Discovering Our Best Selves in “Chinatown Pretty”

Andria Lo and Valerie Luu spent six years chasing after stylish seniors of Chinatowns across North America to create their stunning book. Chinatown Pretty defines the “signature style worn by pòh pohs (grandmas) and gùng gungs (grandpas) in Chinatowns everywhere… it’s layers of floral sweaters and puffy jackets, and a tightly trimmed silver bob-topped with a Supreme hat.”

Equal parts whimsical and reverential, the authors explore the rich histories and life lessons that are woven into the iconic outfits. They have collected priceless pearls of wisdom from the seniors on how to put together an outfit, be creative, and most of all, live fully. Here are five memorable pearls:

“I don’t have much money to buy clothes, so I make it.”

Much of Chinatown Pretty is born out of resourcefulness which is what makes it so dazzlingly creative. Eighty-seven-year-old Dorothy G.C. Quock (photographed above) patched the holes of her red Mary Jane shoes with merry red pom poms. A ninety-five-year-old grandpa sewed multiple hats, one on top of the other for “extra warmth” and ended up creating a one-of-a-kind domed hat with the different colorful layers peeping through at the base. Garments are worn and preserved for decades, sometimes coming back in trend, like a pristine twenty-year-old acid wash cap worn by a grandma that looks straight out of an Urban Outfitters catalog.

“If I told you the whole story, it would take three days.”

Taking the time to talk to Chinatown elders often rewarded the authors with stories of their backgrounds that were as mesmerizing as their outfits. Ninety-six-year-old Buck Chew (photographed above) carries around a little photo album containing pictures of his younger self from Macau looking as stylish as ever. He worked as an accountant, but also moonlights as a poet and calligrapher. Glamorous and poised, eighty-seven-year-old Estelle Kelley was a cabaret dancer at Forbidden City, a Chinese nightclub in the 1950s, and professes that singing and dancing are now a core part of her. Ninety-three-year-old Farn S. Lee was fourteen years old and weighed only 69 pounds when he arrived at Ellis Island from Hong Kong. He would never see his mother again, but according to his daughter, coming to the U.S. was “all one big adventure.”

“I like to have a lot of people around me, it’s a happier feeling — being able to share happiness with people. I like my community.”

Chinatowns began as a necessity for the swell of Chinese immigrants starting in the 1850s. In the face of arson, boycotts, and other violence from angry white laborers blaming them for the shortage of jobs, Chinese people banded together to live, work, and provide services for each other. Chinatowns continue to offer vital services through non-profit organizations that advocate for everything from affordable housing to food pantry donations. Most Chinatown elders live in low-income, single-room occupancy buildings with encroaching gentrification threatening their way of living. Still, they display heart-warming generosity by sharing their food, making each other clothes, and forming Chinatown concern groups that look out for each other — just as they’ve done for over 170 years.

“When I look at you guys, you are so beautiful and good. When I see you are happy, then I am happy.”

What broke but also filled the authors’ hearts was witnessing how grateful the seniors were that two young people were interested in them. Even though the authors didn’t speak their dialect, they bridged the language and cultural divide by calling out “pòh poh hóu leng!” which translates to “pretty grandma!” in Cantonese. During the interviews (conducted with a translator), the seniors often thrust gifts onto the unsuspecting authors from any food they had on hand to the hats on their heads when they were complimented on them. However, the most precious gift the seniors gave the authors was their friendship — like Betty Yee who tried to tear the authors away from their Chinatown Pretty exhibit to go to a local church and have some free food with her and Manning Yeung Tam (featured on the book cover) who now whenever she sees the authors in San Francisco’s Chinatown, will come over to hold their hands and say hello.

“The sunset is infinitely beautiful, but it signals the end of the day. One day you’ll be old as well.”

Loss is an inevitable part of life that came into the forefront with this project. Anna Lee, Luu’s own grandmother who was profiled in the book, had since passed away at 94, bequeathing many items in her wardrobe to Luu that she now wears weekly. She described being part of Chinatown Pretty as a “fun chapter” in her long life, and when told that 1,700 people liked a photo of her posted online, she asked wide-eyed, “1,700? Did you count?” Since publication, other seniors have also passed, and when asked how she processes her grief, Luu replied, “I think about the seniors every day. They now live on not just in my mind, but in so many other people’s minds and hearts through this book.”

About the authors

Lo and Luu (photographed above), the string that held these pearls of wisdom together, were heralded by the executive director of San Francisco Chinatown Community Development Center for creating “one of the best representations of Chinatown culture.” Their book arrived as a much-needed antidote when anti-Asian violence, particularly against elders, was at a record high.

The seniors’ valuable wisdom and knack for creating beauty transcends generations, culture, and race, allowing us to see a universal reflection of our prettiest selves in these singular individuals. When asked what the rest of us can do, Luu answered, “Go and make Chinatown part of your weekly ritual — get your groceries there and have regular standing dim sum dates with your friends. Connect with your neighbors by calling out ‘pòh poh hóu leng’ or communicating with a smile. It goes a long way.”


Instagram: @chinatownpretty


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All images: Chinatown Pretty by Andria Lo and Valerie Luu