A Conversation With Andria Lo and Valerie Luu of Chinatown Pretty

Chinatown Pretty is a storytelling project, founded by photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu, that documents senior citizens' street style in Chinatowns.

Hannah Teoh Outreach Manager

Photo Credit: Andria Lo // Chinatown Pretty

Fashion, Chinatown, and your everyday gong gongs and popos [grandfathers and grandmothers]; put them all together, and you get Chinatown Pretty—a photography and storytelling project that follows the eclectic fashion of Chinatown’s senior community. I spoke with the people behind Chinatown Pretty, photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu about their project, inspirations, and Chinatown. 

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Introduce Yourself!

AndriaMy name is Andria Lo, and I’m the photographer for Chinatown Pretty.

ValerieAnd I’m Valerie Luu, the writer for the project.

Introduce Chinatown Pretty! What is it, and how did it come to be?

Valerie: Chinatown Pretty is a storytelling project that documents the street style of senior citizens in Chinatowns across North America. We started out as a blog, and then we moved to Instagram, and we eventually published our first book in September 2020.

What was the inspiration behind this project? 

Andria: Valerie and I would hang out in San Francisco’s Chinatown—that’s where the project started—and we would just people-watch while we got our takeout dim sum. What we started to notice were the seniors. There are so many seniors out and about in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which is a pretty dense neighborhood. A lot of seniors call it home. And we would just watch them go out and about, going grocery shopping, walking the steep hills of the neighborhood, exercising in the park. The entire space was being used as an extended living room. 

We were really admiring the style that we were seeing. So, this project was born out of this curiosity; to find out more about them and their daily lives, and also to find out where this unique style is coming from. Also, just to find out where we can get those shoes from! Because we loved what we were seeing.


What is “Chinatown Pretty”? What characterizes this unique style, and what makes it so special?

Valerie:  Chinatown Pretty is a style characterized by patchwork—of different textures, eras, a combination of handmade and gifted clothes. So we find that clothes are a gateway to people’s life stories. A grandma will be wearing clothes they brought over from Hong Kong 30 years ago, combined with a shirt they made working at a sewing factory with leftover scraps of fabric, a sweater her sister made, along with a High School Musical backpack, probably from their grandchild. It’s really eclectic, it’s colorful, with a lot of patterns clashing and mixing. That’s what we find to be Chinatown Pretty.

As you mentioned, clothes can be a powerful gateway to unearthing stories about the individual; what insight do you think Chinatown fashion can bring?

Andria: In terms of fashion, I think we see a lot of resilience in the clothing. We see a lot of resourcefulness, so there’s a lot of reusing and handmade items. So many of these popos we meet can sew, knit, and crochet. There’s a real beauty to these handmade pieces. We also see how resourceful they are. A lot of them come to the States not knowing any English and having to start over again. And they bring with them their clothes from back home.

Those clothes combined with handmade items and newer or gifted items—they really start to tell the stories of these people and the kinds of journeys they’ve had over the decades.

How do you usually pick who to photograph and tell stories of?

Valerie: We kind of know it when we see it. Our process is that we will meet at Portsmouth Square, in San Francisco’s Chinatown. This area is like Chinatown’s living room—that’s where many of the elders will exercise, socialize, and hang out. Then, we’ll just take laps around Chinatown about three hours at a time, hoping to meet someone as we turn a corner or as they’re out grocery shopping. We’re really attracted to the patchwork and the quilts. There’s also a lot of cool hats. Personally, I’m really attracted to all the crocheted bucket hats and beanies. I think Chinese grandmas wear them best.

Caption: “Dorothy G.C. Quock, 87, better known as Polkadot, got her nickname at the Cameron House, a Presbyterian family and youth organization in San Francisco Chinatown. There was another person named Dorothy, so the headmaster nicknamed her Polkadot, and it stuck. At the time, she didn’t wear much polkadot, but now it’s her signature look. Quock was born in Chinatown and now works as a field producer and researcher for Chinatown documentaries.”
Caption: “Dorothy G.C. Quock, 87, better known as Polkadot, got her nickname at the Cameron House, a Presbyterian family and youth organization in San Francisco Chinatown. There was another person named Dorothy, so the headmaster nicknamed her Polkadot, and it stuck. At the time, she didn’t wear much polkadot, but now it’s her signature look. Quock was born in Chinatown and now works as a field producer and researcher for Chinatown documentaries.”

As a foreigner living in the States, Chinatowns are a comfort space for me because it feels so familiar. It’s so rich and diverse in terms of people and culture, and it’s also integral not only to the Asian American community but to local communities as well. What do you think makes Chinatown special?

Andria: I think you’ve touched on many of the points that make Chinatown special. Chinatown is a landing pad for a lot of immigrants, so they have a built-in community when they arrive; they get to know people who speak their language and eat food that they’re used to culturally. Oftentimes, Chinatowns also have a really great social services network, and they have nonprofits working to assist these communities in making Chinatowns an actual livable place instead of a tourist spot.

On a more personal note, what does Chinatown mean to you?

Valerie: I think Chinatown is where a lot of magic happens. Where else would you see a neighborhood would see people in their 60s and 90s living their own independent lives. For me, it’s really inspiring to see such active lives, even in their old age, and looking so beautiful and providing a lot of joy through their outfits. It’s the seniors, for me. 

Andria: Along those lines, I think Chinatown is one of those neighborhoods where you see a lot of intergenerational interaction and community. I think that’s pretty special. You’ll see people taking their grandparents around, shopping, and mingling in small businesses and restaurants. It’s really so beautiful to see. 

Has there been anyone you’ve interviewed throughout the entire process of compiling the Chinatown Pretty book whose fashion and story stood out to you the most?

Valerie: I think of Miss Yang, who we met in San Francisco Chinatown. We met her at a residential center where she lives. She wore this plaid blazer with green pleated pants and hot pink socks. She had on this palm-printed shirt, a gold Rolex watch, and she had this really beautiful blunt bob. It’s one of the best outfits we’ve seen. It’s a lot of colors and interesting textures. She had Alzheimer’s. And she was telling us how when she was younger, she was a perfectionist, but now that she has Alzheimer’s, she can’t remember everything. If she does, that’s great, but if she doesn’t, that’s okay too. She just adopted a more carefree outlook on life, as long as her kids and her grandkids are okay. I really appreciated not only her style but also her perspective.

With the pandemic and increased targeting of the Asian American elder community, Chinatowns have suffered economic and financial hardship; it has also affected a lot of people who depend on Chinatown for their livelihoods. How can we help communities like these in times of need?

Andria: I think there’s a lot of ways to help and to get involved. One way is to visit Chinatown and bring patronage to the small businesses there. We like to say that you can make Chinatown part of your weekly ritual, for example, doing your grocery shopping there or visiting your favorite spots. Also, if you want to get involved in volunteer work, most Chinatowns have an established nonprofit that’s been working with the community. We list some of them on our Instagram, so you can definitely poke around there. I think just doing research and reaching out to any Chinatown nonprofits that are near you is a great way to help out. There are also food pantries that serve the community and the seniors where you can get involved in. And finally, by just being a friendly neighbor. Saying hello and extending a compliment really goes a long way. ChinatownPretty_SFChinatown_girlgang.jpg

What’s next for Chinatown Pretty?

Andria: We had our book come out in the middle of the pandemic, but things are starting to open back up here in the Bay Area. We recently had our first in-person book event ever, and it was with a group of local Oakland Chinatown seniors, and that was amazing. I think we’d love to do more book talks, whether in schools or senior centers. We’ve worked on this book for seven years, all the profiles in there were hard-earned, and we would love to keep sharing them.

Favorite Asian dish:

Valerie: When we’re in Chinatown, we like to go to Dol Ho for dim sum. It’s a takeout counter with bright pink walls that match their pink takeout boxes, and our shrimp and chive dumplings are our go-to!

Favorite fashion trend:

Andria: I love socks and sandals! We see that with a lot of Chinatown seniors. It’s so comfortable and wearable all year round in Northern California.

What is your favorite place to visit:

Valerie: In Chinatown, it’s Ross Alley. It’s this magical alleyway where there’s the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company and 41 Ross—this art and culture space where we have done a few photos shows at. The light filters in just right, and there are bright seafoam green walls. A lot of residents use alleyways as shortcuts, so you’ll see a lot of beautiful-looking senior citizens making their way to and fro the alleyway.

Andria: It’s really good for the senses because you can smell the freshly baked fortune cookies and hear the mahjong tiles clapping. It’s magic there.

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 seniors in historic Chinatowns across North America. Their first book was published in Fall 2020 by Chronicle Books.


Instagram: http://instagram.com/chinatownpretty.

Facebook: http://facebook.com/chinatownpretty.

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