On Oct. 17, Eastwind Books of Berkeley hosted a virtual book talk to feature “Chinatown Pretty,” a book that is part of a larger project to share the style and stories of Chinatown’s senior residents. The event was held in partnership with the Oakland Asian Cultural Center and included a presentation and Q&A with photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu, the two creators of the book.
“(Chinatown’s) not quite Chinese, not quite American. It’s an in between space,” Lo said during the event. “No matter where I travel, I check to see if there’s a Chinatown.”
Lo and Luu, each with their own unique relationship to Chinatown neighborhoods, set out in 2014 to capture the intricacy of these urban centers. What started as an admiration for the fashion of Chinatown’s “poh pohs and gung gungs,” which translates to “grandmas and grandpas” in Cantonese, became a six-year venture into Chinese-American culture. The pair traveled to a number of Chinatowns dotting the continent, among them Oakland, San Francisco, Chicago and Vancouver.
The work involved interviewing and taking portraits of people Lo and Luu encountered. Initially, the content was shared in the form of blog posts and exhibitions. Though as time went on, their efforts and learnings “instilled a mission” in them, as Luu said, to continue the project.
At the book talk, Lo and Luu presented various profiles from the book. They showed photographs of individuals they spoke with and shared their respective stories. Whether their subjects were sporting pajama sets, Supreme hats or anything in between, Lo and Luu learned that to ask about their clothing is to ask about their lives, which Lu described as admirably active and independent.
One profile, for example, was that of Estelle Kelley. She is pictured in teal slacks, a plaid coat and statement jewelry. Kelley led a dancing career and currently performs at retirement homes. Her confidence spurred from far more difficult, demure beginnings, however. Kelley did not know English growing up in San Francisco; Lo shared that Kelley “had no idea what was being said” and “no one to explain to her.”
Although deeply enriching, the project was not without its obstacles. For one, neither Lo nor Luu are fluent in the local dialects, such as Cantonese, so they would bring translators along for their shoots in the cities. Secondly, only about one of 10 elders would agree to a photo. The two joked later at the event that this would leave them with no choice but to merely admire these “unicorns,” as Lo said they’d call them, from a distance.
The next portion of the event was an open Q&A, which invited a wide range of questions from attendees. From gentrification to COVID-19, Lo and Luu were able to round out their project with even more knowledge and context.
Attendees wanted to know more about the Chinatown aesthetic — not only as a style, but as a more broad reflection of a way of life. Lo explained that residents often wear clothing that they made themselves, as many of the current city dwellers were formerly seamstresses. This type of work was common among older generations since it did not require the use of English. Lo also cited thriftiness and resourcefulness as key values in Chinatown culture, as to reuse and repurpose is “ingrained in Chinese culture.”
A key topic of the discussion was also the importance of cultural preservation. Chinatowns — some more than others — are faced with the risks of becoming tourist destinations and the increasing presence of new businesses. Fortunately, various community development organizations exist to support and advocate for the local residents.
When asked what they wished the average person better understood about Chinatowns, Luu’s response was to recognize that they are a “central part of (the residents’) existence.” And so, she calls for others to “give it some love” — a simple proposal, though one that speaks wonderfully to the passion “Chinatown Pretty” is born from.