Paris and Milan have nothing on San Francisco’s Chinatown. On Stockton Street, 80-year-old grandmas sport Supreme hats, Nike sneakers, floral pants and puffy vests, while elderly men pair primary color blazers and white cotton gloves with plastic slippers and sun-bleached fedoras. Some of the most Instagrammed ensembles on San Francisco’s streets are found on the backs of beaming senior citizens in Chinatown and then celebrated by Chinatown Pretty, a wildly popular blog, Instagram account and soon-to-be book.
Created by Andria Lo and Valerie Luu, Chinatown Pretty is devoted to capturing the bold colors and eclectic patterns that bespeckle Chinatown’s bustling shopping district most mornings. Lo, 37, is an editorial photographer and Luu, 30, runs the Rice Paper Scissors pop-up and catering company. After meeting through San Francisco’s food scene, the pair quickly bonded over their shared love of the eclectic — and not always intentional — style they spotted on elderly women in Chinatown’s open-air shopping corridor. Chinatown Pretty was born.
“We had the same reaction every time we saw someone with the Chinatown Pretty aesthetic,” Luu says. She describes that aesthetic as including multiple shades of the same color, mixed patterns and unexpected pairings — all worn with an overall inner joyfulness.
“We’re constantly surprised by the things people pull together,” Luu says.
Lo and Luu, along with an interpreter, typically spend three to four hours circling the same shopping blocks of Chinatown looking for wildly dressed subjects in their 70s and 80s. According to Luu, only about 10 percent of the people they approach are willing to be photographed and interviewed.
“Asian culture isn’t the most public one,” Luu says of the seniors who decline to participate in Chinatown Pretty. “It’s more of a private one.”
Culture aside, Lo and Luu are also approaching people who are busy shopping for dinner and generally come from a demographic that can be unfamiliar with blogs and Instagram. “Usually they put their hands up and say, ‘Thank you!’ which means ‘no,’” Luu says.
Those that do choose to sign a waiver, share a little history and pose for a photo soon find themselves on a blog and social media feed that boasts more than 17,000 followers. The pair’s fashion-forward street photography has also been the subject of recent shows at galleries like 41 Ross and at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
Chinatown Pretty is a passion project for both Lo and Luu, both of whom intend to keep their day jobs even when Chronicle Books publishes a collection of their photos and interviews sometime in 2020. They spent much of this spring preparing for the book by looking for subjects in Chinatowns as far afield as New York and Chicago. Most of the time, however, Lo and Luu stick to neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland.
Occasionally, the pair will offer free portrait days at select low-income senior housing communities within San Francisco’s Chinatown as a means of both finding subjects and offering their elders a complimentary portrait session.
“We feel this, kinda like, pressure to capture their stories and their essence and their clothes before it’s too late,” Luu says. “We find it time sensitive.”