SENIOR CLASS

Photos: The elderly scenesters of Chinatown

Waistline bling.
Waistline bling.
Image: Chinatown Pretty/Andria Lo
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The lifestyles of the rich and famous are no match for the street styles of Chinatown’s senior citizens.

An ongoing photo series called Chinatown Pretty captures the soft grins and bold patterns of elderly residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The online project is by photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu, who also runs Vietnamese pop-up Rice Paper Scissors.

Shi Ping Tay, 81, wearing four different prints (one is tucked beneath her jacket).
Shi Ping Tay, 81, wearing four different prints (one is tucked beneath her jacket).
Image: Chinatown Pretty/Andria Lo

The pair set out every Saturday morning at 8am to catch the grocery shopping rush. Luu tells Quartz, “We look for outfits that bring us joy, that make our hearts race a little bit.”

That may not sound like much of a challenge in the historic neighborhood, but convincing shy Chinese octogenarians to talk about their lives or appearances—much less convincing them to pose for a photograph—is a matter of coaxing and chance. It can take hours to get someone to do something more than smile or say thank you, says Luu.

“For every ‘yes’ we get, there are 30 ‘no’s,” she says. “Besides, people are busy—doing shopping, shoving people. They’re usually walking faster than we are.”

Buck Chew, 94, and one of his 40 ties.
Buck Chew, 94, and one of his 40 ties.
Image: Chinatown Pretty/Andria Lo
You Tian Wu, 83, with a bolo tie he made from Mardi Gras beads.
You Tian Wu, 83, with a bolo tie he made from Mardi Gras beads.
Image: Chinatown Pretty/Andria Lo

You Tian Wu was already known for his fashion sense—Lo and Luu had seen him on Accidental Chinese Hipster. When they ran into him at You’s Dim Sum, he told them, “When you’re young you don’t have to care about fashion. But when you’re old, you have to.”

An unnamed woman with socks that say, “My favorite salad is wine.”
An unnamed woman with socks that say, “My favorite salad is wine.”
Image: Chinatown Pretty/Andria Lo
“My favorite salad is wine.”
“My favorite salad is wine.”
Image: Chinatown Pretty/Andria Lo
Joyce Wing, 89, with a home-sewn outfit.
Joyce Wing, 89, with a home-sewn outfit.
Image: Chinatown Pretty/Andria Lo

The majority of the clothes worn by seniors are brought from home, usually the Canton region. Their personal styles arise from a combination of saved and gifted clothes, handmade customizations, and an urge to be thrifty.

James Yang in beige.
James Yang in beige.
Image: Chinatown Pretty/Andria Lo
Chuck Lee, 83, and his San Francisco 49ers beanie.
Chuck Lee, 83, and his San Francisco 49ers beanie.
Image: Chinatown Pretty/Andria Lo
An unnamed woman with the burgundy hat and gray-lilac shirts she insists do not match.
An unnamed woman with the burgundy hat and gray-lilac shirts she insists do not match.
Image: Chinatown Pretty/Andria Lo

“Purple is the unofficial color of Chinatown,” says Luu. “You’ll see women wearing four shades of purple.”

Keeping warm, she says, is also a priority.

Yok Lan Chung, 90, with her silk layers and tweed jacket.
Yok Lan Chung, 90, with her silk layers and tweed jacket.
Image: Chinatown Pretty/Andria Lo

Chinatown Pretty shows at 41 Ross Alley in San Francisco until Feb. 28.