Showing joy to counter hate: A celebration of Chinatown seniors in North America

Colourfully dressed elderly women in Chinatown in San Francisco, from the book Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom From Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors.
PHOTO: Andria Lo

When I first interviewed photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu, founders of the blog Chinatown Pretty, in 2018, their Instagram account had 11,000 followers and they were four years into their mission of documenting the outfits worn by the elderly denizens of Chinatowns across North America.

Lo and Luu, who are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, founded the blog in 2014 to “celebrate the street style of seniors living (and grocery shopping) in Chinatown”.

They started shooting in the buzzing Chinatown district of San Francisco, but eventually expanded their repertoire to include stylish seniors in five other Chinatowns across North America, in New York, Oakland in California, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Vancouver in Canada.

There is a personal aspect to the Chinatown Pretty project, as both Lo and Luu are second-generation Asian-American: Luu is Vietnamese-American (her parents and grandparents came from Ho Chi Minh City) while Lo is Chinese-American (her father is from Hong Kong and her mother was born in Boston’s Chinatown).

Dorothy Quock in San Francisco, from the book Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom From Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors.
PHOTO: Andria Lo
Mr and Mrs Jung, in Los Angeles, from the book Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom From Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors.
PHOTO: Andria Lo

The two friends established the blog and Instagram account, which now has more than 55,000 followers, as a passion project, but even in those early days, the idea to publish a book was in the back of their minds, or “a dream”, as Lo recently said in a video interview.

Almost seven years after it all started, Lo and Luu have released Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom from Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors, a photography book published by San Francisco-based Chronicle Books. 

The beautifully illustrated tome, which features more than 100 photos and interviews, pays homage to the vibrant communities of North American Chinatowns, which in recent months have been in the spotlight amid a rise in anti-Asian racism during the coronavirus pandemic.

First detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2020, the virus has since spread throughout the world, but its association with China has remained, thanks in no small part to political figures such as former US president Donald Trump, who, while in office, often referred to the virus as the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus”.

According to a study by Stop AAPI Hate, a non-profit social organisation that tracks incidents of discrimination, hate and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, there have been almost 4,000 racially motivated attacks against Asian-Americans since lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronarivus began in the US just over a year ago.

“It’s very heartbreaking to see the videos and the violence, but it reinforced our mission to celebrate this demographic and show uplifting stories and images from that community and support them,” says Lo. “We’ve received many messages saying that it’s a nice break to see this positive imagery that shows Asian joy.”

Joyful is definitely how you would describe the mismatched prints, unusual colour combinations, comfy pyjama sets, excessive layering and quirky accessories of Lo and Luu’s subjects, but the stories in the book also reveal the struggles that many of these Asian-American immigrants experienced after leaving their countries of origin.

Take Kuochiang Fung. An 88-year-old from Indonesia, he moved to China as a university student. In 1959 he was sentenced to 20 years in prison as part of a purge of intellectuals in the Communist Party accused of being pro- capitalism.

Buck Chew in San Francisco, from the book Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom From Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors.
PHOTO: Andria Lo
Andria Lo and Valerie Luu, founders of Chinatown Pretty.
PHOTO: Andria Lo and Valerie Luu

He managed to flee China for the US in the 1970s, and when Lo and Luu approached him to be part of the book, his only condition was that the book be printed in Hong Kong, and not China. Lo and Luu’s publisher agreed to the request in order to include his poignant story in the book.

“We had a 90 per cent rejection rate, as most seniors are shy to talk and have their photos taken,” says Lo when looking back at the seven years she and Luu spent approaching possible subjects in Chinatowns across North America.

She adds that the elderly residents of the Chinatowns in Vancouver and Chicago tend to be a bit more approachable than their counterparts in other cities, reflecting perhaps “the stereotype of the friendly midwesterner and friendly Canadian”. 

The cover of Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom From Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors.
PHOTO: Chinatown Pretty

Lo, who says she discovered her love for stylish Asian seniors on her trips to Hong Kong, hopes to one day return to the “motherland” to introduce the book to audiences in the region.

In the meantime, those interested in buying the book can do so through Chinatown Pretty’s affiliate page on bookshop.org. All proceeds from purchases made through that channel will be donated to various non-profit organisations based in North American Chinatowns.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.