Valerie Luu and Andria Lo
Creators of Chinatown Pretty
Photos by Maria del Rio


If you haven't already seen the images, do yourself a favor and follow Chinatown Pretty. What began as a blog and instagram account documenting and celebrating the street style of chinatown seniors, this year became a beautiful book published by Chronicle. It shares the eclectic style and stories of Chinatown seniors as well as the histories of six North American Chinatowns in which they reside.

We met up with founders Valerie Luu and Andria Lo in San Francisco's iconic Chinatown to see some of their favorite spots, and find out more about their project. As we wandered the neighborhood they pointed out places with tasty eats, the best shop to find vintage deadstock tourist tees, and how the neighborhood was finding ways to adapt to the year- an ornate banquet hall turned temporary grocery store. We learned about how the project was so much more than just an appreciation of street style, it was an appreciation of the rich cultures and stories behind the people they met and the Chinatowns they visited.




What are your backgrounds and how did you meet? 

Valerie: I am the co-owner of Rice Paper Scissors, a Vietnamese pop-up restaurant. Andria is a freelance photographer, and we met through the food world many moons ago when Andria was photographing the underground SF food scene popping off between 2008-2010.


How did the project start and what drew you to
senior style in Chinatown?

Andria: We loved people watching in Chinatown and became curious about the style we were noticing amongst seniors. It was a patchwork of different patterns, colors, eras, and handmade clothing. It was such eye candy in contrast to the business suits and all black I saw in FiDi, which I’d often walk through to get to Chinatown. We set out to find more about this style, how it came about, and also learned about the people behind it.




In the introduction you talk about the project as a way to connect with your families' histories. What are each of your families' stories and how did the project relate to them?

 Valerie: My family immigrated from Vietnam after the war. What resonated with me was how a lot of immigrants came to this country because of a combination of various reasons: political turmoil, economic opportunity and a search for freedom. They showed so much resilience despite their difficult journeys. This Thanksgiving, I asked my grandfather over FaceTime what he was thankful for. Even though he’s been in the country for over 30 years, he said “I am thankful that I got to come to America.”

 Andria: My grandparents came over from China and Hong Kong. The project has encouraged me to learn about my own family’s history and ask them for details. There were similarities with the people we interviewed -- like many of the seniors, my maternal grandmother also worked in a sewing factory and made most of her own clothes and knit my Christmas gifts for many years. She also brought over “paper sons” -- children from her village that she claimed as her own, so they would have the opportunity to come to the States.



What did you learn through your conversations
and encounters with elders?

 Valerie: We learned that Chinatown Pretty isn't just a style -- it's an attitude encompassed in the seniors. There's a devil-may-care and functional approach to life and fashion. Six layers of florals and pink in one outfit? Why not?

 We learned about their active senior lifestyles -- many of whom live independently in their 70s and 80s --- and their resiliency, having experienced war and adapting to a new country. And dressing joyfully and continuing on despite everything they’ve been through.


Has the project influenced the way you view your
own personal style?

Andria: I’m inspired by the senior’s resourcefulness and have become interested in breathing new life into the clothes I already have by over-dying, tailoring and repairing.




After traveling and learning about the different histories of each chinatown, what stories do they share?

Valerie: Most people that immigrate to Chinatowns in North America come from Hong Kong or coast regions of the Guangdong Province in Southern China. Chinatowns are a landing pad for immigrants since they're able to get resources, housing and social support without having to know English. We learned that Chinatowns are special because of its vibrancy and strong cultural presence, and those things partly exist due to the tireless work of organizations that promote and protect it.


Chinatowns across the country have been hard hit by the pandemic. Have you talked with any seniors about how this year has affected the preservation of their community?

Andria: Chinatowns all over certainly have taken a hit economically, and socially, with the rise in anti-Asian sentiments. However the neighborhood was built on resilience and resourcefulness, and we’ve seen the community step up in incredible ways to support the seniors in Chinatowns with meal deliveries and fundraising. And we see firsthand that Chinatowns in the Bay Area are still bustling with good energy --people still need their fresh groceries and take out dumplings after all!



Do you have any favorite chinatown restaurants or businesses
that may be off the radar?

 We worked on a side project called Eat Chinatown, which was a photo show and guide to Chinatown's long-time restaurants.

 Andria: In addition to the Eat Chinatown recs, Dol Ho is a favorite for dim sum and lately I've been into the purple sweet potato bun at Yummy Bakery.

 Valerie: Through the project, we documented New Lun Ting Cafe (better known as Pork Chop House), a Hong Kong-style diner that's been in the neighborhood for 100 years. I go there for spaghetti with a fried egg and roast pork chop with a side of gravy. There's regulars that've been going there for decades and I hope to do the same! I always feel so warmed by their hospitality.

Shop Valerie and Andria's First Rite