When Valerie Luu would write in her journal at a cafe in San Francisco’s Chinatown, she’d see an elderly woman getting off at a bus stop wearing a pair of jade-speckled Keds sneakers. For weeks she would see her, fascinated by her bright shoes and patterned two-piece outfit, but never caught the woman’s name.
Months later, at a 2015 Lunar New Year festival, Luu, 33, and her friend, photographer Andria Lo, 39, did meet her. They learned that her name is Manning Yeung Tam, and that she had lived in the community for 19 years and had found her shoes at a nearby shop. She loved them so much that she bought 10 pairs. Tam also showed off her jade earrings, which she received as a gift in China when she got married at 16.
A photo of Tam would later become the cover of “Chinatown Pretty,” a book by Luu and Lo published last year that features over a hundred portraits and stories of the lively street-styles of seniors who live and grocery shop in Chinatowns throughout North America.
“Andria and I had a very visceral reaction whenever we were in Chinatown. We were like, ‘Oh my God, did you see her shoes?’ and, ‘Did you see that Supreme hat on that grandma?’” Luu told NBC Asian America. “So it was really a curiosity of where they got their clothes and how they composed their outfits. After a while, clothes became a gateway to learn more about their immigration stories.”
Luu and Lo coined the term “Chinatown Pretty” to describe the trendy outfits they’d see seniors wearing in these neighborhoods. The personal project started in 2014. After a story for an online magazine, they started a blog and Instagram account to showcase outfits that were full of patterns, bright colors and layers, mixed in with handmade or gifted clothing.
The duo worked with a translator who spoke Cantonese, the primary dialect for most historic Chinatowns, and partnered with nonprofits such as San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center. Walking through the neighborhoods for hours, they’d often catch seniors buying groceries or exercising in the park.
Luu and Lo said the seniors they interviewed often keep any clothes given to them and fix them up, and are meticulous in keeping their garments spotless. Hats are also a common wardrobe staple — many emblazoned with unexpected sayings or crochet detailing — so much so the authors learned how to say “your hat looks really good” in Cantonese.
The authors said they would exchange glances when they saw someone they wanted to talk to and tried to start a conversation and capture a portrait. The encounters, which could be as quick as two minutes, went on for five years as they explored Chinatowns in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Vancouver, before eventually landing a book deal.
Visually capturing Asian American senior citizens in this way is important, said Luu. She describes their outfits as unexpected, joyous, industrious and resourceful — values she said also reflect those of the community. The senior’s lived experiences also contribute to a crucial historical perspective.
“They have experienced so much history, from warfare, which often leads to their forced immigration, to having to start over in a new country with a new language, and often having to take on two to three new careers even in their old age, and then having to be a part of their family or raising kids in that process. It’s a lot compounded,” Luu said. “But it speaks to the resilience in the community.”
Since its release last year, Lo said the book has received a positive response. She said this reaction is likely due to how few stories there are about Chinatown, particularly those that show Asian elders in a positive light — a contrast to the news of rising anti-Asian hate incidents on the rise that have targeted the elderly.
“It’s kind of strange to be getting more light on a project because of that, but I think people are really craving these types of stories from the neighborhood,” Lo said. “There’s a wide diaspora of people and there’re a lot of unique stories, and we’ve been happy to share that with more people.”
One conversation Lo said that sticks out to her is one she had with a 95-year-old retired tailor in New York City’s Columbus Park in 2016. The man wore a hand-stitched hat and had added an extra piece of fabric on his collar to protect against the wind. He had also transformed his nylon bag into a cross-body bag using a lanyard.
Though he declined to give his name and was initially skeptical of Lo and Luu, he later said he was glad they stopped to talk to him. He said younger generations rarely engage with him and then shared a proverb.
“The sunset is infinitely beautiful, but it signals the end of the day,” Lo and Luu recall him saying. “One day you’ll be old as well.”
“Chinatown Pretty” is available through the author’s website.
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