print sweaters. 

“Sounds like a window display at Urban Outfitters,” reads the foreword to Chinatown Pretty. But these are no hipster mannequins. These are the elders of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

For the better part of four years, writer Valerie Luu and photographer Andria Lo have been documenting the impeccable taste of the neighborhood’s best dressed matriarchs and patriarchs, and broadcasting the looks to their 27,000 Instagram followers under the handle @chinatownpretty. Their first photobook — titled Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom From Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors — is a testament to a distinct aesthetic that is as functional as it is fashionable.

Cover courtesy of Chronicle Books

In San Francisco, a city of microclimates, a jacket is never a bad idea — you never know when the fog will roll in and block out the sun. But the seniors in Chinatown Pretty are always prepared. They mix and match bold textiles and patterns until they’re warm, and then some. It’s the kind of effortless layering that rivals the Tiktoks of Gucci’s viral model challenge

Unlike the fast fashion that dominates most of our shopping purchases, Chinatown Pretty’s style evolved from “resourcefulness and thriftiness” according to Lo. “They come from a different era, really, and a different country. They like to reuse and repurpose.”

This style goes beyond simply buying whatever you’d like at a store. (Though that’s also common — Manning Yeung Tam, the senior who first inspired the Chinatown Pretty Instagram account, caught Lo and Luu’s attention with her ’80s print, jade-green shoes, purchased from Stockton Street. “I liked them so much I bought ten pairs. I wear them until they break,” Tam said.”) This style incorporates gifts from friends, hand-me-downs and custom-made pieces using scraps from the sewing factories some seniors worked in. 

It also results in a lot of decades influenced “pattern mashing,” especially with paisleys, flower-prints, and vintage pieces, which parallel the aesthetics younger generations consider trendy: ’80s and ’90s throwbacks, layered textiles like knit cardigans, or bold prints. For example, a senior who calls himself Angie No Good draws out his “punk attitude” with Disney-themed “Happy Birthday” buttons, vintage travel or casino pins, and a gold chain, watch, and belt. He pairs these eccentric pieces with light-wash denim and a graphic tee.

It’s clear from Chinatown Pretty that San Francisco style can be so much more than airpods and company-branded Patagonias, which seem to be the unofficial uniform for FiDi, Chinatown’s next-door neighbor. But what the book really emphasizes is that outfits are only one part of the story. 

“The project is about the people,” Lo says.

During the COVID-19 era, as Chinatowns around the country have suffered increased sinophobia, Lo and Luu say it is important to understand and celebrate the people who make up some of America’s most historic residential neighborhoods — especially since these neighborhoods are under the constant threat of gentrification and erasure.

As a book, Chinatown Pretty goes well beyond the scope of Luu and Lo’s Instagram account.

A story or an interview with the seniors accompanies Lo’s photographs. These stories, written by Luu, are always attentive to the outfits and the people who bring them to life, and serve to complement Lo’s bright and dynamic photography.

Dorothy G.C. Quack, also known as Polka Dot, smiles in a Botan rice bag costume, colorful knitted dresses, and an all-red ensemble. She shares her experiences about working in a Levi’s sweatshop as a preschooler (before child labor laws were adequately enforced) and eating leftover rice porridge (jook) and Chinese doughnuts (youtiao) at the iconic Sam Wo during the Great Depression. 

Chinatown Pretty’ creators Valerie Luu and Andria Lo. Photo courtesy of Phoebe Wong

The book also visits Chinatowns in Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Vancouver, bringing a sense of cross-country solidarity to its pages.

It’s exactly the kind of reminder we need right now, as we enter our seventh month of social distancing. Yes, the phrase “alone… together” may sound hackneyed at this point, but the creators hope that Chinatown Pretty will be a visualization of “community and unity” that still exists within Asian diasporas. 

“A lot of these people have been through a lot, and we’re probably going through the biggest thing we’re going to go through in our generation,” Luu says. “I hope it provides some relief, some entertainment, some inspiration, and hope.”

Pre-order Chinatown Pretty (Sept. 22, Chronicle Books)

Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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