An ongoing series of conversations with friends, collaborators, and creatives to explore a dialogue on inspiration, passion, community, travel, and life in general. Created by Andria Lo and Valerie Luu, San Francisco based Chinatown Pretty is a photo project/blog chronicling the vibrant street style and stories of Chinatown senior citizens. Beyond an obvious sartorial appreciation is a deeper, palpable love of (and ode to) culture, connection, and conversation -- a shining light of positivity that’s especially important in today’s world. Here, we speak with Andria to learn more.
Tell us about yourselves. How did you meet, and what led you to start Chinatown Pretty? We met through the food world several years ago. I’m a freelance photographer who shoots a lot of food, and Val owns/runs a Vietnamese restaurant called Rice Paper Scissors. We’re both second gen Asian Americans, and this project started as a way to get to know our grandparents’ generation. We interview the subjects whenever possible, and we share more in-depth stories, along with the photos, on the blog.
We love the joyous and celebratory spirit of your portraits. How do you scout and connect with your subjects? Do you find they are open and willing to share their stories? We usually wander around Chinatown, stop by parks and busy shopping streets – the usual seniors' hangouts – and introduce ourselves to people who catch our eye. It’s hard to pinpoint what we’re drawn to, but we look for outfits that spark joy. There’s a certain style we see in Chinatown – often it involves unexpected outfits that play with bold colors, patterns, handmade clothing and accessories, and “vintage”, which of course are just pieces they have owned for decades!
We’re often met with skepticism, and it can be a challenge to persuade subjects to let us photograph them. There are many cultural, language, and generational barriers (we work with Cantonese or Toisan speaking translators). But, we think it’s all the more reason to be persistent and share their stories with others!
Is there a particular person or look that is your favorite? In many ways, Man Ta sparked this project. Valerie was living in Chinatown a few years ago, and Man Ta was the first senior whose style she fell in love with and admired from afar. We had just begun the project and were out shooting during Chinese New Year when we met her on the street. Her color and pattern mixing, combined with her jade earrings, perfect bob, and beaming style make the heart go a-flutter whenever we run into her.
San Francisco has evolved and changed so quickly in the past few years. How has the growth affected Chinatown? Luckily, SF’s historic Chinatown is relatively protected from new development thanks to the advocacy work of groups like Chinatown Community Development Center. They also manage affordable housing for low-income residents. So many of the seniors we meet benefit from their community work!
Tell us about the neighborhood. Can you share your favorite restaurants, shops, secret spots? We like to hit up Dol Ho for casual dim sum after walking around. It’s a tiny place. You’re lucky to get a seat, but we’ll also take it to go and sit on a stoop somewhere. New Lun Ting and Capital (their chicken wings!) are both great, old school eateries for homestyle Chinese with interiors that feel like 60s diners. Portsmouth Square is excellent for people watching. And, our friend Sydney runs Legion, a sweet boutique with local art.
We’re excited to see you’re expanding to other cities like NY and LA. Do you see similarities and differences in the various Chinatowns? LA residents seem more relaxed and a little easier to chat up (must be that SoCal weather). SF and NY residents tend to be more on the go with their city blinders up!
Fuggiamo is Italian for “let’s escape”. In the spirit of escaping, what are your favorite ways to unwind? We’re lucky that the Bay Area has so much beautiful nature. A walk in the woods is pretty relaxing.
What’s next for Chinatown Pretty? We’re currently working on a new storytelling project about old school restaurants and eateries in San Francisco’s Chinatown. And, we’d like to explore Chinatown senior style in more cities in the U.S. Let us know if you have a recommendation on which Chinatown to visit next!