When Phil asked me to write a guest post, I knew I wanted to highlight the creators of Chinatown Pretty, a street-style blog celebrating fashionable Asian American seniors and their stories in San Francisco Chinatown.
Photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu met through food -- Andria shot the photos for Valerie's Vietnamese pop-up restaurant and catering business, Rice Paper Scissors. Their inspiration for Chinatown Pretty? Man Ta, "the woman with the jade shoes," who Valerie first spotted getting off a bus somewhere between Chinatown and North Beach. She just knew she had to find out the story behind the chic octogenarian and her bright green kicks.
As it turns out, the sneakers are from a store on Stockton Street, and she owns ten pairs: "I wear them until they break," Man Ta told Valerie and Andria. A longtime Chinatown resident, she has since seen that store on Stockton shutter.
Andria says, "We love the unexpected styles we see in Chinatown. Outfits are often effortless and gutsy at the same time, they look really fresh!"
To find their street-style subjects, Andria and Valerie meet in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco Chinatown. "There you'll find seniors playing cards and chess out of makeshift tables made out of cardboard and milk crates," says Valerie. "We walk around Chinatown, circling blocks for hours in hopes in running into someone whose outfit makes our hearts skip a beat."
Sometimes the Chinatown seniors they encounter are reluctant to be interviewed and have their photos snapped; Andria and Valerie call them "unicorns: rare, magical, and elusive." One such woman, prone to mixing plaid and houndstooth patterns, had always waved them off when they previously approached, until the day the two sat down next to her on a bench and waited patiently for her to feel comfortable enough to open up about her story—she was an immigrant from Hong Kong, and her white painter's cap, worn cocked to the side for sun protection, belonged to her late husband.
Earlier this year, Andria and Valerie made a trip down to southern California to visit Los Angeles Chinatown. They met the Wongs near the Alpine Rec Center, where Mrs. Wong teaches Luk Tung Kuen, a stretching exercise that originated in Hong Kong. The Wongs wore a matching set of canary yellow tracksuits—Mr. Wong, who suffered a stroke a few years ago, accessorized with a navy blue "staff" baseball cap. The Wongs were introduced by a cousin and have been married for 69 years, Andria and Valerie discovered.
Timeless fashion is a common thread among the stylish seniors whose portraits and stories that Andria and Valerie have captured; the Wongs, for example, have happily worn these sunny tracksuits for decades.
"We find out the style choices are often rooted in function and cultural values," says Andria. "We learn about their personal histories through their clothing."
Valerie says, "I've been surprised by how fiercely independent the seniors are. Many elderly people live on their own in single room occupancy apartments (SROS) with shared bathrooms and kitchens. They tell us that they prefer to live on their own; to be in an urban setting where they can easily walk or take the bus to grocery stores and doctors appointments and be in the company of friends."
The beautiful portraits and accompanying stories featured on Chinatown Pretty lovingly honor a population that's perhaps too often overlooked. Andria and Valerie regularly shoot in the Bay Area, and will be in LA later this month, August 27 & 28, 2016. They're currently seeking volunteer translators (especially Cantonese and/or Toisan speakers), so if you're so inclined, get in touch at email@example.com.
All photos in this story courtesy of Andria Lo/Chinatown Pretty
Jean Ho is a writer in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in Bitch, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, NPR Code Switch, and elsewhere. She's currently a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at USC.