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The Root Cause: Susie Lau on Identity, Activism and Finding a Voice Leave a comment

And so Dot Dot came to fruition during the first lockdown. It would be a bubble tea and waffles shop on Stoke Newington Church Street, specialising in flavours that remind us of Hong Kong – like coffee-tea, a local caff staple. Bubble waffles are a Hong Kong street snack which have this distinct semi-spherical pattern. The “roundness” of the food and drinks had this poetic synergy in Chinese, as the character for “round” can also mean togetherness and unity, particularly pertinent at a time when so many had been separated from their families. The shop’s name also comes from a Chinese idiom, 点点滴滴 (“little by little”), which sounds a bit like “dot dot” when spoken aloud and is used as a phrase to describe life moving along bit by bit.

Fitting for a period in which time seemed to have slowed down.There was something more significant for me on a personal level: the food and beverage industry was not new to me. I grew up above my parent’s Chinese takeaway in Camden, and waitressed at the restaurant they later ran when I was in my teens. The trajectory of “Chinese takeaway” kids is that they might work in the takeaway, taking orders in their more fluent English, but on the side they’re also supposed to study hard so they can eventually free themselves from taking on the graft of a Chinese takeaway, which enabled my parents to have a home in the UK but for them wasn’t a prestigious line of work. They wanted me to soar academically and enter the professional classes. But to return to that industry is also an acknowledgement of pride.

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I am that Chinese takeaway kid doing her homework at the back, and I do come from a food-obsessed family culture where the thickness of dumpling skins is dissected at dim sum meals. It’s through second or third-generation kids like me and recent waves of east and south-east Asian immigration that new creative food businesses like London’s Dumpling Shack and Bao have sprung up, introducing foods with traditional origins through new spins and interpretations. Dot Dot opened its doors in November amid tightening restrictions in London, but being takeaway-only we were still able to operate. It’s been a process of learning on the job but also of reinitiating myself in the food industry – serving customers, dealing with supply and stock issues and running an efficient business.

Our team members also all happen to hail from Hong Kong, having come to the UK through its latest British National Overseas (BNO) scheme. They are aligned with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, as China pushes to impose an increasing number of restrictions and draconian security laws on the former British colony. Learning about their first-hand experiences of a city that has changed so fundamentally has been enlightening and inspiring. Just being able to converse in Cantonese at length and discussing nostalgic flavours of Hong Kong, where food culture is so integral to identity, is part of the joy of Dot Dot. People have been surprised that I’m sometimes in the shop doing food prep, making waffles and taking orders, but being physically hands-on at a time when everything is so digitally geared has been rewarding.

While I was exploring my Hong Kong roots by venturing into a new field, the global wave of lockdowns brought on by Covid was having a terrifying effect on how east and Southeast Asians (ESEA) were being seen and treated in the western world. By early 2021, violent crimes being perpetrated against Asian-Americans were being documented meticulously on social media, reported by media platforms like NextShark. CCTV footage of often-elderly Asian citizens being mindlessly and violently attacked while going about their business was emerging on a daily basis. And then, March 16th. A year on from the beginning of the pandemic.

The most horrific of murders perpetrated against eight victims, six of whom were Asian, by Robert Aaron Long in Atlanta. You can adapt, please and integrate as much as you like. You can speak English with the glassiest of accents. You can “contribute” to society and fall into the model minority myth of being the hard-working, law-abiding immigrant who strives for excellence, but still get gunned down because the shooter was having a “bad day”. The victims’ names – Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels – I’ll remember forever as I later read them out in a Say Their Name remembrance service organised by Hackney Chinese Community Centre over Zoom.

In the immediate aftermath, I kept waking up with a feeling of dread. It was a dark malaise that I couldn’t quite shake. Something inside of me was triggered to action. Together with vocal Asian American figures like Phillip Lim, Prabal Gurung, Eva Chen and Michelle Lee, I was galvanised into raising awareness and fundraising for victims and grassroots Asian organisations. Speaking about the #StopAsianHate movement on IGTV was an emotive experience, so much so I found it difficult to look into the camera. My voice was wavering and I was visibly tearing up because it is so personal. My experiences growing up, even in an ostensibly multicultural city, were flooding back.I thought about all the times my race and culture has been fetishised in my personal life.

I thought about the thousands of times I’d been cat-called on the street with “Konnichiwa”, “Ni Hao” or guys slow-riding up to me in their cars going, “Hey China, hey China, wanna get in?” I thought about the times I’ve been shouted at to “Go home! ” when I was under the impression that London was my home. I thought about so many in my family and beyond who work in hospitality, and have been abused in their workplace by drunken parties that get lairy after they don’t get their chicken chow mein. I thought about how, even in the liberal context of fashion, I’ve felt the pressure to conform, assimilate and fit into a largely white-dominated environment because I should just be grateful for being given a seat at the table. Then I thought about how vehemently I would not want my daughter to feel at all othered in these ways as she grows up. It’s been a cathartic unleashing of buried feelings.

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What gave me even more strength to be vocal about racial injustice towards Asians was the coming-together of women of East and Southeast Asian origins – mostly London-based, working in creative fields – on an instant messaging app. We were strangers, but our experiences were shared and there was an immediate feeling of sisterhood. And so ESEA Sisters was formed, a safe space for confiding with each other about our experiences and trauma while collectively celebrating our cultures through food meet-ups. (When outdoor dining was introduced, we had a fair few dim sum meets.) We also coordinated public campaigns such as a petition directed at The Sunday Times for printing a front-page story on the Duke of Edinburgh’s death which contained the line “Prince Philip was the longest-serving consort in British history – an often crotchety figure, offending people with gaffes about slitty eyes, even if secretly we rather enjoyed them”. Our vision for how we would like to be seen on our terms has only just begun, and I’m so excited to discover where this ESEA Sisters journey leads us.

In the realm of fashion, I now have a greater impetus and belief that the open borders and globalised state of creativity is where the future lies. Fifteen years ago I was blogging about obscure designers from Bangkok and Buenos Aires on Style Bubble – today, that same mindset takes on a renewed purpose. More than ever, I feel that fashion’s ivory-tower, elitist mentality isn’t fit for purpose for the 21st century. That true diversity and inclusivity enriches our industry and shifts it from the rarefied world it was for the most part of the 20th century. That the lived experiences of everyone need to be heard and accounted for, and that together we have great power to enact real change. If I’m ever in a professional situation where I feel cultural “gaffes” are being bandied around, I now have more courage to speak up. If 2019 was the year I went everywhere physically, then the year beginning March 2020 was the moment I travelled deep within my mind to feel rooted to my culture.

To be truly proud of my upbringing, my family and my background, and not to cower or shrink away from it. How it has taken two decades to do so gives one pause for thought, but perhaps it was this tumultuous period of time that forced the issue to the fore. We’ve all had to undergo processes of reassessing, re-evaluating and rediscovering aspects of our lives. For me, it’s been an internal reckoning with a part of me that was buried because I never had to confront it. The world has changed. How we see racial injustice and prejudice has changed. Over the summer, I gave a speech alongside my fellow ESEA Sisters at a Protest to Protect Asians march and said this:

“We now know that collectively, through finding our voices together, we are strong enough to take on entrenched attitudes in established institutions. I have been given the strength to speak up. From private conversations to public collective action. These are our lived experiences. And we are SILENT NO MORE.”

Portrait by Anna Stockland. Taken from Issue 67 of 10 Magazine – BOLD & BEAUTIFUL – order your copy here.

 @susiebubble

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