How Senior Fashion is Turning Heads in San Francisco’s Chinatown

You Tian Wu 82, about his fashion philosophy: “When you’re young you don’t have to care about fashion. But when you’re old, you have to.”

You Tian Wu 82, about his fashion philosophy: “When you’re young you don’t have to care about fashion. But when you’re old, you have to.” (Photo: Andria Lo/Chinatown Pretty)

Furry hats, custom bags, hand-sewn sweaters, and lots of wild prints. These bold fashions are all the rage among the elders of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Buck Chew at the opening of the Chinatown Pretty exhibit at 41 Ross Alley.
Buck Chew at the opening of the Chinatown Pretty exhibit at 41 Ross Alley. (Courtesy: Chinatown Pretty)

Photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu are chronicling senior style in the neighborhood with their Chinatown Pretty fashion and storytelling project. These days Lo and Luu spend most weekends in Chinatown learning about local style.

“Purple is really big in Chinatown,” Luu says. “Sometimes people wear four shades in one outfit. There’s a lot of cane fashion, too, like floral walking canes. Men usually wear monochromatic outfits. You see lots of baseball caps and sneakers — borderline hip hop fashion.”

Lo and Luu were inspired to create the project while Luu was living in Chinatown.

“Many mornings I would sit in Réveille Coffee, journaling and watching people get off the bus,” Luu says. “I would always notice this woman wearing bright green jade sneakers with this 1980s speckled print. It looked young and fresh but I could tell she was a senior based on her silver bob. She was my fashion missed connection.”

Man Ta, the woman in the Jade Shoes, is the posterwoman for Chinatown Pretty
Man Ta, the woman in the Jade Shoes, is the posterwoman for Chinatown Pretty (Courtesy: Chinatown Pretty)

Luu met the woman in the Jade shoes a couple of months later. Her name is Man Ta and she became the poster child for Chinatown Pretty.

The project started as a single article for the Bold Italic, a local culture website. Then the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) caught wind of it.

“Somehow we landed on their website and we said, ‘gee this is interesting!’ says Cathie Lam, senior community organizer for CCDC. “We kinda hit a pot of gold!” 

The CCDC asked Luu and Lo to turn Chinatown Pretty into a photo exhibition and blog. This is in conjunction with a shop Chinatown initiative, which aims to boost business during the holiday season. Lam says the project comes at a time when neighborhood culture and commerce are being threatened by development.

Photographer Andria Lo in Chinatown
Photographer Andria Lo in Chinatown (Photo: Jessica Placzek/KQED)

“The commerce has been affected by the construction especially along Stockton street,” Lam says.

Julie Fong wears a handmade corduroy top. She’s been living in Chinatown for over 50 years.
Julie Fong wears a handmade corduroy top. She’s been living in Chinatown for over 50 years. (Courtesy: Chinatown Pretty)

Lam thinks fashion can help draw attention to the personality of the neighborhood.

“You know fashion is a very common commodity, or a common thread to help people to see behind all the neon signs, that there are human beings living in Chinatown very actively,” Lam says.

“What I like about Chinatown culture and the seniors that live here is that they are out there,” Luu says. “A lot of people are 80 plus and more active than we are. And can actually can outrun us.”

Both Luu and Lo are Asian, but neither speaks Cantonese, so they usually hit the streets of Chinatown accompanied by a translator. Every weekend they ask dozens of people to share their story and pose for a picture. But for every “yes”, they get about ten “no’s.”

Writer Valerie Luu of Chinatown Pretty
Writer Valerie Luu of Chinatown Pretty (Photo: Jessica Placzek/KQED)

“We’re keeping a log of common excuses,” Lo says. “I’m going grocery shopping right now; my knees hurt; I can’t hear very well. It’s really rewarding when we are able to connect and get their story.”

A photo of Joyce Wing from the Chinatown Pretty blog.
A photo of Joyce Wing from the Chinatown Pretty blog (Courtesy: Chinatown Pretty)

The project bears some similarity to Accidental Chinese Hipster, a blog that pokes fun at Asian fashion and its likeness to hipster style. Luu and Lo say their project is different. Chinatown Pretty focuses on beautiful portraits and subject interviews.  Lo says hearing people’s stories is as important as taking stock of their style.

“We often ask them how did you come to America?” Lo says. “And a lot of times they’ll talk about ‘oh well we made this shirt because we worked in a factory 30 years ago.’ It has revealed a lot about the history of Chinatown. And the immigration stories are really interesting.”

The women hope to expand the project beyond San Francisco. Their dream is to visit Chinatowns across the country — from Los Angeles to New York.

The opening of Chinatown Pretty exhibit.
The opening of Chinatown Pretty exhibit (Courtesy: Chinatown Pretty)

The Chinatown Pretty exhibition is on view in San Francisco’s Chinatown at 41 Ross Alley through February 28, 2016. 

  • Marie T. Fisher

    Great article, and I love fashion in all forms so I will definitely visit the exhibit. Note: correct spelling is “sewn,” as in “hand sewn sweaters.”

Author

Jessica Placzek

Jessica Placzek grew up on the West Coast, went to college on the East Coast and figured out what she wanted on the Gulf Coast. She likes talking to people and learning, so she became a reporter. This is where she tweets: @jessicazyp

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