Friday, 3 November 2017

PhD diary: Wintery renewals

Dear Readers,

It's been six weeks since I officially started my PhD studies at the University of the Arts London. As usual, time slips through my hands like bathwater (warm, with a sense of familiarity), although a quick glance through my diary over the last few weeks reveals pages black with inked appointments.

The beginning has felt slightly passive - lots of people to meet, information to take in, speeches to listen to. And of course reading, endless reading, and not nearly enough writing or output of any kind, really. I had an minor accident at the beginning of October, which resulted in quite deep bruising on my hands and legs. I was in quite low spirits because of that, but also because of the very real isolation that a PhD student endures. In general, I am happy in my own company, and can stand to be alone more than most. But there's nothing quite like the madness that comes from being shut up alone in a small room for a whole day, optic nerves throbbing from too much screen time, printed words blurring on a paper page.

Every month feels like a fresh new start, but I find myself unable to keep to the deadlines that I set myself; the goals I imagined with so much enthusiasm just trickle away in a blur of tiredness and procrastination. That's one of the reasons that I thrive in the education system, and found being self-employed so challenging: an external demand negating choice, forcing output. There's so much to do, and it's so hard to do it all.

Anyway, I'd love to write a monthly PhD blog throughout my studies, but I don't want to commit to anything at this stage. Throughout 2017 I have found my writing practice more slippery and elusive than ever before. I came to accept this eventually, but I truly hope that things will get better as we reach the new year.

Till next time,


Tuesday, 3 October 2017


He said, To be honest white people don't even really ask to touch my hair any more since I got dreads. It's mostly black people asking to touch it like, Ohh lemme feel those matted locks, because I don't look like I have nice locks.

I said, Well that's good then. I can't imagine what it must be like to have people constantly demanding to touch your hair. If I was a black girl, I would be really angry all of the time. I'd go mad!

He said, Well yeah, that's why there are whole comedies written about black people and how you don't touch their hair. If you were a black girl, you'd have anger management issues.


Sunday, 1 October 2017

London, c.1895

He looked at people walking about and envied them because they had friends; sometimes his envy turned to hatred because they were happy and he was miserable. He had never imagined that it was possible to be so lonely in a great city. 
When Philip thought that he must spend over four years more with that dreary set of fellows his heart sank. He had expected wonderful things from London and it had given him nothing. He hated it now. He did not know a soul, and he had no idea how he was to get to know anyone. He was tired of going everywhere by himself. He began to feel that he could not stand much more of such a life. He would lie in bed at night and think of the joy of never seeing again that dingy office or any of the men in it, and of getting away from those drab lodgings.   
from 'Of Human Bondage' (1915) by W. Somerset Maugham. London: Vintage Books

In my writing again and again, I find myself interrogating the topic of city life, and of being a living subject in place where a mass of people struggle not to crash into on another on a daily basis. Reading Somerset Maugham, I am struck by the sense of isolation which he conveys, whatever the place. Our antihero Philip Carey is a lonely person with a tricky personality, at once incredibly sensitive but touchy, tactless, and unable to negotiate his emotions in a satisfying, constructive manner. The book contains nearly 500 pages of hopelessness, despair and difficulty, both in relationships and financially. It is uncanny how closely the London of 1895 resembles London 2017. In the end, the most surprising thing of all is that Philip gets a happy ending. Good luck to him.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Singing and brambling

Francis and I spent a long weekend in Newcastle, reuniting with beautiful Hannah. On Monday afternoon, we took a long walk through Jesmond Dene, searching for blackberries. We picked, and walked, for several hours, singing with each step. I had written an autobiography in verse last year whilst living in Stockholm, and enjoyed singing it together with Hannah very much. Here's us, above, singing whilst picking; and below, just before taking a recording of what we managed to learn.

And here's what it sounded like. Beginnings are where we start. As life continues to take a snakey path round decisions and happenings, I try to embrace what's revealed at each corner.


Monday, 28 August 2017

Deconstructing Fashion episode 5 clothing in Africa, the Carribbean, and South East Asia...

Have you listened yet to episode 5 of Deconstructing Fashion? This edition of the monthly podcast I co-host is my favourite yet. Click here to listen to it.

You'll hear from the director of the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora speak about her work tracing dress histories around the world. My co-hosts and I chat about the Costume Society conference, and Sian interviews me about my work researching Chinese dress in south-east Asia. And we discuss the state of fashion research, agreeing that what we all find the most intriguing is stories about people rather than catalogues of expensive garments.

If you enjoy this episode, please recommend us to your friends! 

Friday, 11 August 2017

Melting pot

We rehearse on Sundays, first in an abandoned office block turned into a home on the Grand Union Canal, then in a bedroom turned music studio in a flat above a fried chicken shop. Appearances deceive us, and a ballerina from Paris by way of Guadeloupe thinks that a blonde caucasian flautist is English because of her cut-glass intonation gained at a British school in Holland. We also have a rapping Londoner who arrived by way of Algeria, and a composer who cut his teeth on a true mash up of heavy metal, electronic dance music, Bach, organs, Afrobeats and Spanish classical guitar, who is here thanks to imperial interventions in Nigeria and Guyana, that last one being Guyanese by way of India, Africa and Portugal.

We'll look back on this period in thirty or so years time and feel incredibly bohemian, but I hope that my future self is still growing and learning and humble.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Automatic writing

The best kind of writing I feel is automatic writing. This is something which I am trying to do now, an outpouring of thoughts which form directly in my mind and reach the blank page or white screen immediately. My fingers holding pen or pressing the computer keyboard becomes an extension of my brain's inner narrative. The best work, I find, comes from this kind of automatic writing - that elusive, slippery zone which produces concepts and thoughts that are somehow pure, and somehow perfect in their difficult natural flow. My fingers press away like the veritable wind, backtracking every so often to correct errors in the order of characters, for I've forgotten my touch typing lessons of so many years ago.

I feel that there are two types of automatic writing, which to my mind is characterised by a need strong and irrepressible to form words in the world, to form concrete and even tangible words, you could say, out there on the other side of your cranium. A desperation, a longing, a possibility which is not questionable but simply realised. Firstly there is the pursuit of an idea, an obsession, a concept that sparks something within and therefore with out. And secondly there is the autobiographical narrative, the confessional, the diary. Both are wonderful, but one in particular lifts. I speak the words inside and outside, on my tongue and off my finger tips. Whisper. Lips.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Mixed-up, Mixed Race; or, 20+ Years of Eurasian Angst

Me and my nose, Ho Chi Minh City, February 2014

"Perhaps intermarriage is the solution of the great racial problem," suggested the Professor. 
"Never," said the old administrator. "Keep the breed pure, be it white, black, or yellow. Bastard races cannot flourish. They are a waste of nature."  

-from 'Kimono' by John Paris (1921). 
Published by Penguin Books, 1947, pp.12-13

Eurasians are alternatively demonised and fetishised in colonial-era literature; and post-colonial literature continues to uphold the shaky ground upon which so-called 'half-castes' tread. Commonly depicted as being unwelcome in white and 'native' communities alike, it is only recently that the positive stereotypes - but stereotypes all the same - of Eurasians being beautiful has won out. In our current image-obsessed culture, we live out the archaic assumption that to be beautiful equals to be good, and therefore good-looking Eurasians are good things too. White communities like us because we represent the allure of the exotic, but with some familiar features that remind them of Caucasians. Asian communities like us because we are often fair-skinned, with lighter hair, and may display the strong jawline and more pointed nose which is characteristic of Westerners; basically because we have Western physical traits which they themselves find desirable. It's the timeless appeal of the Other, a type of beauty in sight but just out of grasp.

Out of grasp, that is, until beauty standards met the cosmetic surgery industry and they exploded in a huge, fast, scary way. When I spent two weeks travelling around Vietnam in 2014, it was assumed that I was North Vietnamese, and I was constantly asked if I had had my nose job done in Korea. The same thing has happened with Indonesian tourists in Bali.

People were not trying to determine if I was Eurasian, half white. I was stopped by multiple groups of adoring women who simply said to me, "You're so beautiful! Did you get your nose job done in Korea?"

The famous Nose in profile, Ho Chi Minh City, February 2014

Hanh, Nelly and me, HCMC, Feb '14. All real noses: two Vietnamese, one Eurasian


I am reminiscing about this trip, and longing to see old friends. I wrote the majority of this text two years ago, and have just found it languishing in the 'drafts' folder of this blog. I am publishing it now because I have recently come to realise that although I am constantly interested and intrigued by people's experiences of race and empire, I have done very little to interrogate my own relationships and understandings of these concepts. I hope to do more of this over the coming year, and aim to document those mental wonderings and wanderings in this space, online. I feel that this is an especially relevant activity in light of my [upcoming] PhD research methodology.

As always, I would love to hear back from any of my readers, particularly those from a multi-ethnic background. Please feel free to comment on any blog posts, or contact me at chinesefashion @


Monday, 3 July 2017

Deconstructing Fashion Podcast

Deconstructing Fashion, a podcast.
Thoughts on fashion and culture, present and past.
I have started recording a fashion history podcast together with fellow MA Fashion Cultures alumni Siân and Lindsay. We are three smart women talking about fun things, so if you're looking for new podcasts and are fans of the talk show format, do give us a listen! 

You can find us on iTunes and Soundcloud. Click here for our website, which has a list of episodes with full descriptions and show notes. 

If you enjoy the podcast, please consider giving us a review on iTunes! It would really help us improve our ratings and reach other listeners. 

Find us online at and contact us at hello[at]

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Upcoming Talk: The Samfu Suit, 1920-1979

Image copyright: Anushka Tay

I will be presenting my Masters thesis The Samfu Suit, 1920-1979. Diaspora, Identity, Representation at the Costume Society Conference on Saturday 1 July 2017.

This research proved to be a journey across both time and land, taking me deep into library archives as well as into the memories of family and friends. I carried out this research in London, Singapore and Hong Kong in summer 2016 for my dissertation for MA Fashion Cultures at the London College of Fashion (passed with distinction).

This research was supported by several grants: Costume Society Yarwood Award 2016; Pasold Textiles MA Research Grant; London College of Fashion: Fashion Matters Project Bursary.

Tickets are still available. Click here for more information & booking.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Where have you been

June 2017
Time is measured out in chords learned and scales mastered, in stitches made and socks piled up in the dresser. I ask myself constantly how I have arrived in June from January, and what do I have to show? Travel, music, conversation. Friendships strengthened and knowledge gained, and then lost. All these things are invisible yet mount up to leave indelible marks on the inside. I am trying to be a better artist, by which I mean not a painter or sculptor but a daily practitioner of creation. Sometimes when things seem too quiet it's as much as a loss as when time is too full. I am trying to return to better habits, to relearn ways of working and being that led me to better places in the past. Bear with me while I try.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Screen, paper and face

We are sitting in the window of a chain café on the edge of the Strand. We are drinking small cups of coffee with Italian names which have just been prepared using coffee beans grown somewhere in South America. We have been looking at photographs taken fifty years ago in West Africa of people running, dancing, jumping, playing. A painter told me that good paintings lift you, they give you something, you walk away feeling like you're richer. She's not keen on photography, yet I feel that this notion of being rich in spirit even when your pockets are empty can be applied to all works of human creativity. Certainly, I feel wonderful after looking at all those photographs of anonymous people in a far-away place and a far-away time. They are here and I am there.

Back to the present, and suddenly we hear a burst of shouting and calling. A group of people are passing by waving placards, and I remember the notice that I'd seen tied to a traffic light at a pedestrian crossing advertising a march to show support immigrant workers. I'd also seen it advertised online, and suddenly here it is in front of me. I am at leisure, sitting here in the middle of the day philosophising, because my four grandparents migrated to London to study, to work, to seek refuge from persecution. They found jobs, then each other; they renounced their former citizenships to settle and stay; they raised children. They paid taxes. They never claimed social benefits. Why would they?

There is a problem in this country called race, and people who do not have peach skin, deep eye sockets, straight hair and thin lips are ceaselessly made to feel unwelcome. I can't be proud of a country whose people constantly question my birthplace. It is always assumed that I, and others who resemble me, come from somewhere else. The location is abstract, and foreign, and far away. When migrants are demonised by the media and by politicians, as they currently are, I wonder what is the desired alternative. Nationalism in England has a nasty undercurrent of racism and fascism. Currently, new migrants and religious minorities are scapegoated for the nation's problems; whilst descendants of old migrants are constantly made to feel unwelcome, like we're not part of the country. I guess that I don't always want to be British, but I am, and there's no where else for me to go. This is the home that I come from, and I have no choice but to stay.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Malick Sidibé exhibition at Somerset House

We finally made it to the Malick Sidibé exhibition at Somerset House; it was absolutely wonderful, in so many ways.  It closes on the 26th February, so I am typing like the wind in order that any readers might have time to catch it in the next 5 days!

Malick Sidibé was a Malian photographer, who took iconic portrait photographs in Mali following independence  from French colonialisation in 1960. I had previously seen his photographs hung in group exhibitions, and this is the first solo show in the UK. The exhibition was divided into three sections according to their topics and style, and framed photographs were hung in three beautiful high-ceilinged rooms in Somerset House. Nightlife in the capital Bamako depicted snappily-dressed groups of men and women dancing the twist and showing off their record collections. Daytime by the river Niger showed groups of teenagers posing, playing, swimming. The last room displayed a selection of studio portraits, some of which were certainly more posed than the location photography, but all were equally energetic. Sidibé's subjects are notable for their charismatic style, whether clothed in a three-piece checked suit with polished loafers and pork-pie hat, or standing topless wearing a sarong or old jeans. His photography is utterly fresh; you can almost hear the peals of laughter, shouts or cries ringing out. The atmosphere of the exhibition was kept equally upbeat with a varied soundtrack designed by DJ Rita Ray, which I felt was really successful.

All photographs were black-and-white, and were heavily textured from darkroom processing. The crinkly photographic paper was hung loose in white frames, which really gave an additional layer of tactility to the show. We are in the age of images which exist only onscreen, and I can honestly say that the curatorial choice to emphasise the physicality of photographs made it a very special show. I look forward to more like it in the future, and really encourage you to go before it closes!

Malick Sidibé: The Eye of Modern Mali. Somerset House, till 26 February. 
Free entry!
Click here for more information.