The Ingenuity and Flair of Chinatown Seniors

Cover of Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom from Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors by Andria Lo and Valerie Luu (published by Chronicle Books, 2020)

This essay is excerpted from Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom from Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors by Andria Lo and Valerie Luu, published by Chronicle Books.

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What Is Chinatown Pretty?

Spotted in Chinatown: a tightly trimmed silver bob and an ’80s print two-piece suit paired with jade green sneakers. Vintage painter’s cap worn askew, large tortoiseshell glasses, and a plaid fleece jacket layered over a houndstooth vest. Oversize black beanie, square-rimmed glasses, red Fair Isle sweater juxtaposed with a blue plaid shirt.

San Francisco (all photos © Andria Lo and Valerie Luu unless otherwise noted)

Sounds like a window display at Urban Outfitters, but it’s just a few of the outfits we’ve encountered on Chinatown pòh pohs (grandmas) and gùng gungs (grandpas). These seniors cause us to do a double, sometimes a triple take when we pass them in the crosswalks on Stockton Street, the catwalks of San Francisco Chinatown. Our hearts race when we see their inventive outfits and melt at the sight of the tender details — found ribbons tied onto walking canes and shopping carts, worn clothes that carry so much obvious history.

Chinatown Pretty — the term we coined to describe this unique style — is a delightful mix of modern and vintage, high and low, bold patterns and colors, and contemporary streetwear — like Nike sneakers or a Supreme hat — that takes the outfit to a whole new level. There are layers of knit sweaters and puffy coats (even in the summer) as well as five iterations of purple or florals — sometimes all in one outfit. These Chinatown fashion icons share some of the same aesthetic sensibilities as hipster bloggers — except they’re 80 years old! The seniors combine urban utilitarianism with unexpected sartorial selections that set our hearts aflutter.

These outfits weave together the seniors’ diaspora: where they came from, what they did for a living, how they made the best of their circumstances. Like handmade items using fabric from the sewing factory where they worked, or hand-knit or hand-me-down clothing from friends and family. Their style speaks to their values: Why buy new clothes when you can wear gifted ones? Or custom clothes from Hong Kong, 30 years old but perfectly preserved? Combined with tender personalized touches, Chinatown seniors’ style contains so much ingenuity, flair, and beauty.

How We Started 

We started Chinatown Pretty out of admiration for this overlooked community, for both their fashion blog–worthy outfits and their active and independent lifestyles. We often asked ourselves, “What is this grandma’s story — and where did she get her shoes?”

Andria Lo and Valerie Luu (photo by Phoebe Wong)

Andria and I met in 2009 through the San Francisco food community — she was photographing the burgeoning street-food scene as I was starting Rice Paper Scissors, a Vietnamese pop-up restaurant.

Our friendship began on dim sum outings in San Francisco’s Chinatown; we bonded over a shared love of Chinatown fashion. Whenever we saw a pòh poh pairing floral prints with plaids or a gùng gung wearing a baseball hat embroidered with an unexpected catchphrase like “All I Do Is Party,” we would look at each other in astonishment, like “Did we really see that?”

There was a certain je ne sais quoi about their style, so Andria and I started approaching seniors on the street to learn more about their outfits. Our conversations became as much about where they came from as where they got their clothes. Their stories reflected some of our own history through their diasporas, humble beginnings, and struggle to create better opportunities for themselves and their children. As second generation Asian Americans, we saw this project as a way to connect to our families’ histories: Andria’s parents came from Boston Chinatown and Hong Kong; my family were Vietnamese refugees, and my stepfamily came from Hong Kong. The Chinatown seniors’ dress and demeanor also reminded us of our own grandparents — their permed hair, their sock-and-sandal combinations, and the way their expressions could switch between extremely tough (and intimidating) and overwhelmingly affectionate.

Over the past five years, we’ve learned that we’re not the only ones obsessed with Chinatown street style. In the comments on our blog and Instagram, many Asian Americans have told us that these photos and stories also reminded them of their own grandparents and expressed gratitude for seeing this generation represented. We’ve also heard from other city dwellers excited to learn more about neighborhood characters, and fashion enthusiasts who are now looking to their elders for style inspiration.

Chinatown seniors’ outfits serve as portals to heartwarming and inspirational life stories, and through interviews with them, we hope to share their insight on how to live and dress during the golden years.

San Francisco

Chinatown History 

We didn’t know much about Chinatown history before starting this project. After interviewing hundreds of seniors, we’ve seen the rhythms and reasons emerge for their journeys from China to Chinatowns. This history is the pattern from which Chinatowns are cut.

Due to famine, war, natural disasters, political instability, and economic opportunities overseas during the mid-to-late 1800s, 370,000 laborers (mostly men) left Cantonese-speaking regions in Guangdong Province in search of work. Since Guangdong Province had been a hub for foreign trade for centuries due to the numerous ports in the region, the locals knew the opportunities that lay abroad. This awareness, combined with a strong sense of kinship between family and village members, created a community of people who immigrated to the United States and would support and encourage friends and relatives to migrate over throughout the next century. Many of these immigrants came to San Francisco in 1848 for the Gold Rush, thus creating the first Chinatown. It was a place for Chinese people to live, work, and provide services for each other. After the Gold Rush, another wave of immigrants were recruited as cheap labor to build the Transcontinental Railroad.

Once the railroad was completed, the demand for labor decreased. Racial tensions grew because white laborers felt that Chinese immigrants were taking away their jobs. Politicians capitalized on this sentiment and passed a series of unjust and racist laws that restricted the ability of the Chinese to immigrate and assimilate into mainstream society. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 denied Chinese living in America a path to citizenship and naturalization, the first and only time a federal law prohibited immigration based on nationality. (Canada enacted the Chinese Immigration Act, a similar ban, in 1885 and 1923.) The Page Act made it nearly impossible for Chinese women to immigrate, and other laws prohibited Chinese in America from marrying people of other ethnicities. Together these factors resulted in a mostly male, bachelor society.

San Francisco

Across the United States, Chinatown residents also faced arson, boycotts, and other violence from angry white laborers. Unjust alien land laws that barred Chinese from buying property, as well as the overwhelming hostility, made Chinatowns the only safe places for immigrants to live and work. Family and village associations became a social support network where people who shared similar last names or came from the same village could find jobs, housing, and loans. These mutual-aid organizations continue to exist today.

Due to the immigration bans, some people forged documents and claimed to be the offspring of United States–born Chinese Americans (who received automatic citizenship) — a phenomenon known as “paper sons.” Many birth certificates were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which gave “paper sons” the opportunity to claim they were born in the United States (even if they weren’t), since there was no other path to naturalization.

Immigration laws opened up once China and the United States became allies in World War II. The next big wave of immigrants came in 1965, when immigration quotas were lifted. The exclusion acts in the United States and Canada were also repealed in 1943 and 1947 respectively. Chain migration allowed family members to sponsor relatives, which continues to bring a steady stream of Chinese to America.

Another big wave occurred from the 1960s through the 1990s, as middle-class people in Hong Kong started to immigrate to North America in droves, since the Communist government of China was scheduled to take back control of Hong Kong in 1997 (it had been operating as a British Crown colony). For this group of immigrants, moving to Canada and the United States wasn’t so much about prosperity as it was about escaping Communism and retaining their personal and financial freedom.

Chinatown populations have ebbed and flowed over the past few decades. Second-generation Chinese Americans and new immigrants (many of whom are working professionals) have moved from the cities to the suburbs, leaving a smaller community consisting mostly of seniors and the “bachelor society” in historic Chinatowns. Suburban homes and Chinese mini-malls in satellite Chinatowns — in Monterey Park, Los Angeles, and Flushing, Queens, in New York — have become another way of life for Chinese Americans.

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San Francisco

More recently, Chinatowns are experiencing gentrification, with upscale businesses and luxury housing displacing the older Chinese residents and businesses. In cities like San Francisco, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and New York, residents, activists, and nonprofits are working hard to protect their vision of Chinatown.

Even though Chinatowns are changing, they remain an important hub for many different people. For new immigrants, Chinatowns still serve as a landing pad as they start their search for economic mobility. For second- and third-generation Chinese Americans, it’s a cultural touchstone, a place to visit for groceries or dim sum with their family. For locals and tourists, it’s a place to get immersed in the vibrant culture and architecture.

And for many of the people in this book, it’s the place they call home. The seniors we’ve met have come to Chinatowns for various reasons. Each conversation has given us a sliver of history, which is often tinged with the fatigue and heartbreak that comes from having to start over. Despite these hardships, many count their blessings and continue to be resilient. Our project is not only a celebration of their style, but also a documentation of their immigration journeys, their values, and their ability to adapt and overcome.

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Below is a selection of some of the people profiled in Chinatown Pretty.

Classic Hong Kong
Stockton Street, San Francisco, 2015

Joyce Wing in San Francisco

At first glance, it was Joyce Wing’s stylish oversize pink glasses that caught our eyes.

But then we saw a blue floral Mandarin-collar shirt peeking out of her San Francisco fleece jacket. When she pulled off the jacket, we were enamored by the details of her shirt: the modern Mandarin collar, the square hip pockets, the sharp cuffs.

Mrs. Wing, eighty-nine, lived in Boston for a few years. In 1963 she came to San Francisco Chinatown and worked in a Chinese grocery store, then in housekeeping at a hotel.

She also worked as a seamstress and had made the outfit she wore that day. Her look was very classic Hong Kong, which had more Western-style tailoring and fabrics due to the British influence. Many seniors we meet still wear the clothes they had custom made in Hong Kong in the ’60s, though Mrs. Wing’s subtle color combinations and pattern-mixing was something else (plus, she sewed it herself!).

Her calico shirt paired wonderfully with the red square-patterned pants. “I like pockets,” she said. “I made my pants with pockets on the inside.” She showed us: The pockets were made with a thin piece of fabric tucked on the interior, only accessible to her.

Many seniors like to create secret pockets on the inside of their pants or jacket to keep their cash and IDs safe. When I was growing up, my grandma always kept a few twenty dollar bills in her secret pocket, which she would gift to us grandkids on occasion, much to our delight.

After fawning over her outfit, we asked Joyce what was next in her day. In her bag was a whole chicken, which she was going to cook herself. “Nobody helps me, so I have to help myself,” she said about living on her own in Chinatown. She sighed and looked a little sad, but stressed the importance of keeping active: “I have to walk around so my feet can still work good.”

On the Go
Thirteenth Street, Oakland, 2017

Leung Tai Shen, Oakland

Leung Tai Shen, 89, was walking in Downtown Oakland wearing a handmade seersucker hat, a rich-colored angora sweater, and teal Puma sneakers. We loved how her baby pink hat was decorated with a rich maroon grosgrain ribbon, which tied together the accessory with the outfit. She smartly added an elastic band so her hat wouldn’t fly away.

For safety, Ms. Shen wore a whistle and two gourd charms on her lanyard. In Chinese culture, gourds are believed to keep away bad spirits and illness.

Although she was happy to smile for us, she was too busy to stop for a photo, so most of our photographs of her were taken while she was moving along with her walker, which she modified by adding silk floral fabric on the seat — a delicate touch.

Chinatown Central Plaza, Los Angeles, 2016

Charlie, Los Angeles

We first noticed Charlie’s shoes: patterned high-tops he bought from Goodwill.

Charlie immigrated from Vietnam after the war. “I wanted to find Charlie Chaplin,” he said, an obsession that began after seeing him in a short movie. “His face makes you laugh, so I remembered him.”

Committing Chaplin to memory, he described the actor to his boss in the United States, who then told him Chaplin’s name, which Charlie adopted as his American name. To be more like Charlie, he joined a tap-dancing troupe.

He also found inspiration in another performer, Gene Kelly, which is why he has an umbrella strapped to his backpack so he can also dance in the rain on a moment’s whim. “I imitate him,” he said.

A few other fun facts: Charlie’s a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party. He keeps his membership card around his neck.

We commented on his youthfulness. “What’s the secret?” we asked.

“I know how to live so I live long,” he said. He imparted some wisdom: “Don’t smoke. Don’t drink whiskey. And don’t have too many wives.”

Cardigan Companions
Madison Street, New York, 2018

Ci Juan Lin and Chun Xia Li, Manhattan, New York City

Ci Juan Lin, 74, and her friend Chun Xia Li, 78, were accidentally twinning when we met them at the Smith Senior Center, a community center run by Hamilton-Madison Center that provides meals and activities for the people in the area.

Both were wearing cardigans with only the top button buttoned and floral shirts underneath, pointy collars exposed up top. “I had no idea that we were going to match,” Ms. Lin said. “This is my everyday clothes.”

During the shoot, we liked how they joked with each other and playfully hit each other on the legs.

They matched from top to bottom, down to their checkered socks.


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