Chinatown is known for its food, its shopping and its history. But two friends want it to be celebrated for something else — its utterly unique street style.
San Francisco-based photographer Andria Lo and writer and caterer Valerie Luu met through the food scene more than six years ago, and loved getting together in the Bay Area’s Chinatown. And the more time they spent there, Lo said, “we noticed this really special style amongst the senior citizens.”
What started as a pet project — snapping pictures and interviewing snazzy seniors — became a passion, as the pair traveled the country to visit bustling Chinatowns in Oakland, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Chicago and New York. Now, their photographs and interviews are compiled into a book, “Chinatown Pretty” (Chronicle Books), out Sept. 22.
“We have photos and scenes from all of the Chinatowns we visited,” Lo said. “It’s about the people in it and their profiles, and it’s also sort of this love letter to historic Chinatowns across the country. We’re trying to capture the energy and the spirit in each of the cities.”
To do this, they ventured out on Sunday mornings, when people were grocery shopping and when Chinatown is the “most alive,” Luu said.
They would spend hours trying to find the perfect subjects, and many smartly dressed locals resisted the attention. Luu estimates they had about a 10% success rate getting people to talk; oftentimes, a language barrier made it difficult to communicate. Asian seniors can be private, and don’t love being photographed, Lo said. More, many potential subjects didn’t understand what was special about what they were wearing, despite the pair’s best efforts to convince them otherwise.
But their clothing is highly specific to Chinese culture, Luu said. It’s often a mix of different eras — pairing vintage with modern pieces — as well as a blend of bright colors and florals.
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“[They have] clothes that they brought over from Hong Kong 30 years ago, combined with a hat that they probably got from their grandkids,” Luu said. “It creates a patchwork of an interesting outfit. There’s layers of different decades, colors and textures.”
Their outfit choices are a lens into their life stories, Luu added, something both she and Lo wanted to capture.
Lo said she hopes the book offers a connection between Chinatown and the community’s neighbors, especially at a moment when many senior citizens are staying inside to avoid contracting COVID-19.
“Especially during this time, it’s so nice to get to know people’s backstories,” Lo said. “I think we’re all just looking to connect with other people and learn more about them.”
Manning Yeung Tam
Known to Lo and Luu as the “Woman With the Jade Shoes,” Manning Yeung Tam was one of the first Chinatown residents to catch their attention in San Francisco in 2014. Luu wrote that she spotted Tam in her signature green sneakers many times before she worked up the courage to speak with her. Finally, they talked, and Tam — who has lived in Chinatown for 20 years — told her that she liked the shoes so much that she owned 10 identical pairs.
The glamorous Kelley is a former cabaret dancer, who worked at a Chinese nightclub in San Francisco called Forbidden City. Born in California in 1929, Kelley told Lo and Luu that her family moved back to China when she was a baby, but then returned to the States when she was 9 to avoid World War II. She faced many obstacles — the language barrier and poverty among them — but eventually her dancing helped her find herself. Now, her closet is filled with elastic-waist pants and old sequin costumes. “I don’t dress like an old lady,” she told Lo and Luu.
Luu and Lo photographed the jaunty couple in 2016 at the Alpine Recreation Center in Los Angeles. The pair sported matching yellow sweatsuits that were custom-made to say “Luk Tung Kuen,” referencing the type of exercise Mrs. Jung teaches: a combination of 36 various strengthening movements. She’s been practicing this exercise for 40 years, and teaching for more than 20. The Jungs, who have been married for 69 years, emigrated from Hong Kong.
Lau Wai Kwong Cho
Eighty-four-year-old Lau Wait Kwong Cho rocks her bucket hat and stark prints on the streets of Chicago’s Chinatown, where she’s lived for 27 years. On the day she was photographed in 2018, she wore her $2 Costco hat — a bargain, she said — with a turtleneck adorned with Santa Claus mice and festive mistletoe, even though it was the middle of spring. She surprised Luu and Lo by pulling up her sweater to reveal her patterned apron, with pockets for storing her valuables. She used to work as a cook in a senior center, where she would prepare Chinese-American staple dishes, cut into small pieces: “They didn’t have two teeth to chew,” she told Lo and Luu.
Manhattan street style is not the exclusive domain of the youth of New York City. On the day in 2018 when Lo and Luu met Victor Lee, 58, he was sporting a quirky combination of prints and an orange polka-dot bow tie hanging from a golden chain. He also had on a pair of jeans with Chinese characters scribbled on one of his pant legs, which he said translated to “space culture”: a nod to his love of UFOs, airplanes and the sky.
Suzhu Liang emigrated from the city of Guangzhou to Canada more than 30 years ago. When she was photographed in 2018, at the age of 90, she told Lo and Luu that most of her clothes were from her hometown. Even her maroon bowler hat was a gift from her friend back in China, and she liked to pair it with one of her many patterned shirts and signature black shades. When she was growing up, she wasn’t able to attend school because she lived in poverty, and experienced a food shortage and a war. Despite her childhood struggles, she still kept a positive outlook on life, telling Lo and Luu that she learned to “choose happiness.”