Chinatown Pretty And The Poetics of Everyday Dress

by Jane Shi [Non-Fiction]


My friend Judah and his partner Odera are sitting with me at Moii Café on Cambie and Broadway in Vancouver. Judah takes out a pencil and a small palette of paints and starts to draw Dorothy “Polkadot” Quock (seen in fig. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6), a subject of Andria Lo and Valerie Luu’s Chinatown Pretty. As he dabs on the small red dots of her zany and memorable outfit, Judah recalls a time when the style of Chinatown Pretty was ridiculed. Since 2014, Lo and Luu have been photographing the unique sartorial culture of Chinese seniors in San Francisco’s Chinatown, along with seniors in other U.S. Chinatowns. In The Bold Italic, Luu notes that “Chinatown fashion combines urban utilitarianism with smart, unexpected combinations of prints. Their use of color makes you feel uplifted whenever you see it. They’re fashionistas—worthy of any street-style blog” (emphasis mine). Featuring photographs and stories appearing on Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, style magazines online, as well as gallery showcases, Lo and Luu’s blog does more than capture seniors’ fashion in Chinatown; it juxtaposes the story of seniors’ style with their lived experiences as immigrants and people of colour. As Luu’s description of her and Lo’s project suggests, we are invited to sit in the joy of these stories.


Catch Polkadot below, sitting in her own joy. Lo and Luu’s photographs of Polkadot will lead you through this article, as she would in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where Chinatown Pretty began.

All Chinatown Pretty Images Courtesy of Andria Lo

At over 17k followers, Instagram allows Chinatown Pretty to regularly bring the lives of Chinatown’s seniors into the palms of younger audiences’ hands. While virtually no seniors of Chinatown use Instagram themselves, the account—consisting of photographs, style commentary, and seniors’ oral storytelling—allows their everyday aesthetic, dress, and storytelling, to flourish online. For many diasporic Chinese youth in Vancouver, our admiration for seniors’ style is coupled with a strong concern for their well-being in a Chinatown where the displacement of cultural, food, health, and housing amenities for low-income seniors has been rampant. Since Chinatown Pretty appeared in the blogosphere, youth-led activist groups in Vancouver working alongside and supporting seniors—such as Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, Chinatown Concern Group, Hua Foundation, Youth Collaborative for Chinatown, and many others—have been urging the broader public to care, too. This fall, I have also begun organizing art workshops with and for Chinese seniors in Chinatown—whose art and stories will eventually go in a book—with fellow youth at WePress Vancouver.

Given the dire circumstances of this political moment in the city of Vancouver (including record-high homelessness rates, low-income seniors choosing to take their own lives in the face of poverty, and a deadly, widespread opioid crisis), joy seems fleeting at best—an emotion reserved for when victories eventually come. Yet, within this environment, Chinatown Pretty’s aesthetic remains a constant influence. It prompts Judah to take out his paintbrush and fosters a sense of appreciation for seniors’ style, defying language barriers that might exist across generations. In other words, the joy transmitted through the poetics of everyday dress expands what a community sees as possible and articulates a shared vision for the future. This summer, Andria Lo and Valerie Luu made an appearance in Vancouver, where they captured the exuberant colours of local seniors’ style. Such colours are these seniors’ long-cultivated joy, and teach me just how sustainable that joy can be for community.

Chinatown Pretty is indeed vivid, colourful, and full of joy. Endless smiles and suave poses greet you in each portrait. When scrolling through the blog, you cannot help but smile, too. By spotlighting the frequently handmade, recycled fashion commodities that make up Chinese seniors’ everyday life and cultural identities, Lo and Luu create a space in the mostly youth-centred world of online style blogging to hear the voices of those who are frequently neglected, fetishized, and ridiculed. Whether it is Watter’s World splicing in cricket sounds and archival footage of a white actress screaming “Speak! Speak! Why don’t you speak!” after Jesse Watter interviews non-English-speaking seniors about the U.S. elections, the hostility and exclusion within food lineups in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, or getting constantly sworn at on the streets, Chinese seniors are routinely painted as voiceless, their basic needs forgotten and sidelined. While being displaced from their homes in Chinatown, seniors’ community spaces become refurbished with unaffordable, nostalgic versions of Chinatown establishments like Sai Woo, Keefer Bar, or the Rennie Collection at the Wing Sang building in Vancouver. With no input or modelling opportunities for seniors themselves, their style nonetheless inspires designer brands like Gudrun Sjödén America—who hire white models to pose in front of Chinatown, donning Chinatown-inspired haute couture.

Chinatown Pretty highlights the integrity of their subjects. The serendipitous encounter emanates joy. In “Earth Tones,” Lo describes how the photographs of To Hon Ng were mutually fulfilling: “Before we parted ways, she expressed how fortuitous it was that we met each other. She was flattered we liked her style. We felt pretty lucky too.” Emphasizing encounters like these in a style blog can subtly tug away at western fashion’s hierarchies. Many seniors in Chinatown, having worked in various parts of the textile and clothing industry themselves, create and buy fashion products. Despite being participants of the fashion industry, seniors—before Chinatown Pretty—have rarely had the opportunity to flaunt and pose in their everyday style like Asian superblogger youth. By listening to the histories that haunt seniors’ style choices as well as taking cues from them, space can be found for intergenerational, community intimacy that embraces subjects’ agency, personhood, and sense of belonging in Chinatown.

Emerging in the blogosphere in the wake of Alison Kuo’s Accidental Chinese Hipster and ongoing debates about high fashion’s appropriation of Chinatown’s working-class aesthetic, Chinatown Pretty is neither interested in the irony of unexpected hipster style nor in selling high-end fashion in the way of Dublin-based designer Simone Rocha, whose grandmother—like other elderly women in Hong Kong—plays a fundamental role in influencing her collections. In both cases, these other diasporic Chinese creators are unable to avoid the orientalist, fetishizing gaze of Western Tumblr culture and fashion hegemony. To what extent does Chinatown Pretty resist that gaze?

When I phoned Andria Lo and Valerie Luu for an interview, they shared that most of the seniors they photograph come from impoverished conditions in the Toisan region of China. Their style comes from decades of retaining the same pieces of clothes and making do with what they have—a product of a specific condition of migration, class, and race. In many online articles featuring Chinatown Pretty, the seniors are referred to as hipsters or scenesters. Readers are encouraged to put the blog in the same category as Accidental Chinese Hipsters, whose epithet frames seniors’ sartorial culture as a “newly discovered” fashion trend of the English-speaking, Western fashion world. Regardless of location, they are understood as foreign and cut off from the possibility of intimacy with the viewer. Chinatown Pretty, on the other hand, reinterprets the public’s fascination with this haphazard sense of hipster “coolness,” social capital that is largely unquestioned in predominantly white, class-ascending style figures gentrifying North American Chinatowns, but ironic and eye-catching in the bodies of long-term Chinese residents of Chinatown. “Coolness” articulates itself through the seniors’ poetics of dress: colourful, mixed surfaces that reflect their lived histories and cultural identities.

Given the economic vulnerability of Chinese seniors in North American Chinatowns, including in Vancouver, spotlighting their fashion through photographic blogging always brings up questions of ethics. Minh-Ha T. Pham asks in “Fashion’s Cultural-Appropriation Debate: Pointless”: “how [do] Chinatown residents benefit financially and socially from a high-fashion craze that references their cultural practices, everyday lives, and bodies. Does that craze afford them new opportunities to actively and genuinely participate in the fashion system (as designers, consultants, consumers, or in some other capacity)? Or does it only worsen their historical exclusion?” Pham points out that the plaid “Chinatown chic” design—used in high fashion and worn all over the world—originally comes from the Bugis coastal plains people in Indonesia. Long been copied globally, the design has been worn by elite society since the 16th century—evidence that the binary of low culture (“Chinatown chic,” coming from impoverished origins) and high culture (high couture Western designers) only keeps the hegemony of Western fashion intact. Western fashion is far from the first to borrow the plaid pattern, nor are they the creators of its “eliteness.” What cannot be appropriated within the existing structures of power?

Can outsiders truly appropriate Chinatown Pretty if they do not share the class and cultural identity of the subjects of that style? I would say yes and no. When high fashion institutions take from seniors’ style, they reinforce the racialized and classed positions that continue to marginalize them. With the influence and power that Lo and Luu have as producers for an (online) audience that seniors do not usually belong to, they need to push back against this pattern of exploitation. Pierre Bourdieu offers a useful direction for thinking through that role in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste:

ordinary choices of everyday existence, such as furniture, clothing or cooking… are particularly revealing of deep-rooted and long-standing dispositions because, lying outside the scope of the educational system, they have to be confronted, as it were, by naked taste, without any explicit prescription or proscription, other than from semi-legitimate legitimizing agencies such as women’s weeklies or ‘ideal home’ magazines. (77)

Bourdieu is referring to the instinctive habits of consumers to make virtue (i.e. fashionable, stylish) of necessity (175), aptly describing how Chinatown Pretty comes from a specific racialized and classed position revealed through clothing. Yet he also suggests that there are degrees to which “legitimizing agencies” (77) influence that taste, making the average consumer reflect on their choices and the fixedness of their class positions. While not a style magazine, Chinatown Pretty’s adoption of mainstream style-blogging diction co-opts the language of contemporary blogs that function in part like women’s weeklies, and Lo and Luu’s appearance on Vogue Magazine offers them an even bigger audience channelled through these legitimizing agencies. The pair recently also announced that they will be putting out a book.

In other words, Chinatown Pretty presents the “naked taste” of specific experiences of migration, class, and race with audiences who may not have opportunities to hear these seniors’ voices. Specifically, their style is embodied: Luu notes, “If you were to replace the 80-year-old senior with, say, myself, I would look 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.” The point is not to “look hip” but to “possess…[a] knack for fashion” unique to seniors. Here, “possession” has two meanings: the way bodies and lived experiences embody style, and a sense of ghostliness. It is a ghostliness that haunts mainstream fashion spaces which privilege young, white, moneyed bodies and discards old, racialized, and poor ones. By refusing to erase the histories of racialization, poverty, and labour essential to seniors’ style, Chinatown Pretty reveals longstanding style tastes unique to a specific cultural identity.

Cultural identity is inseparable from the position from which we enunciate it, it is “a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside of, representation” (Hall 222). Cultural identity concerns “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being.’ It belongs to the future as much as the past” (225). By positioning these seniors as ‘fashion-forward,’ Luu suggests that Chinatown Pretty’s seniors embody not only the fashion of the past but also that of the future; Chinatown fashion is always in flux and responding to its surrounding cultural environments. By taking up the work of carefully listening to the historical trajectory of seniors’ style as well as sustaining intergenerational knowledge of that history, Chinatown Pretty allows the haunting of style to persist in the present, a constantly shifting ghost of future fashion. It insists that outsiders are unable to take on this style because it cannot be mapped or understood without the stories of the subjects themselves.

In a Retail Gentrification Mapping Report called we are too poor to afford anything, Carnegie Community Action Project published an English translation of an article by Kong Tai, a local senior living in Vancouver Chinatown. Recalling the passport photography studios of Chinatown that are no longer, she laments,

It’s heartbreaking to see all these stores closing in Chinatown because a lot of them have been in the neighbourhood for a long time and a lot of people like me have personal relationships with the storekeepers and the workers. You used to be able to get everything in this community. There was a place that took passport photos. It was really important for a lot of immigrants because their status changes a lot so they always need pictures taken. (11)

While her article focuses on the loss of intimacy found within Chinatown retail sites, the loss of the passport photograph studio is also significant. One of many ways for community to self-represent, passport photographs reflect a visual history of intimacy, belonging, and citizenship within the Chinese community in Canada and in Chinatown. Getting one’s photograph taken is an old community ritual woven into the fabric of Chinatown life.

In “Anticipating Citizenship: Chinese Head Tax Photographs,” Lily Cho argues that Chinese diasporic subjects depicted in early 20th-century Canadian head tax photographs “had a strong role in shaping how they would be identified by the state” (170), taking “a repressive state measure and transform[ing] it through an existing honorific visual tradition” (170). Specifically, the visual tradition comes from Song dynasty family and ancestor portrait paintings and early Chinese photographs, which emphasized the face’s flatness and uniformity. Consistently emotionally neutral, these identity portraits suggest that “their subjects anticipate something of the demands of citizenship long before its full articulation” (175): they depict “the tension between the feeling person and unfeeling citizen” (165) years before full citizenship would be granted to Chinese subjects in Canada. Cho argues that “Canadian authorities used photographic identification despite the contradiction of depending upon visual technology to distinguish people who have already been declared visually indistinguishable” (162). In other words, these photographs were tools of the state used to identify, scrutinize and control Chinese subjects coming into North America, while simultaneously markers of an emerging visual tradition of aspiration and anticipation which the community used to navigate that control.

Cho points out that dress was an important part of the process of identification within these early portraits insofar as it acted as costume. In head tax photographs, props and costumes “indicate the positions that [subjects] aspire to be even if they may not necessarily occupy them in the moment in which the photograph was taken” (Cho 168); a dark suit and hat help a laundryman, for instance, adopt a “posture of bourgeois comfort” (168). This process was specifically gendered, as Thy Phu spells out from a U.S. context in “Spectacles of Intimacy and the Aesthetics of Domestication.” Though all Asians supposedly looked alike, the U.S. 1875 Page Act nonetheless charged “immigration officials… with determining whether these women were wives with a legitimate claim of reuniting with their families, or prostitutes whose claim to entry was illegitimate” (27). Notions of intimacy in relation to Asian women’s bodies helped to standardize the state’s process of identification (27). Costumes would be integral to this process within photographs in Chinatown more broadly. In the famous photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown by Arnold Genthe, for example, Chinese girls within Cameron house “wore distinctively Chinese costumes as evidence of their domestic reform” (Phu 37-8). Instead of aspiration, such costumes substitute citizenship for ‘civility,’ entrenching a vision of confinement and limited freedom for Chinese settlers within Chinatown (38).

Between the agency of costuming oneself within one type of portraiture and the lack thereof in another lies the question of what it means to be photographed in everyday dress. Having grown up in Cameron House, the place where Anne Cameron ‘rescued’ the Chinese girls of Arnold Genthe’s portraits, Polkadot today regularly wears outfits she fashions herself, part of her everyday lifestyle rather than an imposed costume. Her style refuses the colonial imposition of civility. Additionally, the dynamic poses of her everyday style suggest a command and intimacy with the urban space she both grew up in and belongs to today. In these photographs, she looks directly at the audience, persuading them to share her joy, and welcoming them into that sense of familiarity. The transformative power of everyday dress within Chinatown Pretty is relational, something Kai Cheng Thom in her Daily Xtra article “How the Cheongsam helped me find my trans womanhood explores. Thom claims the cheongsam not as costume but as everyday dress, against its haunting images and fantasies of idealized Chinese femininity, beauty, and sexuality. She suggests, “for all its sexy, sultry glamour, I suspect that the cheongsam hides more than it reveals: the secret, perhaps, to who we are, as Chinese women scattered across geography and time. A path to who we wish to be.” The connection Thom makes between intimacy, haunting, and concealment reveals that clothing provides a physical ‘path’ to authoring a shared cultural identity, a becoming/belonging that looks to the future as well as the past.

These different forms of dress and portrait photography are interconnected as sites of reclamation for Chinese (and Asian more broadly) diasporic subjects, including the not-yet-citizens. Chinatown Pretty’s presence and popularity in the blogosphere does not merely carve out a space to learn about racist legacies; it facilitates a relational process that makes intergenerational learning and community vision possible. In my interview with Lo and Luu, they share that they would regularly circle Chinatown multiple times to find their subjects. Seeing a senior who catches their eyes, their hearts race and palms sweat. Lo and Luu’s excitement and desire to connect with the seniors is directly linked to their everyday dress, movement, and changes within their own bodies. There is an instant recognition, a familiarity rooted in intergenerational intimacy. These seniors remind them of their grandparents but also remind them of who they wish to be when they are older: independent and active. While some of Chinatown Pretty seniors are photographed as couples, most of them—many, women—are photographed standing alone. This framing focuses on an intimacy based not the privileged institution of heterosexual unions but on their encounter with Lo and Luu as youth. Their desire to connect with these elders is also an anxiety about who they will become, about the future of belonging in Chinatown and North American society. This desire propels Lo and Luu and their audiences to imagine their bodies in the future both differently and relationally.

This imaginative drive brings me back to the aesthetic of joy in Chinatown Pretty. Sianne Ngai in “Our Aesthetic Categories” observes that

the romance of cuteness, the comedy of zaniness, and the realist and information-oriented aesthetic of the interesting are…important to autonomous art’s attempts to reflect on the smoothness of its integration in mass culture. What better way to get traction on art’s diminishing role as the privileged locus for modern aesthetic experience than an aesthetic category of and about inconsequentiality? (951)

In a broader sense, Ngai is thinking through how cute, zany, and interesting mediate our experience of aesthetic pleasure (or displeasure). These minor aesthetic categories are about “capitalism’s most socially binding processes” (948-9): zany is about production, interesting about circulation, and cuteness about consumption. Zaniness is an aesthetic of performance as both artful play and affective labour. While cute and interesting, Polkadot’s outfit portraits most notably perform the affective labour of uplifting viewers’ spirits, something that Lo and Luu specifically look for in their subjects. Luu tells me in our interview, “We gravitate towards outfits that bring us joy and capture our eye and are so unique and colourful and mismatched … a lot of it is the joy that is already there” (8:58). As a portrait subject, Polkadot simultaneously brings joy to viewers, produces the content of that joy (her wardrobe consists of either hand-me-downs or hand-made outfits), and reflects Chinatown’s history of exclusion, gendered labour, and colonial intimacy.

Polkadot’s entry on Chinatown Pretty’s Tumblr combines full-body portraits with stories of her childhood experience making jeans for Levi’s (in a time when child labour laws did not prevent her from doing so), the Chinese brocade blouse she was made to wear as a house girl for a well-to-do engineer, and her father’s job delivering 100-pound rice bags across Chinatown. Turning one of these old rice bags into a dress, Polkadot produces her style from the materials of history that shaped her. In using recycled objects from her family’s past to invoke zaniness, she—like Chinatown Pretty more broadly—invites viewers to consider Chinatown as a site of racialized exclusion, and more contemporarily, of gentrification and displacement. If, as Ngai suggests, art as a privileged site of aesthetic experience is diminishing under postmodernity, then the memorable and irresistible joy of Polkadot’s style insists on how Chinatown fashion is integral to mass culture, despite not being a traditional art form. In other words, the joy expressed in the act of posing makes Chinatown history accessible. These photographs embody quotidian forms of resistance to extractive, fetishizing, and gentrifying forms of Chinatown art and representation. The joy, as Luu suggests, is already there.

Affective labour, according to Tobias Raun, is a kind of labour that micro-celebrities are expected to perform online, to signal “accessibility, availability, presence, connectedness and maybe most importantly authenticity – all of which presuppose and rely on some form of intimacy” (100).  Because this kind of labour is “time and energy consuming but not necessarily economically profitable” (100), the risk of turning Chinatown Pretty into a brand that fails to benefit seniors is real. And so, another way to look at joy as affective labour is how it gets broadcast to the public and is emptied of its roots. In Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet, Pham points out through the examples of Japanese Net Idols and Asian superbloggers that “cute culture—and the digital technologies and cultural practices so integral to their production and circulation—has extended and strengthened the link between Asian women and labors of accommodation” (49). While deviating from the young, thin, and sometimes racially ambiguous figures of Asian superbloggers, seniors’ style online nonetheless performs cuteness and their images are consumed as part of the larger array of cute imagery on Instagram. How Polkadot is expected to perform the affective labour of joy as a micro-celebrity and as a tour guide within San Francisco’s Chinatown reflects a broader desire to consume that cuteness.

Documenting the process of taking their photographs, Lo and Luu share that seniors of Chinatown most often do not want to be photographed. However, their blog creates opportunities for such photographs to be empowering for the seniors through a relational process: they model a way of performing affective labour that rests on a community’s reciprocal care for one another. It is only through conversing and developing trust that many seniors allow Lo and Luu to photograph and interview them, thus creating the “cuteness” of the intergenerational encounter. Given that the joy produced emerges from the photographing encounter, and interview, as well as long-term relationship building, Chinatown Pretty uses the capital produced from affective labour and cuteness to demonstrate the value of intergenerational intimacy. If often ephemeral, the joy created online makes different ways of relating to seniors as subjects possible, allowing them to be seen as stylish, and authors of their own historical narratives.

Can “pretty” help Chinatown residents resist gentrification? Because ‘pretty’ functions advantageously on Instagram, how does Chinatown Pretty use their branding to rearticulate minor aesthetic categories which bind subjects to the process of capital, and thus subject them to the violent hierarchies of the western fashion world? When I first keyed in on Chinatown Pretty, I was unable to tear my eyes away from the powerful effects of its apparent inconsequentiality. Can ‘pretty for pretty’s sake’ transform the hopelessness of colonial and capitalist oppression? One facet of this potential subversiveness stood out to me, embedded in the different ways social media outlets organize audience participation and discourse: Chinatown Pretty’s reception online is overwhelmingly positive; meanwhile, a photograph of Kong Tai (right)accompanied by the translated quote “No one needs expensive coffee or skateboards, but we need groceries” on Chinatown Concern Group’s Facebook page received a sizable amount of negative attention.

Specifically, those associated with the Flatspot Longboard Shop on Pender Street in Chinatown took offense to the perceived targeting of a specific business, and rebutted her argument by using the meme-structure of the photograph to insist that the issue at hand is about housing and affordability, not race. Beyond the quote itself, the portrait of Kong Tai is similar to Chinatown Pretty portraits: the subject is looking into the camera, opening into a careful smile. Her outfit is brightly saturated and colourful, though the focus is more on her face than her outfit, which frames both her face and the statement. There is a purpose to the subject’s gaze into the camera—to convey a political message, which translates the traditional portrait into the image-text structure of Internet memes and from Kong Tai’s Cantonese into English. The Facebook post itself, which links the pamphlet “we are too poor to afford anything” cited earlier, positions her views on Chinatown as politically legitimate, challenging the idea of who gets to be a political agent and whose voice gets to be heard online.

The two contrasting moods suggest that creating a ‘Chinatown Pretty’ brand escapes the combative and polarizing social spaces so endemic to Facebook and encourages a different kind of engagement with its subjects. Given the trivialization of ‘pretty,’ In Chinatown Pretty, becomes active agents within the explicitly feminized world of online style blogging. The illumination of their forward-thinking fashion tradition is aspirational and inspirational for youth viewers. For instance, user mybestamelia comments on a post featuring Huitang Deng, age 75, that his “Monochrome cool and lessons on layering” is one “we could all learn from.” Under Chinatown Pretty’s montage post on International Women’s Day, user oonagem comments “[o]ne day I’ll be sportin’ one of these jackets LOL.” Many other similar comments insist that Chinese seniors are users’ “style inspo.” These responses clearly express hope for the future, one where users begin imagining their own wardrobes when they are eighty. User am_lau also makes clear another reason why these photographs are so inspiring: “These women are the best leaders!!! Able to move their families to a whole new country, without speaking the language, with little money. These are the OG leaders that built more leaders.”

While Kong Tai (and the meme’s) refusal to be accommodating is a powerful form of resistance, particularly of the compulsory forms of aesthetic categories Asian women are tasked with performing, my takeaway is always prioritizing this form of visual activism pressures marginalized people to constantly respond to oppression with political speech. The value of activist labour becomes a function of victories won. This pressure also risks erasing subtle and delicate forms of history embodied within the poetics of everyday dress coming out of the same motivations as this speech. If seniors within Chinatown Pretty can work with Lo and Luu to use pretty, cute, interesting, and zany to build intergenerational intimacy and perform the affective labour of joy online, that joy is thus a joy we work through as viewers, creating interpretations of future aspiration we project onto the colourful, pretty styles. These problematic but still productive projections are about the longing for intergenerational intimacy. They are about a desire to connect with the future, to map the histories that connect people through cultural identity. In the art workshops I have been helping to organize with seniors, the sense of hopelessness I feel for the world momentarily lifts. The room is filled with laughter and tenderness in the face of grief. Many seniors have had difficult childhoods, but their lives now—filled with the eager faces and helping hands of youth—are joyful. Chinatown Pretty offers a visual rhetoric and archive of intergenerational intimacy. Its organic and unexpected quality is the glue to political resistance, one that the Western fashion world, and the nation-state can never fully co-opt.


A step away from the cute, artsy space of Moii Café is Vancouver’s city hall—a grey art deco-style building from the 1930s. In the spring and summer of 2017, youth and seniors alike crowded council chambers to speak out against the rezoning of 105 Keefer, where Beedie Living proposed an enormous condo consisting mostly of market housing. One of many applications by developers that would put the stability of seniors’ lives in Chinatown at risk, the proposed building contained only cursory attempts at accommodating Chinatown’s local demographic. During one meeting with the city’s urban planners, Beedie’s applicants suggested lanterns, dragons, bamboos, and other superficially ‘Chinese’ decorations that would supposedly help the building fit Chinatown’s character. Rather than the pretty-for-pretty’s-sake of everyday dress, the developer’s attempt at making their bulky and inaccessible building ‘fit’ Chinatown is decorative with a purpose: to persuade the board to let them develop on the 105 Keefer lot and to play up the building’s supposed Chinese-ness.

As commodities, the building decorations cover the scaffoldings of displacement, marking the territory between wealthy and poor. As commodities, clothing also marks the territory between body and the rest of society. In other words, everyday dress is about the agency to self-represent and define how the rest of the world sees us within (and sometimes beyond) the economic and visual limits of capitalist and colonial modernity. Style is not only the clothes we wear but the (zany, cute, pretty, interesting) ways we wear those clothes; it is the way we pose in front of the camera and how we enunciate ourselves in speech and writing. Style is how we make our material circumstances magical and magnificent, connecting who we are with who we wish to be. The fabrics we wear have a life, even a haunting, of their own.

I wonder: How can we think of historical and contemporary forms of resistance differently when we consider the intergenerational intimacies created through everyday dress? How can activist work frequently documented online also be attentive to the quiet, quotidian, and routine modes of resistance that do not frequently get recognized? How can Asian North American youth—engaging in activism or visual, literary, and style traditions—use the tools at our disposal to listen to our elders? How can we see this work as both a path to becoming who we are as well as changing the material realities that threaten to destroy the knowledge, community, and spaces necessary to that becoming?

Lastly, I wish to ask myself, and readers, to consider the brief, ephemeral, and small encounters we have with these elders—who sometimes do not speak the same language as us, who ask us for directions when they think we do, who pick up our coke cans and beer bottles—living on the periphery of our busy lives. Whether we are community activists, visual storytellers, or youth part of the Chinese diaspora, these encounters are meaningful. If style is one way that Chinatown Pretty is listening to seniors’ stories and supporting a resistance to displacement within both the world of style blogging and within the space of Chinatown, what other tools can we use to listen, translate, and transform them? After all, if these elders are part of our communities and part of the critical “we” with which our discourse engages engaged, what is our relational role to them? Can we find value in the ephemeral, the passing glance, the fading memory, the brief hello’s and goodbye’s that get forgotten, but are still imprinted on our skins, in the fleeting, concealing, and haunting layers of our collective memories? What exactly is a poetics of everyday dress?

Jane Shi is a queer Chinese settler currently living on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish peoples. She wants to live in a world where love is not a limited resource, land is not mined, hearts are not filched, and bodies are not violated. In the meantime she will fold dumplings, trace poetry out of the shadows of the english language, and dance the unknown rage within. 

LooseLeaf Magazine was one of the first places where her poetry was printed, and she’s grateful to find herself here again.

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans, Nice, Richard. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Cho, Lily. “Anticipating Citizenship: Chinese Head Tax Photographs.” Ed. Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu. Feeling Photography. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2014. 158-80.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, edited by John Rutherford, Laurence and Wishart, 1990, pp. 222-237.

Lo, Andria, and Valerie Luu. Personal interview. 19 September 2017.

Ngai, Sianne.  “Our Aesthetic Categories.” PMLA, vol. 125, no. 4, 2010, pp. 948–958. JSTOR, JSTOR, Accessed April 16th, 2018.

Pham, Minh-Ha T. Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging. Durham: Duke UP, 2015.

Phu, Thy. “Spectacles of Intimacy and the Aesthetics of Domestication.” Picturing Model Citizens: Civility in Asian American Visual Culture. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2012. 26-53.

Raun, Tobias. “Capitalizing Intimacy.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, vol. 24, no. 1, 2018, pp. 99–113.