In this post, I will tell you how an email led to a project that helped me define my own identity. This is the story of Violet Tang, a Master’s student at Queen’s University and how her study of fashion and identity in the diaspora led to a brilliant exhibition that you can enjoy today.
Who is Violet Tang?
Violet Tang recently graduated with a Masters degree in Art History from Queens University, Ontario. Her thesis studied Chinese Canadian history, fashion, public history, and diasporic studies. See more about Violet here. She created a virtual exhibition where she explored all these themes, entitled “Fashioning the Decades.”
Virtual Exhibition: Fashioning the Decades, by Violet Tang
In this gorgeous virtual exhibition, artist, creator, and curator Violet Tang created an online look at the twin topics of fashion and the Chinese diaspora. It’s truly breathtaking what she’s done: recreating the full museum experience online. I encourage you to visit as you would in real life: slowly, savouring each piece. In this virtual reality world, you walk through the galleries, stopping in front of each curated piece, absorbing the research and stories. I’ve visited three times and I plan to go back.
In addition to research about clothing, jewellery and accessories, Violet has gathered personal accounts of the Chinese diasporic experience through the ninety years 1920s-2010s. She interviewed nine Chinese Canadians:
- Paul Yee, for Lillian Ho Wong (1920s)
- Jeanette Lee, for her grandmother Wong Shee and mother Rose Lee (1920s and 1950s, respectively)
- Marielle Lowe, for her grandmother Lillian Sam (1940s)
- Karen Dar Woon (1970s)
- Linda Tang, Linda Yip, and Cydney Mar (1980s)
- Joyce Wang (1990s)
- Tiffany Le (2010s)
If you’d like to skip to the interviews, see References, below.
Interview with Linda Yip, by Violet Tang
In our interview together, Violet and I sat down to talk about life and fashion. It’s not only about clothing: it’s truly how the things we wear express, shape, and define us.
Here is Violet’s description:
Representing the 1980s, I found three participants: Linda Tzang, Linda Yip, and Cydney Mar. I decided to have more than one woman to define this decade because I realized these Chinese Canadian women’s experiences captured the dynamic nature of the 1980s, where young women used various ways to fight social restraints. They each took a different journey to connect with their cultural identity, express individuality and gain empowerment. Linda Tzang is a first-generation Chinese Canadian who fell in love with the rebellious New Romantic culture, where I found her adding a unique perspective to communicate the 1980s experience. Linda Yip is a fourth-generation Chinese Canadian who travelled the world at her coming of age. I thought her story shed light on how one’s identity is fluid and constantly evolving as one grows and encounters new cultures. Cydney is a third-generation Chinese Canadian. Her career as a fashion designer was perfect for my project, and I was curious how her relationships with multiple cultures potentially communicated her identity and worldview through her clothing designs.
How this happened
Violet first contacted me in May 2021. She said she was a Master’s student studying Art History. For her project she’d chosen “Fashion and [the] Chinese diaspora,” and, well, I’ll let her explain her work:
Dear Linda Yip, My name is Violet Tang, and I am a first-year MA candidate from Queen’s University Art History Department. My Master’s research focuses on fashion and Chinese diaspora, and I am planning to make a digital exhibition about the fashion and clothing of Chinese Canadian women and persons with marginalized identities in the twentieth century.
My whole project is to interview a woman or their descendent from each decade of the twentieth century, and study how Chinese Canadian women’s self-fashioning practices communicate broader cultural histories and Chinese diasporic experiences. I conducted research on the Yip Sang family’s dress collections and immigration history at the Museum of Vancouver. I wonder if I could interview you to discuss more about your fashion and family histories.
All the Best, VioletViolet Tang, email to author, 18 May 2021.
Reflecting on the process
Violet’s process was thorough. It was as though the more I had to say, the more she wanted to know. Curiosity is my favourite thing and she was irresistible.
I looked at my accessories, clothing, hairstyles, jewellery, and makeup. Such a mashup of 80s-meets-identity, of growing up Chinese and wanting to be white; of disavowing anything Asian; of wanting to somehow “blend in” with curled hair and neutral colours. I relived my perm disasters with her. I saw my entire life through her eyes and how my fashion choices reflected my comfort levels with being Chinese: veering from too Chinese to not Chinese enough. I wouldn’t wear family jewellery because it was too soft and too valuable, when the unspoken reason was that it was too Chinese. The day I finally accepted my fine, straight hair was the day I began embracing what I actually looked like. So long, Big Hair. Hello, Asian female.
I’m finally learning about eyeshadow and the real reason why I haven’t been able to look like the faces I grew up with: because none of Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, or Elle MacPherson were Asian. I no longer tolerate makeup artists who view my eyes’ epicanthic folds as a problem that needs fixing. (True story. Sigh.)
Truly, celebrating ethnicity is welcoming all aspects of one’s identity. Fashion isn’t only what you put on: it’s the outward expression of your soul. I’m finally confident in who I am.
There are a lot of people to thank for this retrospective. Thank you to:
- Susanna Ng, Chinatown Storytelling Centre, for recommending me for this project;
- Uncle Dennis and Aunt Mayme, for teaching me to sew;
- Halle, Lisa, Jo, Kat, and Deb, for letting me be your fabric guru, and Tailor Khoi, for the beautiful clothes made from those fabrics (Vietnam, 2000);
- My ex-boss, for teaching me how to buy important jewellery;
- Jocelyne Poirier for teaching me how to apply makeup for TV;
- Auntie for teaching me how to apply winged eyeliner on eyes shaped like mine; and
- All the Asian beauty YouTubers, for revolutionizing makeup application.
I am older but in some ways I have never looked better.
Finally, thank you to Violet, for asking me to join you on this journey. I’m also mindful of what you were able to accomplish virtually, by Zoom, email, and all the tech tools, to bring us this beautiful space. It’s been a long road, this coming to terms with how I look. I am Chinese and I am Canadian. I take joy in my skin and yes, Violet, you are a part of that journey.
Violet Tang, “Fashioning the Decades: What’s in your wardrobe?,” 2022, online exhibition, Fashioning the Decades: accessed 1 Jul 2022.
_____ “Interview with Karen Dar Woon: 1970s,” 16 Apr 2022, video, YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022.
_____ “Interview with Tiffany Le: 2010s,” 19 Jan 2022, video, YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022.
_____ “Interview with Jeanette Lee: 1920s and 1950s” 19 Jan 2022, video, YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022.
_____ “Interview with Marielle [Lowe] on her Grandmother Lillian [Sam]: 1940s,” 15 Jan 2022, video, YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022.
_____ “Interview with Cydney Mar: 1980s” 19 Jan 2022, video, YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022.
_____ “Interview with K. Linda Tzang: 1980s,” 15 Jan 2022, video, YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022.
_____ “Interview with Joyce Wang: 1990s,” 12 Jan 2022, video, YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022.
_____ “Interview with Paul Yee for Lillian Ho Wong: 1910s,” 15 Jan 2022, video, YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022.
_____ “Interview with Linda Yip: 1980s,” 19 Jan 2022, video, YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022.
“EP Style,” YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022. She doesn’t post as often but I loved her sense of style and attitude how clothes should fit her, not the other way around.
Jen, “From Head to Toe,” YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022. Makeup and fashion.
Chelazon Leroux, “Deadly like Auntie: winged eyeliner for hooded eyes, time to just giverr,” 15 Dec 2021, video, Facebook Watch: accessed 1 Jul 2022, follow Auntie for their wicked-smart makeup tutorials. Also, congratulations Auntie on making RuPaul’s Drag Race and breaking the colour barriers. YAS QUEEN.
“Wendy’s Lookbook,” YouTube: accessed 1 Jul 2022.