“We’re both second-generation Asian Americans, and this project started as a way to get to know our grandparents’ generation,” Andria Lo and Valerie Luu, the duo behind @chinatownpretty, explain. Though Lo and Luu first met in the food world—the former is a photographer, the latter is the owner and operator of Rice Paper Scissors, a Vietnamese cafe in San Francisco—it was through their joint Instagram account, which celebrates the street style of seniors living (and grocery shopping) in varying Chinatown districts around the globe, that they really connected.
The idea began as a one-off story pitched to a local online publication and took on a life all of its own. The pair interviews their subjects whenever possible and share additional in-depth stories and photos on what became an accompanying blog. “We started the project because we love people watching, and Chinatown has some of the best; there are so many generations living in such a dense neighborhood,” Lo says. “We wanted to celebrate not just the street style, but the active lifestyle of the seniors we’d see.”
The process is simple: The duo wanders the neighborhood, stopping by parks and busy shopping streets; anywhere where local seniors can be found. Anyone who catches their eye is fair game for an introduction. “It’s hard to pinpoint what we’re drawn to, but we look for outfits that spark joy,” Lo says, referencing Marie Kondo’s now-ubiquitous catchphrase. “There’s a certain style we see in Chinatown—often it involves unexpected outfits that play with bold colors and patterns, handmade clothing and accessories, and ‘vintage,’ which, of course, are just pieces they have owned for decades.”
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Today we’ll be paying a visit to our friend Dorothy “Polkadot” Quock in SF Chinatown. She is one of the most active people we know (physically and politically) and is also the eco-style genius who mends her shoes with a pom pom, when the big toe wears a hole through. You can catch her leading Chinatown walking tours through @wokwizchinatowntours or working as a historian on projects with @goodmedicinefilms.
In the interviews, they ask the seniors about their daily lives, what they did before they retired, and any insight they can share on how to live a happy life. But they also go even deeper, excavating their immigration stories and how political unrest has shaped many of their journeys to America. In other words, it’s the style that draws them over, but the conversations that really bring the images to life.
There’s 78-year-old Guan Cuixia, whom the pair discovered at The Food Pantry at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Potrero Hill. She sports a wide-brimmed sun hat to prevent herself from getting too tan and cuts her own bob. There’s also Angela Chen, 75, a former immigration officer who they found shopping in a sparkly embroidered cap. “I think these are the sharpest photos ever taken of me,” she later told them in an email. “Very very super!”
And then there’s Man Ta, who they credit with helping start Chinatown Pretty. “We had just began the project when we met her on the street,” Lo says. “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.”
And there’s no sign of slowing down any time soon. In fact, beyond profiling more subjects, the pair are readying to release their first book, set to be published in 2020 by Chronicle Books. For anyone asking, “How do I turn a passion into a career?” let these women be the blueprint.