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Chinatown Pretty is a storytelling project that captures the street style of senior citizens in Chinatowns across North America. Since 2014, our blog-turned-Instagram-account has celebrated the unexpected and joyful outfits Chinatown seniors wear to dim sum, grocery stores, or while hanging out in the park.
Here’s a snapshot of Chinatown Pretty fashion: A Supreme hat worn with a floral silk shirt from Hong Kong and a hand-me-down Dora the Explorer backpack from a grandchild. Or knockoff Balenciaga slip-ons paired with elastic waist pants; a hand knit sweater layered with a puffy jacket. This style crosses geographical and cultural borders, teeters between high and low fashion, and combines handmade and gifted clothes. It’s an unmistakable élan, owned by resourceful senior citizens whose life histories, immigration stories, and personalities are woven into these outfits.
We released our first book, Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom from Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors in September 2020. It’s a collection of more than 100 stories and outfits of the feisty and sweet seniors we met on Chinatown streets. This was the pre-pandemic world, back when po pos (grandmas) would sometimes say goodbye by holding our hands, and we’d all feel the joy of our serendipitous encounter.
Once the book was published, we anticipated going on a book tour to meet generations of people for whom Chinatown is a home base of sorts. We were excited by the prospect of events in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Vancouver — the cities featured in the book — as well as going to Chinatowns we’ve always wanted to explore. That’s the special thing about Chinatowns; you can find one in almost every major city, from Seattle to Saigon.
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But, of course, COVID-19 changed our plans, as it did for everyone else. We did our book talks via Zoom, to virtual audiences who shared stories of their own grandparents’ style and wisdom. A common question posed to us was, “How can we support our Chinatowns?” Our answer was to double-down on what the Chinatown Pretty project was about: Celebrate the people who live there.
During the pandemic, we visited Chinatown without our camera and interview questions — it was about showing up and showing love during a time when the rise of anti-Asian sentiment was making headlines. For us, it was about having Chinatown become part of our weekly ritual: Getting food from our favorite dim sum spots, buying deadstock T-shirts from gift shops, shopping at mom-and-pop grocery stores, and of course, telling grandmas and grandpas they look good.
We were lucky to have captured these stories when we did, in the seven years before the coronavirus. And although releasing the book during the pandemic was not what we imagined, it did debut in a slowed down world where people were craving human connection. People told us our book was a positive portal to the Chinatown community they missed seeing.
They didn’t have to miss Chinatown, though. While we did our weekly visits, life there carried on. Gong gongs (grandpas) were still rushing to Stockton Street to get their groceries, po pos continued taking their evening walks. People were out a little less — COVID-19 and violence loomed as real threats — but the energy generated by these senior citizens reverberated throughout Chinatown. The heartbeat was still there.
After getting our vaccines we held our first in-person book talk with senior citizens at a retirement community in Oakland’s Chinatown. The chairs were spaced six feet apart. The po pos and gong gongs filed in, and an 88-year-old resident and self-proclaimed Chinatown Pretty fan volunteered to translate our presentation for those who needed it.
For the first time, we got to present our book to the folks represented in the book. The shift in semantics was small but important. Instead of saying, “Senior citizens live active and beautiful lives,” we got to say, “You live active and beautiful lives. You represent so much resilience and so much joy. You show us how to live rich and fulfilling lives, well into your 80s. Thank you.”