When I lived in Chinatown, I spent my mornings camped out at Réveille Coffee Company, a café located on the corner of Columbus and Pacific. I’d sit at the southwest window of this flatiron building and watch life where the lines between Chinatown, the Financial District, and North Beach blur.
Buses would unload with morning commuters: Financial District folks would walk down toward Montgomery Street in their gray office attire – pencil skirts and blazers. Meanwhile, Chinese seniors would get off and walk up Pacific, with purple puffy jackets, snapbacks, and sneakers you’d expect to see on a 20-year-old Missionite, not an 80-something Chinese woman.
It reminded me of pictures I’d seen on Accidental Chinese Hipsters. Yes, sometimes the outfits were funny and hipster, like the ones on the blog, but more often they were inspirational.
Chinatown fashion combines urban utilitarianism with smart, unexpected combinations of prints and a use of color that just made me feel uplifted whenever I saw it. They’re fashionistas – worthy of any street-style blog.
If you were to replace the 80-year-old senior with, say, myself, I would look so undoubtedly hip. Unfortunately, I don’t possess that same knack for fashion, but I wanted to meet these fashion-forward seniors and document their style.
This photo essay is a month’s worth of excursions with photographer Andria Lo and translators Tricia Choi, Kat Wong, and Michelle Yeung. It was a month of cold and hot tea and dim sum meals, of many seniors being open with us, sharing their outfits and telling us their stories, from the feet up.
Man Ta bought her jade-colored shoes at a store on Stockton Street. “I liked them so much I bought 10 pairs,” she said. “I wear them until they break.”
She's been in Chinatown for the past 18 years, long enough to see that shoe store on Stockton come and go.
Jade seems to be Man Ta’s favorite color. She pulled back her bob to reveal a pair of jade earrings she received when she got married at age 16 back in China – she still wears them at age 82. She also showed us a jade ring that she wears with the stone turned around toward her palm.
We parted ways after 20 minutes of conversation, feeling like we all made a new pengyou, or friend.
Floral and Bright
We met Yu Tom, 76, and her daughter Charmaine the weekend before the Lunar New Year, when everyone rushes to Chinatown to buy up fresh citrus, kumquat trees, and cherry blossoms. They had lived in Chinatown for 35 years, and currently reside near the Cow Palace.
Charmaine said our timing was interesting because her father just passed away a month ago, and this was her mom’s first outing since.
“My dad always liked bright colors,” she said, when I asked her why her mom wore two different shades of purple, a common Chinatown aesthetic. In a way, it seemed like Mrs. Tom's tribute to her husband.
Also on Mrs. Tom was a long-billed cap, because “she cannot stand the sun.”
“Sometimes she wears it sideways, so it looks a little hip-hop,” giggled Charmaine.
I asked Charmaine about the layering in Chinatown. “The elderly like vests to keep warm,” she said, pointing out that it’s not as bulky as a long puffy jacket.
“The hat, the vest – it’s all like a security blanket for her,” she said.
We spotted Li Nan Ping walking down Stockton Street on his way to tea with his son. Even at 95, the former schoolteacher treks down from his house on Broadway Street to read the paper and relax over tea – a ritual he's enjoyed the 40 years he's lived in Chinatown.
We were enamored with his velvety fedora cap. "I've had it for the past 20 years," he said. When asked why he enjoyed the hat, Li Nan Ping said he bought it because it spoke to him. “I felt it in my heart,” he said, patting his chest.
When asked to describe his style he said "warm." He had eight layers on that day, each one creating a Saturn-like ring around his neck.
The Most Handsome Couple in Chinatown
We saw them at Portsmouth Square and frantically made a beeline for them, both in a brown, earthy palette with matching cheetah sweaters and furry hats. The gentleman didn’t want to pose for us or reveal his name, but thanks to her persistence, Kat, our translator, was able to banter with the couple long enough for them to agree to a portrait.
And yes, they did match on purpose.
Andria spotted James Yang on one of her outings. His outfit is typical of many men in Chinatown: monochrome – either all beige, gray, or black.
He prefers wearing suits and slacks instead of jeans like “young people.” When Andria took his picture, he exclaimed, “I’m a real fox!”
The information he gave was hard to believe. He told Andria of his ties with the mayor, his grand education in foreign countries, and that he could speak 17 languages. But with that rascal smile, we just nodded and listened and took it all in with a grain of salt.
Silk on Silk on Silk
We approached Yok Lan Chung, a 90-year-old Chinatown resident outside a grocery store on Stockton Street. She was a bit taken aback at first by the three of us, a gaggle of girls complimenting her on her tweed coat and layers of silk: a jade blouse with a purple paisley shirt underneath and a black-and-gold paisley scarf around her neck.
We loved the silk on silk on silk. Her daughter, who's been with her in Chinatown for the past 40 years, was a little less impressed when I asked her for some insight on Chinatown fashion. “What is there to write about?” she grunted. “There’s nothing special.”
But if you notice details, there is something very special about Chinatown style.
When we noticed Shi Ping Tay pushing her cart down Jackson Street, she had on three different prints: a yellow Tropicana floral blazer, a blue plaid scarf, and a burgundy checkered vest. She revealed four patterns after she unbuttoned her jacket and showed us a purple plaid shirt.
“All my clothes are gifted,” said the 80-year-old fashionista and Chinatown resident of 15 years. “My friends give me all my clothes. I never have to buy anything.”
The Best Dressed Man in the World
It was the last day of our shoot. We went to You’s Dim Sum and shared a table with this older gentleman, You Tian Wu, clad in an all red suit and a bolo tie he fashioned out of old Mardi Gras beads. Our eyes grew wide when we realized that he was The Best Dressed Man in the World – a guy our friend Pete Lee showed us pictures of on Accidental Chinese Hipster. He was famous.
We talked to Mr. Wu, 82, about his fashion philosophy: “When you’re young you don’t have to care about fashion. But when you’re old, you have to.”