My phone’s lock screen is a photo of Ah Ma in her late teens at the beach, leaning against a fishing boat dragged on shore. She wears a short-sleeved white shirt tucked into high-waisted shorts. Her smile is enigmatic, framed by a puff of curls. I study the lighting, her careful grip on the boat’s rim, her elegantly bent leg. Shoulders back and chin tilted ever so slightly, Ah Ma glows with quiet self-assurance. When I first saw the photo, I had teased Mum, “Who’s this sexy lady?” I was shocked to learn she was my grandmother and wondered if glamour had skipped a generation.
“I could never dress like that,” Mum says.
“Not even when you were younger?”
“No,” she laughs, mimicking Ah Ma’s pose, her hand on the dining table.
In her younger days, Ah Ma wore dresses and cheongsam on special occasions—always short-sleeved and above the knee. She considered the longer styles old-fashioned and, for the same reason, preferred platinum jewellery over gold and jade. She set and permed her hair, plucked and pencilled her eyebrows and painted her perfectly shaped nails pink, red and, when the mood struck, gold.
“How did she have time to do her nails?” I ask. “Wasn’t she busy running the family business?”
“At night,” Mum says. Unlike Ah Ma, she never curled her hair, did her eyebrows or nails, drank or smoked. Both dye their grey-white hair black. I wonder if I will bother do the same at their age.
I imagine Ah Ma preparing for a night out clubbing with Ye Ye and friends, their favourite pop songs playing in the background, as Mum describes her sequinned handbags: one dark blue, one black.
I show Mum photos of beaded handbags at the NGV’s Japanese Modernism exhibition. “Like this?”
“No, like your disco dress,” she replies.
In her twenties, my mother wore dark purple eyeshadow to work.
(in her twenties. which is to say, before marriage, before children.)
I have never seen my mother wear jewellery, makeup or perfume. Then again, she had few occasions to. Her days were busy with cooking, cleaning, raising her two children, doing laundry, groceries and school runs: a never-ending list. For the few events she did attend—family dinners, graduations and 21st birthdays—she swapped her plain ‘house’ T-shirt for one more colourful or embellished.
I grew up with the impression that fashion and makeup were a waste of time and money. Baan leng 扮靓 means ‘to beautify’ in Cantonese. The character 扮 can also mean ‘to dress up as’, ‘to disguise oneself as’ or ‘to play the role of’, which in turn suggests a veneer, dishonesty.
To be effortless is to be easy, unforced, graceful, natural, painless.
To be studied is to be deliberate, intentional, calculated, considered, premediated.
I miss the full-length mirrors of my wardrobe in Canberra, perfect for taking mirror selfies.
I want to look effortless, fierce yet cute, pensive.
Why is it so bad to appear earnest? Why is wanting to be liked a flaw?
Four years ago, while holidaying in Stockholm, I flipped through a rack of vintage dresses in an airy warehouse. A splash of flowers caught my eye—pale pink peonies, yellow buttercups, white daisies, purple roses. The fabric tumbled to the floor, revealing a halter-neck, tiered maxi dress. Gripping the hanger in my right hand, I draped the gauzy material over my left and found the dressing room. In the tiny fluorescent-lit space, I prayed to the gods of vintage as I gently tugged the zip up my spine, pausing at my upper back. I switched hands, closing the last inches. It fit. I stepped out. Another customer complimented me. I turned to the mirror, taking a few steps back. I bought it.
Over the years, I wore the flower dress while drinking alone in my favourite bar (Canberra), to the National Young Writers’ Festival ball (Newcastle), and to a friend’s wedding (Queanbeyan).
The dress returned with me to Melbourne, where the only full-length mirror in my parents’ home hangs in the bathroom, less convenient for selfies. I twist, trying to capture the layers in motion, the luscious swish. In nearly every photo, I am too blurry or not blurry enough.
In an old photo, my mother wears a yellow T-shirt and white pencil skirt covered in yellow roses. Her right hand clasps her left wrist.
“I loved those shoes, so comfortable,” she says. “I still have that skirt.” She had shown it to me years before, but I had not wanted it then.
I wear the same outfit to work. Someone describes me as a “walking sunbeam”. Each time I am complimented, I boast that the T-shirt and skirt had belonged to my mother.
“Wow! Your mum must be one classy woman.”
“She was,” I laugh. “She used to be.”
I was a plain child, modest and shy. I loathed photos. Ashamed of my Bugs Bunny teeth, I refused to smile, like a grandmother afraid of her dentures falling out. I did not realise how much I held back, until my braces were off. I started to smile at strangers.
From my teens to mid-twenties, I shunned pencil skirts, preferring instead A-line skirts, dresses which cinched my waist and skimmed my hips. I did not like fabric clinging to my body, constricting my movements, stretching, reminding me of my hips and bottom. A-line was flattering, not ostentatious. I was the last of my friends to start my period. Even so, I remember one aunty saying that my curves were a sign of fertility and good for childbirth. I was okay with my figure—neutral, apathetic even.
I was not like the other girls who talked only about boys, brands and (Orlando) Bloom. I took pride in my thriftiness, my valedictory outfit a black cocktail dress with pale pink and cream floral detail from a no-name store in Footscray ($15), wedge sandals from Savers ($8), Australis pink lip gloss (my first) and a faux pearl necklace from Kmart. I did my own hair. Others spent hundreds and shared limos.
In my first year of work, I started buying dresses from Portmans, Review and Cue, on sale or from eBay. When I broke up with my boyfriend, he asked, “How much of your collection have I seen?”
In my late-twenties, I began to wonder if this is the best I will ever look. If not now, when? Better flaunt it, while I still can. Inspired by Maggie Cheung’s cheongsam in Wong Kar-wai’s film In the Mood for Love, I bought a figure-hugging black satin dress with an Oriental floral print from Cue.
(“She dresses up like that to go out for noodles?” says Cheung’s neighbours.)
“That dress would look better on you if you had a flat stomach,” Mum said, the first time I wore it.
“No one’s stomach is completely flat,” I snapped. “You’re lucky I’m not anorexic.”
Last year, I bought a long-sleeved velvet sequin dress, also from Cue, also figure-hugging. I wore it to give two readings and to my friend’s 21st birthday. Children love brushing the sequins back and forth. In October, Jonno takes a photo of me in my ‘disco dress’ at the National Young Writers’ Festival ball, framed by foliage and fairy floss lighting. In it, I grip the art plinth and grin self-consciously, showing my gums. I am grateful to them but annoyed at myself. I wish I had a model/muse serious ‘look’.
I study a photo of Ah Ma and Ye Ye, taken before they had children.
Ah Ma wears a cap sleeve Chinese-style blouse and matching ankle-length pencil skirt. The print is simple and modern, a scattering of hoops on plain background. She clutches a small handbag and handkerchief in her right hand. Ye Ye wears a white shirt, cuffs rolled back, tucked into white pants. His shoes are also white, his belt brown. Her hair is carefully set, his completely brushed back.
The photographer, Ye Ye’s younger brother, has captured the couple mid-step across a park. Ye Ye smiles shyly. Ah Ma’s eyes crinkle with her wide grin.
My stomach is not as flat as it used to be.
Neither is my mother’s.
Mum wishes she had bought us prettier children’s clothes but compared to Malaysia, it was expensive. “If only I had known about op shops…” she sighs.
When I ask why it matters, she says Ah Ma had bought her nice, branded clothes as a child. “Ming paai. May Fair brand, I still remember. Two new sets every New Year. I should have done it for you.”
I often wear my latest purchase on the day, even if just around the house. Why delay joy? Why not savour the cool fabric against my skin, licking my ankles as I pad from room to room?
Each morning, as I walk from street level to the basement entrance of my office, I follow my reflection in the windows. First my ankles, then legs, torso and finally, my full reflection. I survey my long hair, Marcs tartan trench coat, dark navy lace mini-dress and fuck-me heels. I smile.
At a recent book launch (no doubt the last in a while), I touch up my gold lipstick using the reflective surface of my phone screen and think of Ah Ma doing the same with her compact mirror.
Perhaps we are seeking not glamour but what it signifies: confidence, poise, beauty, acceptance, power, access, love. To be appreciated is to be admired is to be adored.