for my twin sister on our 30th birthday

Read the first “for my twin sister” (written in 2008) and Jessica’s response to this letter.

March 6, 2016

Remember that time we got in a fight and you threw me across the room? I tell this story a lot. We were eight, it was around Chinese New Year, and I was disappointed when the doctor told me to wear a scarf instead of outfitting me with a neck brace. I’d wanted strangers to see me and think, “Oh, poor child. What monster did this to you?”

I still wonder how you summoned the force to hurl me across the room that day. Who knew you had it in you? I certainly didn’t, and I don’t think you did, either. It’s like when mothers lift trucks high above their heads to save their babies, filled with superhuman strength reserved for gods and monsters. The stakes were high. You needed me to stop pushing you around and so you threw me across the room.

What else do I remember?

The other day I spilled some water on the floor and wondered if it was seeping into the apartment below. Was someone downstairs catching the drips in a pot plucked from a kitchen cupboard? Do you remember that time we tried to clean your bedroom floor? We dumped a bucket of water over the entire surface and took turns pushing the water around with a mop, so pleased with ourselves for being so helpful. This is a memory I’ve never shared with anybody before. The smell of soggy wood and you and me beaming as we danced around the puddles in our bare feet, thrilled to pull our weight in a house where we never had a single chore other than making our beds in the morning. Nobody was impressed with our initiative except for you and me. Angels.

It’s difficult to dig up memories I’ve never talked about before. I can’t know if they exist. It’s like when you have a dream and you don’t write it down first thing when you wake up. Hours later you have this feeling that something has moved you but you don’t know what it was. Ghosts.

Every time I tell a story I can feel it leaving my body like air leaking out of a balloon. Maybe telling a story is the same as giving birth to a baby: as long as you have one inside you, it’s part of you, your flesh, blood, spirit. Once it’s out it’s no longer yours. It has a soul of its own.

My stories belong only to themselves.

Our dear mother, her belly a balloon swollen with not one but two big, fat, fleshy babies, her skin marred with a double serving of stretch marks that would ban her from ever wearing a bikini again. Our dear mother, still coming to terms with the understanding that though she breathed life into you and me, our souls and dreams are separate from hers.

Our dear mother, her dreams for us smashed like a thousand broken mirrors because she can’t let them go. Dreams of rich, kind, selfless husbands and beautiful dresses that are neither secondhand nor handmade and hair that’s met a hairbrush and skin without blemishes and feet with no callouses and legs that aren’t so muscular and mouths that don’t belong to sailors and class and manners and etiquette and kindness.

Kindness.

Kindness. It’s her only dream for us that’s come true, I think. I hope this comforts her. I hope it tucks the edges of her blanket around her shoulders at night, plants a kiss on her forehead, turns out her light—kindness.

You are one of the kindest people I know.

I think our mother knows this: you and me, we’re trying to do the right thing. And the right thing to do is the kindest thing to do. So let’s keep doing what we’re doing. Let’s keep our hearts open. Let’s keep making stuff with our hands. And let’s keep telling stories.

Happy birthday, Jessica.

twins sitting on dock

Read the first “for my twin sister” (written in 2008) and Jessica’s response to this letter.

What Happens When You Go to Sham Shui Po on a Whim?

I Died and Came Back to Life

It’s alive! By “it” I mean my blog, along with my creative life, and me. I’m alive. We’re alive. One and a half years later.

Much has changed since I last wrote. I moved to Hong Kong in October 2014, got a real job, got some friends, moved out of my parents’ house into my own apartment, and now I am here, typing up this blog post.

Saturday, in a rare bout of inspiration, I went to the stalls on Ki Lung Street in Sham Shui Po and bought some fabric.

Ki Lung Street fabric stalls in Sham Shui Po
New favorite way to spend Saturday morning: wandering around the fabric stalls in Sham Shui Po.

Treasure from the Stalls of Sham Shui Po

Here’s what I got (prices in HKD):

  • $20 x 3 yards of denim = $60
  • $15 x 2.5 yards of patterned cotton (I think) = $38
  • $1 x 12 brass-colored buttons to go with the denim = $12

I wonder if I should learn to bargain? Nah.

There was a shop selling fabric covered in knockoff Gudetama (bloodstained yolk and all) and other knockoff cartoon characters. I think the fabric was mostly for bedding because they had a lot of pictures of beds and stuff. There was a table with small rolls of fabric that could each be had for $14. Here’s what I got:

  • $14 for like 1.5 yards of polka dotty canvas stuff
  • $14 for like 1.5 yards of canvas stuff with a cute leaf print on it
canvas fabric finds from sham shui po
I got seven placemats out of the polka dot fabric. What to do with the leaves?

To get reacquainted with this sewing machine, I made some VERY SLOPPY placemats with the polka-dot fabric. Next time I will take the time to sew mitered corners. No more cutting corners. *rimshot*

The Day I Got a Sewing Machine

I bet you’re wondering when, why, and how I got a sewing machine. Here’s the story.

A couple months ago—maybe it was September?—Alice and Diana came over for a crepe party.

crepe party food stylists
Diana and Alice, pro food stylists.

It was the best meal I’ve ever eaten in my apartment.

crepe party
Damn, that was a good brunch.

Why is the crepe party relevant to this post? After we made and ate the crepes, they talked me into getting a sewing machine from the Singer sewing machine shop in Sheung Wan. The shop was having a sale to celebrate students returning to school.

I am now the proud owner of a Singer Tradition model 2250. And have been since September.

Singer Tradition model 2250
The Singer Tradition model 2250 at my window.

The machine lay dormant until Halloween, when I sewed up a Batman mask and logo thing out of felt.

i-am-the-batman
My friend Juro took this picture. It took a really long time to get the garbage bag to hover properly in the wind.

Resurrecting the Sewing Machine with New Projects

But I’m happy to have dusted off the sewing machine. I wish I didn’t have to go to work and could just stay at home cutting and sewing stuff all day.

Here’s What I Plan to Make

  • Alder Shirtdress from Grainline Studio, made of denim. I need to find some heavier thread and get some more needles for my machine.
  • The Staple Dress by April Rhodes from the cotton print. Need to find elastic thread somewhere, maybe from the Needlework Shop at lunch time 😉

in xue’s living room

Wrote this essay in 2009 for a class I took called Literature as Peace Research. Inspired by Sheng Xue, who was McMaster University’s Writer in Residence in 2009.

Last night I came home smelling like an ashtray. It was the first time I didn’t mind the stench of cigarettes clinging to my hair. Twenty-five people were gathered at Sheng Xue’s house, chatting enthusiastically over a spread of Chinese food, wine, and Panda brand cigarettes imported from Shanghai. Among them were Sunan, a student on exchange from France at McMaster; Jack, founder of the first Chinese community newspaper in Toronto; Liuye, a Chinese language scholar; Kunga Tsering, the president of the Canadian-Tibet Joint Action Committee; Zuzana Hahn, a Czech-born artist; Michael Craig, a coordinator from Amnesty International; another Caucasian Michael, whose proficiency in Putonghua amazes everybody in the room; David Cozac, a former PEN Canada coordinator; Dick Chan and Gloria Fung, members of the Chinese Canadian National Council; and Sheng Xue, McMaster’s writer in residence, who, I am confident, is unknowingly shifting the course of my life.

In this story I am finding my voice.

Xue’s husband has come to fetch Sunan and me from the bus stop. When we arrive at their house, he takes our coats and gives us slippers for our feet. Someone is frying a fish in the kitchen; Sunan says that it smells like Chinese New Year. Indeed, the atmosphere makes me a bit homesick.

The living room is big and filled with fold-up chairs and people. Xue takes us by the arms and introduces us to everyone gathered inside: one group speaks Putonghua, and the other, English; all are engaged in lively discussion. The crowd here reminds me a bit of the family gatherings we have at my aunt’s house, which is a few blocks away, except my family doesn’t talk about politics and human rights. We talk about pop culture, and we gossip about the cousins and everybody’s in-laws. Xue’s house also reminds me of Anchises’ place, where, Cassandra narrates, “under the changing foliage of the giant fig tree… we began to live our life of freedom” (Wolf 93).

Congregated here is a mixed bag of people whose work I thought I had more or less understood from skimming the newspaper, even from listening to Xue’s speech at her reception. But it becomes clear that I have been misguided—that my understanding has been alarmingly insincere.

In my head two questions are resonating: “What kind of place [do] I live in? How many realities are there in [this world] besides mine, which I thought was the only one?” (20). Believe it or not, believe it and not: Xue is the first ethnic Han Chinese I’ve encountered in my life who speaks openly and actively against the Chinese government. How can this be, when all of the Chinese people I know in Hong Kong, my home, take pride in our faculty to embrace western ideals? But what ideals are these? Capitalism and consumerism: the right to make money and the right to buy whatever. But what about democracy and freedom? In my Hong Kong, life follows this basic formula: birth, education, marriage, career, retirement, death.

But I realize more and more that my Hong Kong is one of blinding privilege, where our friends’ parents own restaurants and hotels, yachts and islands. We don’t talk about Chinese politics because they don’t affect our stocks. Armed with blank cheques, credit cards, and connections, our convenient life-formula can play itself out.

I am seeing more and more that “[m]y privilege [has] intruded between me and the most necessary insights” (53). Like Cassandra caught up in palace life as a priestess, I am selfishly caught up in my life as a student trying to get my act together. But my meetings with Xue, along with this gathering in her living room, are slowly prying my eyes open such that I can see that the problem of human rights in China is entirely relevant to my experience as a Chinese person, and, more importantly, as a citizen of this world.

We are gathered here and now to welcome Jiang Weiping to Canada. He is an investigative journalist. He was imprisoned in 2002 for writing articles exposing the corruption of several government officials in northeast China. He was released from prison in 2006. PEN Canada worked to grant him passage to Canada this year. He arrives with his wife, Stella, fashionably late. Xue introduces them to everybody. His handshake is firm and full of resolve, although I am no handshake-interpreter. We eat. Except for the lamb rice, every dish on the table makes me painfully homesick.

After dinner, Xue asks everybody in the room to say a little something to share ideas. Jiang Weiping says he is pleased to be back in Canada and that it is vital that we continue our work in exposing the truth. (At least that’s what I think he says, because I am sitting too far to hear Michael, who is translating.) We go around in a circle. Zuzana tells us about the monument she is erecting in Toronto to remember the 100 million people who have died because of communism. The monument is a giant book that, when viewed from the side, is also the profile of a person speaking. A hand is trying to cover the mouth, but it fails, signifying the triumph of our stories. Next is Kunga, who tells us that Tibetan autonomy is vital to peace in China, and that he is organizing a dialogue between Tibetan and Chinese youth in Toronto, which will serve as a model for peaceful dialogue between Tibetan and Chinese youth in Asia.

Sunan speaks, too. What she says really pries apart my eyelids. I can’t look away. Her story has a similar shape to mine, though hers takes place in the heart of things: China. She grew up in Shanxi, and the life-formula prescribed to her is essentially the same as what has been prescribed to me. She tells us that before going to France to study, she had never heard of the conflict between Tibet and China. She also tells us that she had never met a Taiwanese person, nor even known that there was tension between Taiwan and China, until she went to school in Lyon.

Sunan says that after seeing a poster inviting everybody to Xue’s reception at McMaster, she did some Internet research and was shocked by what she read about the Tiananmen Square massacre. She had never read much about it before because the Chinese government has erased it from books, film, television, and the Internet. Sunan says she is grateful for having met Xue, for her friendship and for opening her eyes. It strikes me that, growing up in Hong Kong, my teachers had told us stories about the massacre, and I remember hearing one sensationalist classmate telling us about the possibility of missiles flying overhead from China to Taiwan. I’ve known vaguely about these things for quite some time.

Eventually, Xue asks me to speak, too. I apologize to everybody for my terrible Chinese. “Bu hao yi si,” I say. When you translate the phrase literally, it means “not good meaning.” Indeed, it is “not good meaning”; it is not good that I am a Chinese person who cannot speak Chinese. Michael translates for me when I say that I don’t know a lot about the human rights issues taking place, though I do know a little bit. And that I feel paralyzed because I’m not confident that I know enough to do anything. But I say that I realize that I’ll never know everything, so I should stop sitting on my hands, waiting, and DO SOMETHING ALREADY! I feel shamefully earnest when I speak.

This idea-sharing circle is life-affirming and inspiring. We are gathered here and now to “eat, drink, laugh together, [and] learn” (52); we are gathered here and now the way the cave community gathers on the slopes of Mount Ida. At first, I almost feel like an outsider because I am not actively involved in any organization, nor am I involved in any fight.

But then I remember: we are gathered here in this space. I am here too. Doesn’t that mean something? When Cassandra reflects that “there are no limits to the atrocities people can inflict on one another” and that “It is so much easier to say “Achilles the brute” than “we”” (119), I want to turn this inside out. I want turn to her and say, “Hey, Cassandra, there are no limits to the love and compassion people can have for each other, either, so let’s share this, too, pass it around, and claim it for ourselves.” The “we” makes us all accountable to one another. Which is why I’ll stop sitting on my hands and do something.

I don’t want to “put off living” (65). I don’t want to “[live] only provisionally” with the belief “that true reality still [lies] ahead of me”; I don’t want to “let life pass me by” (65). The message I am getting here and now from everybody in Xue’s living room is that we should act now, and that I should reject the life-formula prescribed to me.

Their message echoes Arisbe’s, who tells Cassandra: “There are gaps in time. This is one of them, here and now. We cannot let it pass without taking advantage of it” (124). We are supposed to fill these gaps of time by doing something. We are here, in this living world, and now, when we need to ease the suffering of our fellow human beings. It is our duty to defend the rights of others; it is our right to make a map of a better world. Cassandra realizes this shortly before she dies: “The world could go on after our destruction… Why had I allowed myself to suppose that the human race would be wiped out along with us?” (11). Yes, Cassandra, the human race will go on—indeed, it has gone on; the kind of world it goes on in depends on us.

The guests in the living room keep looking to Sunan and me and calling us the next generation. Our duty is to carry on their work, to keep their stories alive, to keep exposing the truth in the name of a just world. Kunga asks me if I would like to participate in the dialogue he’s organizing for Toronto youth. I tell him I’m probably leaving the country in July, but would love to attend if one should take place while I’m still here.

I had always imagined that activists gathered in dark cellars, silently and angrily, but the atmosphere here in Xue’s living room is anything but. Just like her! The living room is aptly named; this place is living, alive, lively, lovely, and it reminds me of Cassandra’s time in the caves by Mount Ida, about which she says: “our time [is] limited and so we could not waste it on matters of minor importance. So we concentrated on what mattered most: ourselves—playfully, as if we had all the time in the world” (133). Playfully, we are gathered here and now to “eat, drink, laugh together, [and] learn” (52).

I am blown away by how normal everybody is. These women and men who courageously put their lives on the line to safeguard our freedoms of expression and opinion eat chocolate cake, too. Xue’s eyes are permanent half-moons because she is always smiling; Jack’s face is red from laughing (or wine?); and I will not forget Dick Chan’s gums crammed with crooked teeth because he’s always laughing or smiling. This living room is filled with the “third alternative” that Cassandra comes to perceive: “the smiling vital force that is able to generate itself over and over: the undivided, spirit in life, life in spirit” (107).

On the bus ride home Sunan and I are talking. She says she never talks about politics when she’s at home; nobody does. She doesn’t talk politics because the Chinese Communist Party has made it so that the way things are feels natural and unquestionable, and because the CCP punishes those who dare question the status quo.

I remember Jessica telling me about her homestay in China, and about her host’s government and politics class, during which the students memorized passages written by Mao Zedong. I reflect on why my friends in Hong Kong and I don’t talk about Chinese politics in Hong Kong. We really have no excuse—thanks to Hong Kong’s freedom of expression, we know about Tiananmen Square, we know about China’s conflicts with Tibet and Taiwan, we know about the writers who are imprisoned for trying to expose the truth, and yet we close our eyes to it, as if the gross injustice China inflicts on millions of people isn’t our story.

But it is completely our story. We are in Hong Kong because of this injustice—our grandparents fled to here from all over China because of the merciless communist regime, which continues to thrive.

We can no longer be silent.

Up until now, I had viewed myself as voiceless. I didn’t think I believed in anything, or that I had opinions. But I do believe in—I’ve always believed in, but have taken for granted, I realize—freedom of expression. In this story I am finding my voice, the way Cassandra finds hers while recovering in the lively cave in the loving care of Arisbe and Anchises; she discovers “a silence into which [her] voice fit[s] … the space intended for it” (123). The space for my voice is here and now, right in this story. These words are gathered here and now to give thanks to the remarkable women and men in Xue’s living room whose spirit, life, and dedication to preserving our freedom to speak are, unbeknownst to them, helping me to find my voice.

Works Cited
Wolf, Christa. Cassandra. Trans. Jan van Heurck. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984.

bottomless box of kitties

catamari cats

This afternoon I found a box
behind the kitchen door.
It wriggled there, a restless cube;
it writhed upon my floor.
I lifted up the cardboard lid
and took a peek inside,
and when I saw what lay therein
I swear, I nearly died.
THE CUTEST THING I’D EVER SEEN!
A darling ball of fur!
Adorable! And right away
I fell in love with her.
I scooped her up into my arms,
the mewing chunk of bliss,
when from inside the cardboard box
I heard a little hiss.
I reached inside and gathered up
another baby cat,
and then another, and one more,
and way more after that.
And soon the room was full of cats–
I thought I was in heaven!
By now my feline tally was
one hundred and eleven.
But things got weird soon after that.
Their purrs turned into sneers.
Their whiskers sharpened into blades,
their claws to pointy spears.
In unison they pounced on me
and I began to fall,
surrounded by a horde of cats–
A CATAMARI BALL.
The only thing that I could do?
Relinquish all control.
I let the catamari cats
initiate a roll.
We trundled through the neighbourhood
accumulating stuff.
(That’s what I pictured, anyway–
to steal a glimpse was tough.
But I did hear the kittens shriek,
their caterwauls of glee,
as garbage fastened to our glob
that rolled relentlessly.)
We gained momentum as we went.
I felt my insides turn…
till at the bottom of my gut
I felt an acrid burn.
I tried to hold it in, but no.
The vomit now was here!
I used my hands to stop its flow–
and puked inside the sphere.
It trickled through the clustered cats
who all began to moan–
my magic puke dissolved the beasts,
and I was left alone.

Grainline Alder Shirtdress, Take 2

I liked my first stab at the Alder Shirtdress so much that I decided to make another one.

grainline alder shirtdress view b
Filed under Photos taken by my ex boyfriends.

Evan was a good sport and helped me take a bunch of pictures during our walk. Maybe too good a sport. He got kind of bossy.

grainline alder shirtdress, view b, size 2
“Move two steps to the left.”

This one is also made of cotton that I got in Sham Shui Po. The fabric looks like when you flick toothbrush bristles to spray paint everywhere. It also makes me think of somebody who’s just thrown up birthday cake. I like it!

grainline alder shirtdress, view b, size 2
The skirt poufs up if it catches the wind, but at least it doesn’t flip right up and expose you.

Sewing Notes

  • Raised the bust darts by about an inch.
  • Instead of trying French seams again, I used the sewing machine’s overedge stitch with the overedge stitch foot.
  • The overedge stitch foot is awesome! It’s great for topstitching.
  • Used this tutorial by Four Square Walls for the collar bit because reading through the Grainline sewalong tutorial still confuzes me. Sigh.
  • Accidentally put the topmost button at the top of the button band rather than on the collar stand… heh heh heh.

Next Time (And There Will Be a Next Time)

  • Raise the pockets by about an inch.
  • Make it in this black/white fabric that Mummy chose. It’ll look totally different, I’m sure.

MAKE IT! The pattern is amazing!

Grainline Alder Shirtdress

This post is about the Grainline Studio’s Alder shirtdress.

So I got really excited to do the Alder Sew-Along. Maybe a tad too excited, because I jumped the gun and made one before Jen finished posting all the tutorial thingies!

alder shirtdress view b
Knitting, biking, and eating junkfood at the park. My kinda day.

I made view B because I thought it might look more flattering than view A.

Alder Shirtdress View B, back view.
Alder Shirtdress View B, back view.

Note

Processed with VSCOcam with m3 preset
Riverdale Park!

Notes

  • I made a size 2 because it matched my measurements pretty much to a tee.
  • I tried to do French seams… and ended up having to fudge the bit around the pivot point (where the skirt fronts meet the front) because I had no idea what to do re: the French seams! I am looking forward to seeing suggestions from the sew-along about this.
  • I misread the bit about attaching the collar and nearly messed the whole thing up, but managed to fudge stuff around a bit. I think it looks okay because the fabric is so busy.
  • This is some cotton I got in Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong.
  • These pictures are bad. Maybe I’ll post a better one later.

Simplicity 1880 Faux Wrap Dress

Here’s my first stab at Simplicity 1880. I made style B, the fake-wrap version.

Evan helped me take these pictures.

simplicity 1880 wrap dress
This dress went to Value Village. Hopefully somebody liked it enough to pay 99 cents for it.

I had made a muslin for this dress, which helped me determine that the waist was around 2 inches too high and the front gaped like mad (hooray for flatness). For the ~real~ version of the dress, I lengthened the bodice so the waist actually hit my waist, but I didn’t do a small bust adjustment. I should have!!!

back of simplicity 1880 wrap dress
Back of the wrap dress.

The result? The “wrap” neckline bit gapes quite a bit. I ended up sewing the overlapping pieces together to avoid, um, flashing the universe. But for future renditions of this dress I will definitely figure out how to do an adjustment.

I had done a sloppy job with the invisible zipper because I thought watching a 10-minute tutorial video would be too time-consuming. Ha! Another lesson learned. Feeling productive a couple days later, I unpicked the zipper and re-inserted it and now it looks much better! I mean, I spent so long on the dress anyway, so why was I willing to settle for the ugliness that was the zipper?

Not very flattering in hindsight. PASS.
Not very flattering in hindsight. PASS.

I made this dress out of cotton that I got in Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong. Mummy picked out the fabric for me. Sham Shui Po is fabric HEAVEN!!!! Blocks of streets lined with shops filled with fabric swatches, and roadside stalls with fabric on bolts and rolls. Roadside stalls selling muslins and rows of shops selling buttons, zips, leather, and all kinds of other sewing bits and bobs.

Here are swatches of the other fabrics I got! At 35 HKD a yard (around 5 CAD)… how could I say no?!

Fabric Swatches from Yu Tex Company in Sham Shui Po.
Fabric Swatches from Yu Tex Company in Sham Shui Po.

I’d gone to Sham Shui Po by myself earlier but was not confident in my Cantonese skills to actually try buying anything. That, and I was scared they were all wholesalers. With Mummy’s help, we were able to determine that you have to order a minimum of 3 (or was it 5?) yards of fabric and then return to the shop to pick it up a couple days later.

Oh, and I learned how to slip stitch for the sash. Cool!

Reversible Bag

Saw this bag by Very Purple Person on Pinterest and decided to make one of my own because I don’t have a purse to carry stuff around in. The pattern is clear and very easy to follow!

I didn’t have a good fabric to match it up with so I ended up using the same fabric for the inside and outside. I added a little pocket to the inside for my phone and wallet.

very purple person bag
I don’t know where this bag is any more 🙁

City Gym Shorts

It seems like every sewer (sew-er?) on Instagram is all about these City Gym Shorts from Purl Bee… including me! They are flattering and adorable.

Purl Bee's City Gym Shorts
Purl Bee’s City Gym Shorts

Used the leftover bright floral fabric from my Circle Skirt dress to make these. I got the fabric from King’s Textiles at Queen and Spadina. It might be for quilts. I don’t know. It’s cotton.

Purl Bee's City Gym Shorts
PJs + Birkenstocks = my mother would not approve.

BRB, I’m going to make some more.

Rectangle Dress

This was my first attempt at, um, making up my own design. Basically I cut out two slightly-wider-than-me-sized rectangles, sewed them together (with French seams), bias-bound the neckline and armholes, hemmed the bottom, and made a tie belt. Oh, and I put in a pocket.

The fabric is from a thrifted bedsheet from Value Village.

i'm in ur neighbourhood wearing ur bedsheet
i’m in ur neighbourhood wearing ur bedsheet

After making that, I decided to make my twin sister Jessica and me matching dresses out of blue linen.

asian twins wearing matching dresses
Who wore it better? jk jk don’t answer that.
lion hitched to bicycle with pretty girl
I love this photo of Jess. This lion was hitched to a bicycle outside a dumpling restaurant in Beijing. Also I think she looks really pretty here.

 

Update: I have since given my dress to Diana because it is a bit too short for me.