Eat Chinatown 華埠 [人。情。味]
a photo exhibit about classic Chinatown restaurants
by Andria Lo and Valerie Luu
ABOUT THE SHOW
EAT CHINATOWN is a photo exhibit at 41 Ross that commemorates classic Chinatown restaurants, diners and bakeries that have been operating for at least 40 years. Photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu (founders of Chinatown Pretty, a street-style blog that documents Chinatown seniors) profiled four eateries and their faithful patrons to understand San Francisco Chinatown’s food culture.
The exhibit focuses on four well-loved restaurants: New Lun Ting Cafe (better known as Pork Chop House), Capital Restaurant, Hon’s Wun-Tun House and Eastern Bakery. Eastern Bakery is the oldest Chinese bakery in North America, having been established in 1924. The show also remembers ones that have since closed over the years -- such as Empress of China -- but are still reminisced by Chinatown residents and San Franciscans.
Chinatown restaurants have served multiple purposes in the community. First and foremost, a place to eat affordable home-style comfort food. Many of the menus are unique to San Francisco’s Chinatown (the oldest in the the Western hemisphere) reflecting a combination of American, Chinese American, Hong Kong and Chinese cuisines, sometimes all on one plate. It provided a sense of community and shield from discrimination experienced in other neighborhoods. It was also a landing pad for immigrants looking for work as it required little English. And as the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese people from freely entering the United States, restaurants owners were able to use their merchant status to sponsor family members and people from their villages, giving them a ticket into the States and economic opportunity.
The Eat Chinatown exhibit will feature personal narratives, present-day and historic photos and ephemera. It aims to capture what these establishments mean to the SF community, to three generations of San Franciscans and to people who simply love Chinese food.
“This exhibit was created for a few different reasons: we wanted to get to know the owners, the food and the people that love it,” said Valerie Luu, one of the artists and co-owner of Rice Paper Scissors, a Vietnamese restaurant. “Many of the restaurateurs are in their 60s. As someone who also owns a food business, it makes me wonder — what’s the key to longevity in the restaurant business? What keeps people coming back?”
This exhibit is also an ode to the special visual language of Chinatown. "The character and history of the neighborhood is very much reflected in the restaurants: the hand-painted bilingual signs, mash-up of eras, colorful table settings, pink pastry boxes and spaces with a family-run feel. We want to call attention to all these fascinating details,” said photographer Andria Lo.
The artists, along with assistance from the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), selected a range of restaurants that hold nostalgic value to the San Francisco community. It’s not necessarily the tourists spots or the banquet halls reserved for special occasions -- it’s the mom-and-pop shops where people duck in few times a week for dinner; places where people’s parents and grandparents took them growing up.
The Chinatown Community Development Center, the nonprofit sponsor of the show, says that they hope people will come enjoy food at the restaurants and learn more about people who run and frequent these eateries. “Some people remember Chinatown of the past with its vibrant nightlife frequented by celebrities like the Beatles and Frank Sinatra. But Chinatown eateries continues to provide employment, community, and a taste of home for new generations of immigrants, Chinese-Americans families with ties to neighborhood and the range of office workers and tourists who come to Chinatown,” said Roy Chan, community planning manager at CCDC. “We want to share the stories of our restaurants past and present to demonstrate that Chinatown has always been thriving.”
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu are the duo behind Chinatown Pretty, a street-style blog and Instagram (@chinatownpretty). Chinatown Pretty celebrates the street-style of seniors living (and grocery shopping) in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
This exhibit is their second collaboration with CCDC telling neighborhood stories from San Francisco’s Chinatown. In early 2016, they did a self-titled photo exhibit focused on Chinatown fashion.
Andria Lo is a freelance documentary and editorial photographer whose work can be found in Lucky Peach, SF Magazine and Jarry. She was formerly the photo director of the Asian American arts and culture publication, Hyphen Magazine. In 2015, she received a public art grant to feature her collaborations with San Francisco Botanical Garden on Muni buses. Find her online at andrialo.com.
Valerie Luu writes about San Francisco. Past projects include Sublet SF, where she subletted in eight neighborhoods in two years (including a six-month stint in Chinatown.) She’s currently working #100drinksdivis, a series of Instagram portraits where she has a drink with 100 different neighbors around Divisadero. She is also 1/2 of Rice Paper Scissors, a Vietnamese pop-up restaurant.