Chinatown Pretty, a fabulous new book collecting the stories and outfits of sartorially stunning seniors in Chinatowns across North America, isn’t easy to pin down. Is it the best looking sociological study of all time? Is it a Rosetta Stone for decoding the secret inspirations of all your favorite high fashion brands and chic stylists? Is it undeniable proof that octogenarian Asian immigrants who mostly wear pieces they have owned for years have more innate charisma, drip, and vitality than most trend-obsessed “influencers?”
We can’t say, but we love the ways in which authors Andria Lo and Valerie Luu center and amplify the beauty and wisdom of their subjects through the seemingly simple lens of street style.
WITH: Most people don’t get to see these amazing aesthetic Asian fashions in everyday life. As storytellers, how did you bring something which is kind of hidden to light?
Andria Lo: It’s always been there. We’re just shining a bright light on it so it’s hard to ignore. A response that we’ve heard all throughout the project from family members of the people we highlight, and even people who work in Chinatown is, “We’ve never really noticed how special these details are.” That was really sweet to hear, that the project was able to show something new to people who spend a lot of time with these people in their neighborhoods.
W: What did you learn during the process of creating the book?
A: I learned more about how Chinatown functions as a real life neighborhood and what it takes to maintain it as a livable place and as a place that can serve immigrant populations and vulnerable populations. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work from different nonprofits in every major Chinatown in America. We really saw how it takes a whole village to keep them feeling safe and vibrant.
W: Sounds like it was transformational for you in unexpected ways.
A: In so many ways. We started off the project out of curiosity, and admiration for their fashion. But seeing these seniors out and about every day, living very independent lives in Chinatown, sometimes living alone, lugging groceries up the hills, exercising in public spaces, using social services — we were just kind of in awe. They’re ultimate city dwellers.
We realized that fashion is really a gateway to learn more about them, their stories, their immigration journeys, more about their wisdoms and the lives they’ve lived.
W: There’s a great joy in the aesthetics of the outfits that you photographed. Did you find that photographing them connected you to a part of your heritage that you weren’t previously conscious of?
A: Yeah, that’s a very good question. Growing up I didn’t live near my grandparents. They didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Chinese, so there’s always been a disconnect between our generations.
My parents didn’t really talk a lot about our family history. Maybe that’s part of the Asian culture or Chinese culture. Sometimes they can be very private, especially about difficult times in life.
But once I started doing the project, I found that there’s a lot of overlap between the seniors we met in Chinatown and my own family. A lot of them were seamstresses when they immigrated, or they came from Hong Kong and southern China, which both my mom and my dad’s sides come from. I felt this kinship to the seniors because they sounded and dressed like my grandmas. So even though I wasn’t able to connect so fully to my grandparents, I was able to ask these questions to complete strangers that I wish that I had been able to ask my own grandparents.
W: This is a painful thing to speak about, but we didn’t feel that we could speak with you about Asian communities without bringing up the incidences of violence towards Asians that have been occurring with greater frequency over the past four years. When you were in the process of making the book, was this already a rising problem that you wanted to address?
A: It’s very heartbreaking to see this surge in violence, and to hear the news cycle these days. But I don’t think that the current concerns about anti-Asian violence stuck out to us as much when we first started the project. It was about celebrating this neighborhood of immigrants, and celebrating our own Asian culture. Chinatown is a place I feel really weirdly at home, because it’s Asian, it’s American, it’s sort of in-between, which is like my own background, being a second-generation Asian American. We’re glad that people are discovering the project in many ways, and seeing it as this beacon of light that can be a counterpoint to a lot of the terrible news. We started out with more as a fashion lens, but it’s really grown to be much more.
W: From a styling perspective, is there a parallel culture, aesthetically, in Asia? Or do you find that this style of dressing is a uniquely immigrant phenomenon?
A: It is, in a way, an immigrant phenomenon. They’re combining clothes that they brought over from Hong Kong, clothes that we might consider vintage, with puffy jackets and hats they bought in Chinatown. There’s a certain flair, a lot of big, bold, floral patterns, purples and reds and pinks, which I do think is partially cultural because you’ll find that a lot in Chinese culture with reds and florals as well. It’s that soup of influences that really makes it Chinatown Pretty.
Purchase their book here! chinatownpretty.com/book
Follow them here! http://instagram.com/chinatownpretty.