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.