Labour and Beauty: Looking Back on My Grandmother’s Life

By Shazlin Rahman

Over the next few months, we will be featuring articles and conversations from our Behind the Dust Visual Series Mediamakers. This is the second in the series.

In my ten years of living in Canada as an immigrant, a woman of colour and a Muslim, I’ve experienced various forms of discrimination. I’ve had someone tell me I don’t have to wear the hijab because I’m “in Canada now.” I’ve had to start my university studies all over again because my five years of postsecondary education from outside of Canada weren’t recognized. I’ve had people curse and toss a cigarette butt at me when I was out walking with my visibly Muslim friends. I now work at a nonprofit that addresses issues of race and inclusion, where I vicariously  experience the trauma of others on a daily basis.

All of this took an emotional, mental and physical toll on me. I began searching for representations of strong, trailblazing women as role models as a source of strength and healing early in 2017. Little did I know that I’d find it in someone close to me: my late grandmother, Mok.

Mok died of old age in 2012. Given the distance between here and Malaysia, returning for her funeral was out of the question and I never got the closure I needed. In grappling with my fear of forgetting her altogether, I began asking my mom about Mok—about her childhood, her marriage to my grandfather, and what she was like as a young mother. That was when I became fascinated with the collection Mok’s old batik sarongs my mom had brought back with her from Malaysia. The sarongs were valuable artefacts of Malay culture—my culture—in general and of Mok’s life in particular.

A little over a year ago I began reflecting on Mok’s resilience and ingenuity in the face of poverty through short stories; I also created artwork and sketches based on her collecting of batik sarongs. The more I explored what she meant to me, the more I discovered there were lessons hidden among different moments of her life that are deeply relevant to who I am today.

There are no records kept of her birth—which is common at the time— but Mok must have been born sometime in the early to mid-1920s. The fifth child of fourteen, she was born into crippling poverty, in one of the poorest parts of British-occupied Malaya. With a husband who was largely absent, her mother was kept busy providing for the family and Mok had to learn to fend for herself from an early age. She married my grandfather in her late teens, had three daughters and fostered multiple children despite being very poor. Working from home, she took on different jobs to make ends meet, including making batik sarongs.

I discovered that the adversities Mok overcame in her life–starting almost a century ago–are now sources of strength for me as a millennial Muslim woman of colour living in Canada today. Aspects of her life illustrate what resilience looks like for women like me. Here are three of them:

Mok’s house, viewed from the front yard. (Photo by Asad Chishti)

Mok’s House

Both my grandparents had very little when they met each other, and they brought even less into their marriage. My grandfather was a rickshaw driver and Mok helped out at her mother’s food stall at the city market in Kota Bharu, Kelantan on the east coast of Malaysia. Their first house was a simple wooden platform with rattan-woven walls and a thatched roof, built on stilts about four feet off the ground to protect against the monsoon floods. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing and housed a single space that was sectioned off into areas for sleeping, cooking and dining. My grandparents and my aunt, the eldest of Mok’s three daughters, gradually saved up and expanded the house to include more rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. After my grandfather passed away in 1989, Mok kept the house in pristine condition for decades after, often making necessary repairs herself. “Mok’s house” as my cousins and I called it, was our favourite refuge from the city during  school holidays.

Mok’s house, viewed from the back yard. (Photo by Asad Chishti)
One of the two original school buildings of the “People’s school”. (Photo by Asad Chishti)

The “People’s School”

Although Mok never learned to read or write, all three of her daughters went onto become university educated. This is an incredible achievement, considering how poor the family was and how so many families did not educate girls beyond the primary (grade school) level.

This Sekolah Rakyat or “People’s School” was built in 1949 and it was the first school in the village where Mok lived. It was a community effort spearheaded by activists who would later become part of the fight for the country’s independence from the British in 1957. The first school building was a simple wooden rectangular building with a thatched roof, and it was divided into sections for different grades. A terrible storm later destroyed it, and the school was rebuilt in 1950 as two buildings—one for classrooms and the other as a canteen—not far from Mok’s house.  There were no fees, and everyone in the village was encouraged to attend. The teachers included those who had been educated up to the second or third grade, were able to read and write and were therefore qualified to teach. My aunt, the eldest of Mok’s three daughters, remembers standing in the corner of a classroom listening to the lessons before she was old enough to attend. She was always welcomed by the teachers and was never told to go away. Following Malaysia’s independence, the school was absorbed into the public school system, rebuilt and renamed Kampung Sireh Primary School. The original school buildings, rebuilt in 1950, still stand there today.

One of the two original school buildings of the “People’s school”. (Photo by Asad Chishti)
Close up of one of the two original school buildings of the “People’s school”. (Photo by Asad Chishti)
My aunt Hasiah, and Mok’s eldest daughter, shows me a few of the many batik sarongs from Mok’s personal collection. (Photo by Shazlin Rahman)

Batik Sarongs

Batik sarongs are the quintessential clothing item for women in the Malay archipelago. Batik is a technique where motifs are drawn or printed on fabric in wax and later filled in with fabric dye. Parts of the fabric that is covered in wax will resist the dye, thus creating a clear outline of the motifs. My curiosity about Mok’s life was sparked by the collection of batik sarongs she left behind. I learned about Mok’s work in colouring batik sarongs at home when she was a young mother, like many women like herself at the time, and later involved her three daughters to supplement the family income. Batik manufacturers would typically employ men to draw or print the motifs, and women like Mok would do the work of colouring the motifs in the comfort of their own homes. According to my aunt, it was this work that generated the surplus income that helped them slowly break out of the cycle of poverty. On my recent visit to Mok’s and my hometown of Kota Bharu, Kelantan in east Malaysia, I discovered the industry has remained largely unchanged: batik-making still came out of small, home-based operations, men were still primarily hired to draw the motifs and the colouring was done by women, often those who lived close by and were therefore able to care for their children and their homes while working.

A batik colourist at work at one of the many small batik workshops along Pantai Cahaya Bulan road, a popular tourist attraction in Kelantan, Malaysia. (Photo by Asad Chishti)

Although batik is one of the state of Kelantan as well as Malaysia’s most popular cultural exports, this value is not reflected in the remuneration given to the women in the batik industry, nor in the conditions in which they work. I explore this gap in the relationship between Malay women’s labour, beauty and the batik industry through my upcoming photo essay with photographer Asad Chishti. You can see more of my reflections on Mok’s life, batik sarongs and the batik industry at and @hersarong.

When I began my journey over a year ago to reconnect with my late grandmother and, by extension, to my Malay culture, my connection to those two aspects of my identity felt tenuous at best. Now, I’ve found a reservoir of beauty and life lessons that will remain relevant regardless of whether I’m in Canada or Malaysia.

Shazlin Rahman is a Malaysian-born, Toronto-based freelance writer and artist. She has six years of architectural education from Malaysia and Australia, a degree in Journalism from Wilfrid Laurier University and M.A. in Communication and Culture from the interdisciplinary joint program at Ryerson/York. Shazlin uses photography, abstract art and creative nonfiction to engage her audience in conversations about the resilience of women of colour.


Conversations: How Food and Storytelling Can Bring You Home

By Soko Negash

Over the next few months, we will be featuring articles and conversations from our Behind the Dust Visual Series Mediamakers. This is the first in the series.

I first connected with Lily Hu by way of Angry Asian Feminist Gang, a Facebook group created by Amy Wong for self-identifying Asian Feminists with an interest in art and cultural production. We later discovered that both of our families (her parents, my mother’s side) are from Taishan, a small-ish city in southwestern China. We also unknowingly grew up on the same street, and even shared some of the same childhood friends, but we had somehow never really met — until very recently.

About a month ago, she invited me over for dinner. Before I even saw her for the first time, I smelled her cooking. “I hope you like trotters,” she yelled from the kitchen stove. I didn’t know then that trotters are the culinary term for pig’s feet. She moved seamlessly through the kitchen, tasting and adding things in between talks we had about intergenerational traumas, the ways we connect and don’t connect to aspects of our culture, and forgiveness. I left that night with a full heart and stomach.

When Lily was young, her parents opened the doors to a family-run Chinese restaurant. Her dad handled all the cooking and her mom managed the front-of-house. As a child, Lily found herself fascinated with her dad’s methodical routine and would peer over his shoulder, constantly; observing and studying the craft.

Now, at 26, Lily freelances as a chef and has worked at some of Toronto’s top restaurants, like Scaramouche and Momofuku. When she’s not thriving in the heat of high-end kitchens, she runs Cook ‘n Grow, a kids community program based in Regent Park, which she created with her friends Natalie and Karrin, in collaboration with Green Thumbs. Lily has also started sharing her stories through writing. She recently penned a piece for Cherry Bombe about her experience with sexual harassment and Stockholm syndrome while working in the industry.

Today, she cooked something new and we discussed authenticity, storytelling through food, and what home tastes like – amongst other truths.

The menu: Homemade ricotta-stuffed ravioli, tossed in brown butter sauce, served on a bed of roasted sweet potato, arugula, and radicchio.

Lily described the flavour as agrodolce, an Italian word meaning the application of sweet and sour. For the dessert, she made her own take on soot lai tong – a soup traditionally made with asian pear. Her instincts told her to add cinnamon and vanilla as she poached the pears, and the addition of sweet rice balls with black sesame filling. The rice balls, more accurately known as tang yuan, are generally eaten around Chinese New Year to signify the celebration of ‘something special’.


Soko Negash: Food can mean such different things to different people, from survival to self-care and healing to memory… What does food represent to you?

Lily Hu: I like the idea that it’s this challenge of finding new ways to use ingredients. Maybe it stems from using up what is in the fridge, as a means of survival to some degree. Not having the luxury of buying things all the time forces you to be creative with what you already have. That is a good way to describe what I like about food. I think learning to cook from a young age instilled a sense of independence and an ability to take care of myself. If I were to ever move somewhere else, I could be self-sufficient because I can cook for myself. That’s a big part of having that skill.

Soko Negash: I think there’s a real strength in that.

Lily Hu: Yeah. My parents used to work a lot so me and my sisters would be at home. My parents did not always have the ability to cook something before they went to work, and if they ended work late, then, it’s like, what do we know how to do? What do I know how to make? It started with my parents assigning us the task of cooking the rice for dinner, even if it was just a basic lesson. Then, you can add a plate of eggs to sit in the rice cooker and it steams while the rice cooks. It started with the basics, and then building on top of that.

When people talk about “Chinese food” as a blanket statement, it is over-generalizing because, in reality, it is so regional and there are so many different types of Chinese food. That is a thing I try to educate people about.

SN: Were there any specific challenges that you or your family faced while running the family restaurant?

LH: I think there were a few instances when people would call on the phone and mock a Chinese accent, and I remember, feeling really bad if my mom was the one who picked up the phone and had to hear that. In a way, me and my sisters were some sort of buffer for them because we’ve always had to be their translator with lots of things, whether it’s just documents or while shopping, or things like that. I think I just felt an obligation to take care of them in a way. I didn’t want them to have to face people who were discriminatory because they didn’t speak English. I was always there to ask “Is there a problem?” or “Can I clear this up?” if someone was being disrespectful, so I always feel like I have that on my shoulders to just protect them.

The most dominating thing is that it’s emotional cooking for me. It’s a reflection of where I am, who I am at that time, what I’ve learned, and how I’m feeling.

SN: I think that’s something a lot of children of immigrants can relate to.

LH: Some people who don’t grow up with a second language don’t understand that it just takes patience to figure out what the message is that’s being communicated. It just takes time and a different way of talking to someone, and it doesn’t mean that people are stupid, it just means that they don’t have that access or channel to use.

SN: English is the assumed language, but that’s only because of colonization.

LH: And that’s oppressive.

SN: People can say oh, go back to your country or you need to learn the language, but the real question is, do you speak Cree?

LH: Right.

SN: What does it mean for you to be authentic in your approach to cooking?

LH: I think authenticity is something I’m always trying to tie into my identity because I think we are always changing as people and trying to figure out who we are, what our background is, and what being genuine means. But authenticity and food is interesting because I have a Chinese background, but I am also moving through new spaces as a Canadian and as a young person working in the industry. The kitchens I am in are often very eurocentric, so the idea of coping and trying to assimilate with the dominant culture is a tricky game because it means survival as well. It doesn’t really limit the type of cooking I do, but I just have a deeper understanding of Chinese food that I can pull from.

When people talk about “Chinese food” as a blanket statement, it is over-generalizing because, in reality, it is so regional and there are so many different types of Chinese food. That is a thing I try to educate people about.

SN: Can you tell me a little about the program you run in Regent?

LH: The program is called Cook ‘n Grow. It’s an after-school program for kids aged ten to eleven. We collaborate with the kids and talk to them about what they want to eat, and what they want to make, and discuss their cultural backgrounds so it can be shared amongst the other kids who have maybe never had that type of food before. Last week, we made Vietnamese banh mi. Part of the reason why I started the program was because I wanted to feel more connected to my community through food. And I love kids, so just talking to friends who do or don’t know how to cook for themselves made me realize that not everyone has the food literacy or skills to be independent. With many parents working full-time, it doesn’t give them the luxury of having somebody to cook for them at home all the time. So, they have to take care of themselves.

SN: How would you describe your cooking style?

LH: The most dominating thing is that it’s emotional cooking for me. It’s a reflection of where I am, who I am at that time, what I’ve learned, and how I’m feeling.

If I’m feeling really energetic, I would lean towards some bright, acidic, fun flavors. If I’m feeling down, I’m going to cater to that emotional need. I think I do a lot of emotional eating in the sense that I eat what would make me feel good and what matches my energy levels… and what’s available depending on the season. If it’s winter, then we’re going to have rootier, richer things. Because I’m always learning and experimenting and looking for new ingredients to try and incorporate, then the constant theme is: how do I feel?

SN: Do you see it as a form of storytelling?

LH: I sometimes get strokes of inspiration from people that I’ve come into contact with. For example, if a past lover inspired me to use saffron and coffee together, I would think about how I would use that in a dessert. I think it’s a memory of them in some way. That’s almost how I like to tell stories because they are often inspired by people and places. And you can always tell the story about it after you make it because the idea still lives on and you can share that [story and food] with other people.

SN: What does home taste like to you?

LH: I remember growing up and eating a lot of steamed meatballs and steamed dumplings. The memories of making dumplings with a bowl of ground meat and cilantro with other ingredients is a very vivid memory of what feeling loved tastes like and looks like. I will eat dumplings forever because it’s just a comfort thing. It’s so embedded in an act of love.

SN: The fact that you are a woman working in a high-end kitchen, but then also adding the layer of being Chinese-Canadian… what does that mean to you?

LH: I always try to prove people wrong because I am aware of my physical perceptions. Oh, she’s a Chinese girl coming into this very macho kitchen, so they think you will be subservient and soft. I kind of enjoy sussing out the space and seeing if they feel comfortable saying some crazy s***  in front of me because they think that I don’t speak up for myself, and they think they can take advantage of me because of my stature or whatever. A lot of the time, it’s like, well, I’ll just do that thing that I do best… but I don’t know what the alternative is because I can never walk through that space being a white man to know the comparison.

SN: I think a lot about the ways that women’s work has gone undervalued for centuries and how now it’s a lot of men that get a certain type of praise for their cooking and their work in the food industry, in particularly white men –

LH: It almost feels like until a white man came along and gave the other guy a pat on the back, it wasn’t validated as ‘good work’. Whereas women have been labourers and caretakers all along and they were never validated for this type of work. It never got the accolades.

SN: And it’s praised as genius only when certain people do it.


I want it to be this empowering, team-focused, collaborative idea rather than just me being the person standing on that podium.

LH: They bring each other up as powerful men. When it was just things that had to be done, it was never looked at as something remarkable. I always think about the things I’m doing and the type of attention or validation that I get, compared to if a white dude did that thing. Now, it’s nice enough just to have my own community… a circle of friends full of mostly strong women who appreciate me and my work and that’s the audience that I tend to care more about. But that’s also hard because then it means I’m not climbing up that ladder and fighting to represent myself. That’s really never been my game though. I don’t really play this game of competition, of trying to be the best “whatever” because for the kitchens at the top, you work, like, 18-hour days and then you are burnt out and that’s the end game. And I don’t want that to be my end game. I want it to be this empowering, team-focused, collaborative idea rather than just me being the person standing on that podium.

That doesn’t really appeal to me. How did it impact the people around me? How did I create a better community? How do I step aside and make people care about something?

Soko: Those are the things that are important to you.

Lily: Yup.

Soko Negash is one of the artists from our Behind the Dust series, a year-long mentorship project for emerging visual storytellers. Soko is a Toronto-born artist of Chinese-Eritrean descent, who grew up making things on the floor of her parents’ arts studio. Soko currently divides her time between working as a Talent Producer at a documentary production company and working on her own personal photo projects. Her focus is telling stories of under- or misrepresented communities in all parts of the world through a lens of authenticity and truth.