Accidental hipsters: The sartorial flair of Chinatown’s seniors

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CNN  — 

On the streets of Chicago, a stylish female resident pairs an upturned Burberry bucket hat with a pear-blossom print bomber jacket. In San Francisco, a man with a model’s steely gaze poses in a check button-up, a tuft of dark hair shooting out from the back of his five-panel Obey cap.

The outfits featured in Andria Lo and Valerie Luu’s street style photographs are the epitome of contemporary urban fashion. But there’s a twist: The subjects are all elderly residents of North America’s Chinatowns.

Documenting a style they’ve dubbed “Chinatown Pretty” – which also serves as the title for their new book – photographer Lo and writer Luu have spent the last six years photographing and interviewing the communities’ most stylish seniors, some of whom are well into their 90s.

While some models’ choices are very deliberate, the fashionable ensembles are usually entirely accidental, the pair explained in a phone interview.

“About 90% of the people we talk to are just like, ‘This old thing? It’s nothing,’” Luu said.

“They say it’s not intentional. But the ‘Chinatown Pretty’ aesthetic exists because they’re diaspora. So it’s things they brought over from Hong Kong 30 years ago, mixed in with huge sunbonnets and puffy jackets they got in Chinatown, combined with a Supreme hat or Nike shoes that their grandchild, or child, had given to them. Then, mixed in with this, is clothes they made for themselves, or that families or friends have made.

“It creates this interesting patchwork of textures, eras and decades.”

Timeless style

The duo’s new book brings together portraits of more than 100 subjects, many of whom are identified according to their most eye-catching garments – from Jade Shoes and Purple Pajamas, to Ten-Gallon Bucket Hat and Penguin Socks.

But as well as beanies, sneakers and ’90s sports jackets that were worn for so long that they’re back en vogue, the photos also express a timeless sense of style through sharp blazers, fun jewelry and colorful accessories. What’s more, many of their subjects’ clothes have been handmade or repaired, offering an antidote to the fast fashion culture of subsequent generations.

“The Chinatown seniors are very resourceful,” Luu said. “They wear clothes that they’ve had for 30 years – and they look brand new.

“A lot of things that we practice in the city, and celebrate as contemporary urban values – like urban gardening, shopping local or slow fashion – these seniors are living day in and day out. There’s a lot to learn from them.”

Buck Chew, who moved to the US in 1983, sports a fedora, suit, white gloves and a colorful tie.

Personal stories

The idea for the project stemmed from a mutual love of San Francisco Chinatown – America’s oldest – where the pair would “would meet up for dim sum dates and watch people go by,” Lo said.

They have gone on to profile seniors in Chinatowns found in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, as well as Vancouver, Canada.

While Lo captures the portraits, Luu interviews the subjects about their lives and personal histories. And although Chinatown’s elderly residents were not always enthusiastic about having their photos taken (“They tend to be pretty guarded,” Lo said, adding: “We do get rejected more often than not), they were far more enthusiastic about telling their stories. The duo discovered that their subjects’ immigration stories were often filled with both difficulties and determination.

“Some people worked as caretakers for other seniors until they were really old, or they worked as seamstresses or in factories, so it really ranged. But the common themes were that they went through a lot of hard work, and they worked to assimilate and settle in a new country,” explained Lo.

“Some of them have seen war, too,” she added. “So I think they’ve experienced a lot of hardship. But, despite that, they still live really active lives – and, most of the time, independently.”

Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom from Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors,” published by Chronicle Books, is available now.