Saturday, March 9, 2013

In loving memory

(Photo: Kwing Chan, Hong Kong, circa 1950s)

I'm not sure why it has taken me so long to write about my dad. I guess it's only natural to take for granted what is right in front of you until it is gone. I can't tell you how many times I've sat down in front of the computer, thinking about my dad the tailor, the one who made colorful dresses for his preschool-aged daughters and who was a master at his craft--laying out patterns so skillfully that hardly any fabric went to waste, cutting thick layers of cloth so effortlessly, it was as if he were slicing through soft tofu. For me, the sound of cloth being cut--whether with manual shears or a loud machine cutter--seemed to reveal everything there was to know about my dad. Those precise cuts and sharp noises conveyed a sense of unwavering confidence and danger, of steely determination and superhuman infallibility, of terrifying strength and comforting dependability. My dad was a provider, a maker of things, skilled, knowledgeable, and sometimes a bit hard around the edges. This is the dad of my distant past. The dad who, with my mother, continued to make dresses for their six daughters as they grew into teenagers. As gruff and no-nonsense as he sometimes could be, my dad had a nurturing soft side.... He made frilly pink-and-white dresses for the younger girls, a silk bubble skirt with matching bolero for the middle daughter, and burgundy velour maxis with jewel-studded bows for the more sophisticated daughters already in high school. This is my dad the tailor whom I've been meaning to write about.

But now, suddenly, he is no longer here. And I find myself lost. The narrative no longer seems relevant, and I am forced to view the entirety of my dad in the past tense, not just one aspect of him. I suppose, oddly, it's easier for me to reflect on the past and on clothes and material things than it is for me to express in words my appreciation for those loved ones in the present. So I find myself wanting to share with you my dad from the very very recent past: my dad the cook, the gardener, the soft-edged grandfather of ten adoring grandchildren. This is what I wrote in honor of him, after he left us barely two weeks ago, and the words that I wish I could have shared with him sooner....

When we lost our mom 21 years ago, we learned in a painful way that nothing lasts forever. It was a difficult lesson, and one that I am still learning from today.
My father did not often open up to us about his feelings, or ask us about ours. That just wasn't his way. But he always led us by example, and in his daily actions he taught us to take pleasure in the simple things in life: a good meal, a story or proverb shared at the dinner table, a bounty of fruit from the garden. And in showing us how to appreciate the little things, he also taught us, in his own Dad way, how to let go.
I am always amazed by how, throughout his life,  my father was able to accomplish so much with so little. I guess it makes sense. He often spoke of growing up during wartime, and the famine and desperation he witnessed. He told us how a tiny bit of salted pork would go a long way...flavoring a large pot of rice to feed the entire family. How as the days and weeks passed, hungry schoolchildren would one by one fail to show up to class, and nobody needed to ask why. Growing up with so little, my father learned to be quick on his feet, think creatively, and endure the greatest hardships to not just survive but to support his family. He learned to be as skilled with his hands as he was sharp in his thinking. And thanks to his determination and sheer will, he was able to pursue a better life for himself, his wife, and their seven children.
Anyone who knew my dad knew that he was an excellent cook and a constant gardener. He was also a tailor by profession--and a sometime carpenter as necessity dictated. He was always productive and handy, making cabinets and dressers for the house, an aviary for the finches, and a coop for the rabbits, chickens, and turtles we had over the years. He did everything with precision and care and an eye perhaps less toward aesthetics and more toward practicality. For every flower he planted he planted twenty times the number of vegetables. His garden was full of plums and apples and kumquats, loquats and pears and figs, tomatoes and green beans and squash, winter melons and potatoes and gai lan, green onions, chives, and even cherries and goji berries. And of course, there was the trusty, bountiful lemon tree.

And that was the wonderful thing about my dad. He was so practical: always emphasizing function over form. But in doing so, he provided us with a life full of beauty, nourishment, and joy. In his cooking--whether it was dinner on the table at 7pm sharp or wonton noodles for Sunday brunch--he had a clear purpose: to feed seven hungry mouths quickly and efficiently. But he also did above and beyond what any chef might aspire to. He took the time to make sweet sesame soup from scratch--toasting and blending the sesame until the entire house was filled with the richest, sweetest, most comforting aroma. He made his own soy milk--wringing a cheescloth full of hot soybean pulp to separate out the creamy liquid. And I can't even begin to describe the taste of his amazing jungs, dumplings, taro cakes,  and steamed buns; his delicious dinners full of his grandkids' favorite dishes: seared salmon, steamed chicken, fan qui tong, pai guot and endless varieties of hearty soups. Through his cooking, he nourished us and taught us the simple and immense pleasures of enjoying a delicious meal with family.

But perhaps most revealing of my dad's approach to life can be seen in his practice of calligraphy. With brush and ink in the privacy of his room or the garage, he wrote lines of classic texts or poetry...using old sheets of recycled paper, faded newsprint, or the backs of last year's calendar pages. And when the pages were filled from top to bottom and right to left, and the ink had dried, he simply tossed them out. We asked him why, and occasionally pleaded for him to save his work...but he only laughed off our requests, telling us there was no value in holding onto sheets of his writing. For my dad, the end result served him no purpose. It was the process and the continued practice that mattered to him. 
And so in the life he led, he taught us the great lesson that nothing is forever--and that is OK. Maybe even more than OK. It is something that we can embrace. After all, it is because of the change of seasons that we will always have a beautiful garden to come home to.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


The phrase "I wish I..." comes to mind today, and everyday, really.

From as early as I can remember, "I wish I..." followed by a hopeful but wistful desire for something usually way beyond my reach was the first thing that would come to mind at the sight or thought of almost anything I perceived to be good or desirable or fascinating.

I wish I...

...could walk on the clouds. I wish I could touch a star. I wish I could fly to the moon. I wish I could have a brown pony and feed it carrots and apples and sugar cubes. I wish I could brush its hair. I wish I had silky, straight hair down to my waist. I wish I were better at hop scotch. I wish I could have that pink taffeta lace dress. I wish I could catch his attention. I wish I were sixteen....

And I'll stop there because as we get older the wishes seem to grow more and more questionable, intolerable, silly. They aren't in any way cute, but embarrassing confessions of stunted growth, unfulfilled desires, and lack of ambition or focus or both. Wishful thinking comes naturally to us during childhood, but an adult's wishful thinking draws sympathy or skepticism, and an internal voice that says "just do something--ONE thing--well and get over yourself."

Which brings me to the concept of an outlet. This came up in conversation twice yesterday. The first revolving around why it is that I am compelled to write in this blog, and feel pressure to hurry up and just get one post in before the month slips by, because it is nothing if not self serving. My partner responded that it is my outlet for expression. Hmmm...expression.... What is expression but unfulfilled desires manifest in the act of yearning? It seems to me a lot like adult wishful thinking. In the other instance a friend told me over dinner that she was planning a shopping trip to the outlets. I loved that. There's an outlet in the act of writing for expression and rumination. Then there's "the outlets" for shopping--and bargain shopping at that. Outlet stores are the temporary homes of overruns, unsold styles from last season, slightly ill-fitting or badly tailored runts of the pack. Those dresses, coats, shirts, pants, shoes, socks, belts, underwear, earrings, and ties that didn't make the cut, are on the fringes, castaways, and--lucky for us--bargain buys!

I just discovered via The New York Times the brilliant Maria Popova's Brain Pickings. Hours pouring over it and listening to TED talks and commencement speeches and list after list of inspirational wisdom was the motivation for this post, for sure. The one takeaway message: Do what you love to do. The second takeaway message: Create. And the third, like Madonna said so well: Express Yourself. Like most thirty-somethings who every two years or so tries to come to grips with our life's purpose, I am finding that in a small way this blog is like a piece in the puzzle of a life full of wishful thinking. It is an outlet for those castaway thoughts that don't make it into my day to day functions as an adult attempting to play the role of a responsible, assured adult. I like the idea that even if these thoughts are half-formed, half-baked, not altogether wholly presentable in a legitimate, sophisticated way, there's a little space for them. A temporary home where they patiently, hopefully await a new owner.

(Photo: At my desk, George Sweaters lambswool cashmere finish sweater with beaded details made in Hong Kong, bought at the Alameda Antique Fair.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Costume Couture

Feeling a bit like a zombie yesterday morning during my usual mundane, unglamorous commute to work, I was grateful to find myself stirred awake by the Monsters versus Sexy Nurses debate in The New York Times Opinion Pages. The contributors touch upon the role of role-playing during Halloween, our fascination with dressing up in costumes of the zombie or sexy feline variety, and the significance of attire and painted or exposed flesh to help us confront death or attempt to defy it. I was reminded of the utterly intoxicating and revolutionary Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit at the de Young, and the trio of garments that reveal what is beneath the skin. This sequins-embellished bodysuit in particular so boldly yet elegantly maps the heart and veins of a human body, and is the perfect combination of the macabre and the sublime, of the body as a network of pulsing blood and organs and as inherently sexual and divine. Fashion might be many things to many people, but at its foundation is a pure enchantment with the body--the awe of it, the strength and the vulnerability of it, the beauty and the temporal nature of it. I can't say that I am inclined to join the zombie or sexy nurse camp, but I am intrigued by all the possibilities in how we adorn our bodies, what that says about who we are and how we limit or amplify our own self-expression, and how we choose to live in our skin. As unadventurous as I am during this time of year, I can say that I am squarely in the Gaultier camp and, given the chance, would put this risque beauty on in a heartbeat.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Feathers, Fog, Fur, Fluff

The bad thing about this time of year is that you catch colds and can't pull yourself out of bed, let alone think coherent thoughts that can be put into words. The good thing about this time of year is that the fog and the cold weather reminds you that you love all things soft, fluffy, furry, and feathery.

Wellco shoes from Mercy Vintage Now, my new favorite vintage shop in Oakland.

It's hard to resist a sweater with puffed sleeves, a feathered collar, and a keyhole neckline.... From Chick-a-Boom Vintage in Petaluma.

San Francisco under fog as seen from the Bay Bridge.

There is something very satisfying about staying in and cozying up in a faux fur coat with a good book and a cup of camomile tea...then slinking back into bed.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Happy Birthday Extravaganza

Happy Birthday to someone dear and special whom I love! Happy Birthday to me this month! Inspired (hypnotized?) after spending precious, irretrievable hours pouring over Anna Dello Russo's crazy ridiculous bedazzling blog, lured by her extravagant style and fashion philosophy, watching more ADR dance videos and ADR mugging for the camera than anyone can rightly justify, I find myself compelled to share this very apropos birthday cake gif. Sugared roses! Flickering candles! So ridiculous and retro but mesmerizing. It is that absurd fascination that kept me scrolling down and down and down....until I discovered this gem of a testament among all the bewildering ADRisms.... This is number 6 from her "10 Top Rules for Your Closet":

6. In front of a dress to KILL or to KEEP,
ask yourself:
future generations ‘ll want to see it?

Your cabinet must follow
the GEOLOGY’s criteria:
the older stones are to be on the bottom,
the younger eras must be layered on top.
In your closet’s SECTION you can
read the HISTORY of fashion.

I love the idea of putting a dress through the stylistic test of time. Would I still cherish this twenty years from now? Would I pass this down to my daughter? More importantly, would she want to inherit it? And I especially adore the concept of organizing one's closet by era. Excavating, re-evaluating, purging, reshuffling.... For someone who fantasizes about one day becoming an old granny with purple hair and a filled-to-the-brim consignment shop, this is a revelation. Why wait to own a vintage boutique when you can start the chronological timeline in your own closet?

Admittedly, regretfully, there aren't a lot of colors or bedazzled jewels or extravagant statement pieces in my closet. Anna would no doubt die of boredom, preferring to torch the site than to examine it piece by piece like a more patient archaeologist might. But history? Absolutely. Some of that history might be dead weight just waiting to be obliterated. But others are buried and neglected treasures waiting to see the light of day again. And then there's the emotional history that will resurface with an excavation of the closet: the old blue-and-white turtleneck sweater from a long winter in New York (sentiments forgotten but clinging on by the thread); the paisley dress worn once for a sister's gorgeous wedding in the hills (bittersweet memories of the now-distant past); the never-worn but perfect-fitting LBD that will be lovely to slip into on a warm L.A. evening (history on the verge of being made...). And still, always, somehow...there is room for more. Another birthday, another year, another dress to kill or keep, another stone inching its way down the pile and a new one triumphantly taking its place. I definitely have my share of old stones to unearth and reexamine.

But first, let us eat birthday cake! Maybe in a few more birthdays from now someone will find a way to make scratch-and-sniff, puffy-sticker versions of cake gifs. Now that would be very retro.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Scallops and Skin

I am a devout follower of Orangette--I must have made this banana bread (or some version of it) easily over a dozen times; I feel extremely lucky to have a sister who buys oats in cafeteria-worthy quantities to make and share this divine olive oil and maple granola; and I have recently added these bouchons au thons to my arsenal of quick dishes worthy of impressing both a certain French monsieur as well as two especially finicky little eaters.

Yet it wasn't until I read the chapter "Bonne Femme" in A Homemade Life, where Molly of Orangette describes a mother-daughter gastronomical trip to Lyon to discover the varied delights of bouchons, that I thought to connect the dots between food and my mother and this blog. I realize I've written plenty about my mother--her clothes, her style, her immortalized youth and beauty, and her huge influence on me--without really scratching the surface of who she was. The glaring omission being, of course, her love of food. And trying to describe my fascination with vintage and my mother's own sense of style without talking about the flesh and bone of our bodies is like staring at a tantalising parade of plastic sushi without ever getting a taste of the real thing.

But first--about those Lyonnais bouchons.... Restaurants of this variety still serve up dishes similar to that which their seventeenth and eighteenth century precursors did--a type of cooking called cuisine de bonne femme, hearty comfort food (think "lots of pork, lots of offal, and lots of wine") that goes by the motto, "Waste not, want not." I love that concept. It nicely sums up the way I feel about hunting for vintage treasures. When an undeniably exquisite pair of, say, size eight-and-a-half vintage brown suede shoes materializes before my eyes, it concocts a perfect storm of indulgence and practicality--it's vintage! It's my size! It needs a home!

My mother, too, could have lived by that motto. With seven kids, she was never one to waste. Moreover, she was never shy about her appetite. She seemed to have a special fondness for anything that called for slurping and sucking and smacking one's lips--needless to say she loved shellfish and tender meat falling off at the bone. She loved my father's cooking--especially his annual crab feasts, his barbequed pork, his "birthday" chicken, and his pork shoulder and winter melon soup. She relished in dim sum and banquets with large families at large tables with lazy Susans the width of a large kiddie pool. She proudly procured pink boxes of pastries to go with afternoon tea when relatives from Australia or Hong Kong were in town. She had a soft spot--as all her children do--for steaming bowls of won-ton noodle soup or fish congee on lazy Sunday mornings. And though she didn't herself cook much, she was the Queen of Eggs--achieving to the delight of her kids the perfect combination of crispy-edged and runny-centered sunny-side-up eggs, of fluffy and moist scrambled eggs, and of firm yet highly dunkable soft-boiled eggs.

When I think about the clothes she wore, it's hard to separate their form from the vivacious body that once inhabited them. She carried her blouses, her mid-length skirts, her occasional furs, even her shoulder-padded blazers with grace--not because they were expensive or extravagant items but because in my childhood eyes she was a gorgeous woman of the flesh. Her passion for life was as evident in her rapacious appetite as it was in her bursting closet. As a young girl I couldn't think of anything better than to observe my mother as she prepared herself for an evening out--an outing sure to involve meats and sweets and good things to drink. I loved to watch from her bed as she considered what to wear, dressed quickly, and settled at the vanity to brush her hair, spritz on perfume, and swipe on red lipstick.

Today, I occasionally catch my six-year-old daughter watching me in the same way. And although I'm far from perfect in her eyes, she still views her mum with some pretty heavily tinted rose-colored glasses. I often wish I could see my own mother without those glasses on--I'm sure it would ground me in many ways. But there is little time to regret, and so much to be grateful for and to take in. When I'm not too busy rushing myself or hurrying the kids, I like to spritz on a bit of perfume and swipe on my lipstick. Sometimes I even give Sonia's cheeks an almost invisible stroke of blush. It's gratifying to find nourishment--indulgence, really--in what we have, rather than dwell on what we lack. Yes, I think "Waste not, want not" truly is my new favorite motto.

(Photos: scalloped lace J.Crew top from Chris in Nob Hill; Sesto Meucci suede heels from Alameda Flea)

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Summer Colors

It's summer. I'm so busy. So many birthdays to celebrate, so many people in and out of town, so many pregnant friends to visit, and so many beautiful babies being born. It's a glorious, colorful time of year. And the kids and I are literally basking in the sun, enjoying ourselves in that happy-go-lucky but insanely packed with activities summertime way (in between fights and meltdowns and long lines for gelato). My life right now is feeling a bit like this collection of shoes--jam packed, delightfully varied, verging on chaotic, and remarkably sublime. 

(Photo taken at the Treasure Island Flea)