A snippet of artist Shirley Liu's childhood, written by herself for the Vestige Story collective. The original piece is written in Japanese.
Shirley moved to Japan at the tender age of four, and eventually immigrated to Canada — where she spent most of her adult life. The following story, however, takes place in XiAn, China, where she was born. Despite the faint memories of her toddler days, the four years Shirley spent helping her grandma sew and make steam buns became the bedrock for her creative paths today.
Master of Tao
The way of thinking and being, as I live now, is enlightened by the way of my Grandmother. My master, whom I met when I was one and a half, and lived with until four and a half.
She is a modest woman, wise and dexterous. I would watch her and mirror every action, like a monkey, until it’s embedded in my muscles. The memories held in my muscles then overtime have transformed into the core of my conscience today.
Grandmother spent most of the day in the kitchen and at the sewing table. I followed her around everywhere.
In the long and narrow kitchen, a thick plank of wood placed along one side of the wall was where the magic happened. From one bag of flour, she could make all kinds of noodles and buns in hundreds of many shapes and textures. I had my place too on the long counter, with a little stool. I liked to help her, and so she let me. Really, it was playing dough for me, but Grandmother gave me a full set of tools just like hers. I had an apron, a stepping stool, and a little knife. I watched closely Grandmother’s strong hands kneading the dough, her quick hands rolling the pin, and her precise hands chopping the knife — as she watched closely my little hands right beside.
Grandmother would make clothes for my mother and dress me with the remaining fabric. She used every inch of the material to make my mother a movie star and make me a princess. An inch-square piece turned into a button, and an inch-wide strip turned into a corsage. From head to toe was a coordinated outfit with matching details. Here too I was a good little assistant. My grandmother had a hard time seeing the needle hole, so I would thread it for her. I’ve asked her how she comes up with shapes and how it’s translated into patterns. She said it’s just the basis figured from decomposing clothes, and arranging it to her liking. One day I followed her words. Surprisingly my eyes and hands knew exactly what to do. I realized then, that she had always known, since the first day I threaded the needle.
So I learnt how to cook and sew. But moreover, my Grandmother’s imagination to create anything from a bag of flour or a piece of fabric had opened a whole wide world in front of a four-year-old. I am an architect now, and whether I am designing a space, or planning a month’s schedule, or preparing a week’s meals, or playing, behind my mind there is my grandmother’s hands kneading the dough and her hands cutting the pattern, conducting me to the most efficient, effective and tasteful way of executing the work with minimal resources to waste. This is merely the hard skills I inherited from her. I am fully grown up now, being able to reflect upon the path, but the very essence is that she’s always treated me as one full person from the first day. She’s watched me closely, and put full trust in my capability. This, is her tao.
Shirley is wearing our Thales Apron (coming soon), with the Architect tea towel peeking out of its pocket.