Photos courtesy of the authors

Fashion and Wisdom From Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors

‘Chinatown Pretty’ celebrates the street styles of seniors in San Francisco’s Chinatown

Published in
4 min readJul 7, 2021


By Valerie Luu and Andria Lo

MMrs. Tom was one of the first people we met during the Lunar New Year in 2014. Her layers of purple knitted sweaters popped out at us. She was in San Francisco’s Chinatown picking up citrus for the Lunar New Year, one of her first outings since her husband’s passing. “My dad always liked bright colors,” her daughter said, when we asked why her mom wore two different shades of purple. In a way, it seemed like Mrs. Tom’s tribute to her husband.

Our moment with Mrs. Tom is one of the many sweet and touching encounters we’ve had over the past seven years. Our project began during our dim sum dates in Chinatown, when Andria and I realized we both had a visceral reaction to the outfits we saw on the elder passerbys. Our hearts would be set aflutter when we saw someone in their eighties wearing a Supreme hat mixed with a patterned two-piece set from Hong Kong or four floral patterns in one outfit. We saw facial expressions that reminded us of our grandparents, and outfits that served as inspiration on how to dress with abandon.

For our book, Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom from Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors, we traveled to Chinatowns across North America to photograph and interview more than 100 people, whom we met on the street, at parks, and in senior homes. We wanted to capture the seniors’ je ne sais quois — the unexpected details, resourcefulness, ingenuity, and joy found in their outfits.

The seniors’ clothes served as a gateway to their life histories. We interviewed them about their immigration journeys and their daily lives in Chinatown. Our last question was always, “What is the secret to a happy life?” They would share their wisdom — advice that carried more weight in the last year, as we searched for hope during those isolated days brought on by Covid-19.

Chinatown Pretty is as much about resilience as it is about their joyful outfits. It’s about getting up and going out — to source dinner, to walk even though their knees might hurt, and to seek out citrus for the Lunar New Year, despite the coronavirus making the world a bit scarier.

Due to the pandemic, we haven’t been out in Chinatown to interview or photograph for our project. Instead, we’ve integrated the neighborhood into our lives by shopping, dining, and hanging out in San Francisco and Oakland Chinatowns at least once a week.

In and outside Chinatown, we show love to the senior citizens, whether it’s saying jou san (“good morning”) to a passerby or teaching our grandparents to use FaceTime (even though they might be like my grandma, whose forehead is the only thing we see on screen).

Lastly, in our customary way, we compliment grandmas with, “poh poh ho leng” — dang, Grandma, you look good.

For more information about the book, check out Chinatown Pretty or follow their Instagram (@chinatownpretty). You can also learn more about the authors at Rice Paper Scissors and Andria Lo.