Chinatown Pretty is a storytelling project, founded by photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu, that documents senior citizens’ street style in Chinatowns. What qualifies as Chinatown Pretty? It combines urban utilitarianism with unexpected sartorial choices that reveal resilience, personal histories, and cultural values. Since 2014, they’ve photographed and interviewed hundreds of the seniors in historic Chinatowns across North America. The project is not only a celebration of this unique style, but a way to share the seniors’ immigration stories and well-earned wisdoms.
Valerie Luu is a journalist and one half of the Vietnamese pop-up restaurant Rock Paper Scissors. She lives in San Francisco.
Raised in Alaska and Texas, Andria Lo is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer now based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a background in studio art with a degree from the University of California Berkeley. Whether capturing portraits on-location or products in the studio, Andria brings a design-forward approach and calm presence to any project with specialties including product and creative still life, food culture, skincare and beauty, lifestyle and portraiture. LiterASIAN’s Sophie Munk interviews Valerie and Andria as part of a series of profiles of this year’s lineup of authors.
You started a blog after your project, Chinatown Sartorialist, was featured on the Bold Italic. What was the process of turning this project into a book like?
A few years after we published the Chinatown Sartorialist article, the Chinatown Community Development Center, a local nonprofit, reached out to us about collaborating on a solo photo show. That catalyzed us to start an Instagram and blog — and after six years of meeting hundreds of senior citizens, we have our first book! The book is a collection of over 100 photos and interviews with stylish seniors that we’ve met in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Vancouver. We spent two years working on the book — first shooting in new cities like Chicago and Vancouver — and selecting photos, writing stories about our interactions and about the histories of each Chinatown.
Chinatown Pretty is a storytelling and photography book by both of you, with the help of volunteer interpreters. What was this collaborative experience like?
The collaborative process gives us so much energy! We get rejected by 90% of the people we approach, so it’s helpful to have each other and the interpreters to keep up the spirits (and have more eyes for fashion scouting.)
What is the greatest lesson you have learned through this project? Do you have future plans for a storytelling project?
To dress and love with abandon. The only plans we have right now are to enjoy the release of this book and await a time when we can celebrate the book in-person, since the book was released during the pandemic. And to continue to tell poh-poh’s they look great.
Valerie Luu and Andria Lo will be at LiterASIAN 2021 as part of their book talk and presentation, It’s a Beautiful Neighbourhood: “Chinatown Pretty” Across North America on May 12th, 6.00pm – 7.00pm (PST). Register here for your ticket.
Sophie Munk is a graduate of McGill University, where she majored in international development and history. She is currently a coordinator at PCHC-MoM Society, one of ACWW’s partner organizations. She has a background in community based initiatives, research, and service. She is planning on pursuing a career focusing on the relationship between culture and health governance in an international context.