Grant Watson<Thanks for sending the photo, it is a really powerful image. Could you tell me more about it? And perhaps a little about where you grew up?
Sebastian De Line<Sure. I’ve often thought about that photograph, but before I wasn’t focused on the clothes. I remember that this photograph of my great-grandmother Leung was on my grandma’s altar. She used to have an ancestor’s altar when I was a kid and I would go visit; we’d have family dinners at my grandparents once a week. And I would always see it in the living room and was curious about it, but didn’t really understand what an ancestor’s altar was and why she had these photographs. When I was young, my mom tended to downplay things and say, “well, I don’t remember much about that” whenever I asked her about how she grew up—and maybe part of that was her just not knowing. . . She’s the eldest of five. My aunts and uncles were all born in Montreal, but my mom was born in China. In the early 1950s my grandparents, who were at that time a young couple in an arranged marriage in Guangdong, had my mom and immigrated to Canada. When she moved, she was something like three or four years old. So, when I asked her things such as, “do you know anything about, you know, the clothes or, you know, can you remember anything about what they’re wearing? Is that what everyone wore at the time or. . .?”, she couldn’t remember those particular details, and often she’d downplay things. I think some of it was shame too, it was just, “Oh, we were just poor rice farmers, really.” She remembered small details, like everybody working in the rice paddies barefoot—that was really common.
When I started learning about it, I was intrigued, and I wondered if there were cultural differences between the clothes in Guangdong within the different ethnic groups. Is what my great-grandmother is wearing in this photograph a distinctly Cantonese kind of clothing? Did everyone wear very simple clothes, in these dark monotones, or is it a class distinction that one couldn’t afford elaborate weaving, you know, or embroideries and expensive silks? And there were some things I’ve learned more recently looking into it. One of the standout things was about the pants, the trousers that the women were wearing. There were some texts that I found that mentioned that Cantonese women also wore trousers, but generally speaking it was Hakka. The women wore trousers, partly because they were working outside, but one of the main differences I learned, which was striking, was that they didn’t bind their feet. They didn’t practice foot binding because the women were working, whereas many Cantonese folks did. We don’t have any family stories about growing up identifying as Hakka. There were particular foods that my grandma used to cook, cultural differences that are distinctly Hakka, but it’s new to me to have learned about them. I suspect that some of my ancestors were Cantonese and Hakka who intermarried. I don’t know when that would have started, and I don’t know exactly which family members. I can only distinguish that from some of the cultural markers that I have learned growing up, like the customs that my grandma practiced with her ancestral beliefs or certain specific kinds of fermented foods she used to cook, like pickled dishes. And now I’m looking at this photo from my perspective today, and it’s really interesting about the clothes, and how the women were barefoot and wore pants. I’m thinking about that theoretically. I’m thinking about displacement and migrations and indentured labor and Hakka identity are things that nobody exactly knows the origins of.
GW< What is the definition of Hakka? Is it ethnic or language based?
SDL< There is a language component, differences in dialect between the languages. It’s kind of self-identifying, as far as I understand it. So, there are a lot of different cultural factors why people might identify as Hakka—maybe because they knew their family spoke the Hakka dialect, or they were part of particular families and have their clan lineages. Hakka families and Hakka clans—it’s complicated because those clans and larger groups, some of them are shared between Hakka and Punti Cantonese, too. So it’s not like all of those clan names, surnames, which are clan names, are distinguishable.
The general history of it is that the women of Southern China were in relationships with men from the North who, through civil wars and different tumultuous periods, migrated south into the Pearl Delta and then intermarried. The Hakka are a mixed-race people, a mixed ethnic group. They say it’s a mix of Han and Southern Guangdong ethnic groups. So, there is a kind of a distinctiveness to what has become Hakka or what people think of as Hakka. It’s not Han, and it’s not a Southern indigenous ethnic group alone, and it’s not She and Dai and Mien and Yue, and it’s not only Han. . . so then it becomes its own. That’s how I understand what people nowadays mean when they talk about Hakka. What I find interesting, theoretically, is through that displacement or the idea of people who no longer have a place, they are always resettling, and are settlers everywhere they go. And they’re called “guest people,” and that’s such a loaded word, right? Sometimes “guest” sounds quite friendly, but it’s not necessarily the case that those relationships were amicable between indigenous peoples in that place and whoever comes there as a guest. So there’s a lot of tension within that word “guest.” But from that what I’ve understood is that there are a couple of practices that are distinctly Hakka too. And one of those things is the way in which the textiles are dyed.
So, the black clothes, which my great-grandmother is wearing in that photograph, are an example of a dyeing technique in Guangdong, something shared between Cantonese folks and Hakka folks, as both cultures have this mud-dyeing technique that they would use to dye silks. It’s called gambiered silk, and there is a certain root, ju-liang, which gives it a kind of an orange tone—it is a medicinal root (dioscoreacirrhosa cirrhosa lour) that’s used in Chinese medicine. The process involved dyeing a fabric multiple times and then sun drying the fabrics with this certain kind of mud that imparts not only that beautiful black tone, but also almost gives the fabric a kind of natural waterproofing. And so that was a very practical application, but what’s also interesting is the idea of not being tied to land anymore, but then carrying the land with you.
GW< Do you mean literally, in terms of the mud residue?
SDL< Yeah. Wearing the land wherever you go, you know, being displaced and wearing the land on your body. That’s what I find interesting. To think about that as a way in which people or certain peoples dealt with displacement, and related to that is how they also had a practice of re-interring ancestors. If a family had to move territories, or say they were in a civil war of some sort, they would unearth the bones of the ancestors and carry them in ceramic pots or urns to the next destination. So you’re literally carrying the bones of your ancestors with you, also in clay, in this earth; it’s a portable earth that you’re taking with you. I find those two cultural practices very rich as a way to think differently about how one particular community deals with displacement. That’s is a distinct kind of politics in what it means to be grounded in the land, you know, from time immemorial and to be able to have that continual relationship to a specific place because survival is within it. What does that mean then to have to carry that wherever you go?
GW< The photograph was brought to Canada by your grandmother, right? And, your great-grandmother, who is pictured in the image, she remained in China, is that correct?
SDL< Yes, the photo is of my great-grandma. My grandma would have had that photo with her and my great-grandma remained in China.
GW< It’s like a detective story in a way. Did she bring any things with her when she immigrated? Did she bring any of those textiles or those bamboo hats, which we also see in the image, with her? Or bones?
SDL< Not that I know of. She’s not alive anymore, so I can’t ask her. I don’t have a memory of seeing those things in the house. So, I don’t think so. Only the photographs as far as I know. I do feel like that “detective story” is really common in some way, for people trying to recover their family histories. And maybe my approach to it is a little bit different than some people, because I am informed by cultural studies and art, and so I have a different take on investigating, you know, “let’s look at the clothes” or “let’s look at the food,” not only things like birth and death records or, a dialect. Dialect is also very important, but I look at other factors too, to find clues into what was distinct about the culture. But then applying that to my personal story and known experiences, and from that personal place then, it enables me to also think about it and the larger theoretical scope as well.
GW< I’d be really curious to hear about your childhood, for example, what kind of community did your grandmother live in in Canada? What kind of community did your mother live in? And I am curious to know how the different cultural inheritances you have played into your childhood.
SDL< I’m still confused about this part, but I think my great-grandpa was based in British Columbia, because he worked for the CPR, the Canadian Pacific Railway. And that was part of his indentured labor contract. I don’t know if my grandparents first immigrated in the 1950s from China to British Columbia and then made their way to Montreal, or if they moved directly from China to Montreal. My aunts and uncles, my mom’s brothers and sisters, were all born in Montreal. My mom’s a lot older than the second child, eight years older. So, her experience of growing up as the eldest child was quite a shift from what her parents had experienced.
My memory of my grandparents when I was a kid in Vancouver was that they ran a grocery store. So that’s how my grandparents made their living, and they didn’t have an education. I know that my grandma was illiterate—she couldn’t read or write in Chinese either. She spoke Cantonese and almost no English, just a couple odd words. When I was growing up, everything was translated for me by my mom or my aunts and uncles, or my grandpa, who could speak English because he was in the front of the shop running the grocery store. When I was a kid and would visit, I remember my grandma was in the back, cooking all the time. It wasn’t their home, but they worked such long hours that she was making their meals there. It was kind of a classic immigrant corner store.
When my mom was finishing up her degree—a BFA in Montreal at what is now Concordia but at the time was called Sir George Williams University—her parents decided to move to Vancouver and they brought the younger kids along, because they were still in high school or younger. They wanted her to come but my mom was in her last year of her degree and she couldn’t easily transfer to another university. It was a tough conversation, but she convinced them that she needed to stay and finish. So she stayed for her last year. And then that’s where she met my dad, in Montreal. After she had graduated they moved to Vancouver, where I was born.
GW< Was your dad also an artist? Did they meet in art school?
SDL< No, no, I think they met at some art party. That’s what they said.
GW< How glamorous, those 1970s Montreal art parties!
SDL< Yeah, the art party is a really common, you know, kind of. . .
GW< . . .setting
SDL< . . .setting, even today, it’s one we can relate to.
GW< Was he a Bohemian, your dad?
SDL< I guess, I think so. I knew like he was interested in poetry and stuff like that. He was interested in writing, but he didn’t identify as an artist. For better or for worse, he did influence my mother a lot in her art practice. My earliest memories of my mom doing art and growing up around that was sometimes she’d have me model for her. They had a deep freezer in the apartment we lived in, and I would have to sit on a chair on top of it, posing.
GW< Like a plinth in a life drawing class. . .
SDL< Exactly, being a drawing model for my mom. And sometimes this freezer would even double as kind of a table for my mom’s silk screen printing. Ours was not a big apartment, so it took up a large amount of the living room! Her specialty was printing, and she would do some of the prints with over 200 colors, you know, just layer, after layer, after layer.
She was very meticulous. . . And I think under the influence of my dad, she became more interested in a figurative classical kind of work. She was always interested in things like surrealism and abstraction, but then my dad was very much into Andrew Wyeth and you know, American landscape or portraitists and a very kind of classical figurative work. And so my mom’s work really was primarily figurative when I was growing up, but then would have sort of surrealistic elements in it. I remember her working on these very detailed works for months and months and months at a time.
And I actually found it quite intimidating later, you know, thinking about going to art school myself. Because I definitely did not plan to become an artist. Maybe because I had partly grown up with the experience of my mom becoming a widow and raising my brother and I after my dad passed away. And having to leave her art career. When I was growing up, my mom was showing at the Bau-Xi Gallery, which at the time was the first contemporary art gallery and modern art gallery in Canada, I believe, and was a really good gallery (Jack Shadbolt used to show at the time when my mom was showing there). She was an emerging artist at the time, and then had to put all that aside and leave her art career to raise my brother and I. So, the idea of becoming an artist wasn’t terribly encouraged. I mean, now she really supports me whatever I’m doing. But I think I have personally carried the memories of those stories and her pain, and so it didn’t draw me to go in that direction. When I did, I remember starting art school and then feeling quite discouraged and thinking about how I could never draw, you know I could never draw the way that my mom can draw. . . the kinds of insecurities that came with that. I didn’t see myself as an artist in that way.
GW< I’m quite curious about the environment you grew up in you said that your mother didn’t want to talk about her Chinese heritage, but I’m not sure how much your father’s indigenous heritage was present in the environment that you grew up in? How old were you when your parents separated?
SDL< Oh, I think thirteen.
GW< So the early years.
SDL< He passed away when I was fifteen. I mean, my dad did talk about being Mohawk sometimes. I think he didn’t know the language and he didn’t talk about it that often. He was also a very light-skinned person, very white-passing. So, you know, he had the privilege of not having to talk about it. But when he did, he would talk more about political questions, like sovereignty. I remember growing up, one of the things that stood out a lot was when the Mohawk Resistance at Kanesatake (Oka) was happening and Mohawks were fighting the government and the army. And my dad was very upset about it and was glued to the radio every day, following the developments. And that was quite a turning point for my family when my dad started becoming more locally involved in activism in Vancouver and British Columbia and helping out his friends and his community, in their territories where the fight was more about logging, especially at the time on Vancouver Island.
My dad was helping some friends of his from the Qwa-Ba-Diwa and Laich-Kwil-Tach Nations on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where they have a lot very large old growth forests. And this would have been in the early nineties. I have vague memories of standing on a logging road as a kid, you know, with protestors and visiting his friend, Peter Knighton’s territory and hearing from this friend of his, Laich-Kwil-Tach war chief, Russell Kwakseestala. Peter Knighton was the hereditary chief at the time in his territory, Qwa-Ba-Diwa, which is in the Carmanah Valley. I have a little kind of touchpoint memories of my dad, explaining a bit about his nation and his territory there. But my dad didn’t have other Mohawks around him that I knew of growing up in Vancouver.
Later when my parents separated my dad was living in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver on the street, in a single occupant hotel and had a very bad addiction to alcohol. And so, by that time his community were from the street. That’s how he also met some activists as well. Learning about sovereignty was probably one of the main teachings that my dad left me. One of the few but significant teachings that stuck out to me as a kid was what sovereignty means. And it’s been hard in that way because there are a lot of things I didn’t grow up with, like really understanding what it means to be Mohawk.
But that one gift he left me has been very much a part of my existence and life. So I think part of that too, is that—and I don’t know how you feel about this, but I believe that some of us are conscious of it and some of us are not—I do consciously carry on the work of my parents in that way. I do recognize that now, what it means to be the next generation. Well, my mom is still alive, thankfully, you know, and I’m still nudging her and encouraging her to get back to her art. Those gifts from both my parents have stuck with me, and they become important in what I believe in, and what I put my energy into.
GW< That’s fascinating because it’s a weaving together, a reading together of quite complex and different histories that you’re talking about. Maybe because there wasn’t such a detailed inheritance from your father, there was also a process of reconstructing and learning you did prior to your PhD research.
SDL< Some of that has been I think. . . most of the years were relating to grieving. And it’s been a process of recovery through that grieving, healing from grief. When my dad died, he died doing activism. He drowned in a boating accident on the shores of the Qwa-Ba-Diwa territory that they were defending at the time. I’ve gone back there since then and visited my dad’s friend Peter, some twenty-five years later. We visited that place and it’s stayed with me in that way. Part of that has been a recovery process, part of it is holding the grief of losing your parent. He was in some way a person I really looked up to and was very close to, like a best friend, and also an incredibly complicated, messy person who had very serious addiction issues, someone who was not walking on the good road for many years of his life. But he had a big heart and was very caring and had a lot of friends. But also, he was, I think, a challenging partner to my mom in some ways. And my mom is the complete opposite in many ways. She didn’t drink at all, never smoked a single cigarette in her life, completely straight as an arrow.
I think about what got me into things like trades and crafts, early on when I started making shoes, when I was nineteen or twenty. I think what drew me to it was when I was leaving high school, I didn’t see myself going to university. I saw a lot of people at the time going to university and then not really knowing what they wanted to study and then having an enormous amount of debt and having to pay off that debt for the next decade or two, and then not really having anything to show for it. And I didn’t have terribly good grades in some of the academic courses I was taking apart from all the arts. I was also coming out as queer at that time. So I was really struggling with a lot of social things that were distracting me from my studies. In hindsight it wasn’t necessarily lack of ability as much I was really not busy with those things. I was going through huge life growing pains and my academic pursuits were not a priority. I was struggling with grief and I was struggling with, you know, learning who I was, with sexuality, identity and gender and all of that. And so I got into the trades because I didn’t grow up with that kind of competence. My dad didn’t really have a trade and I had a desire to have that. It’s that idea of your father figure passing on their craft or trade to you, which would have felt grounding. Having a craft that you can always rely on wherever you went in life, that you could always find a place and you can always find work in that profession.
GW< It’s funny what you say about succeeding in the arts and being queer and struggling academically because so much is going on. I had exactly that experience in my teens. But how was it with your mother? When did you come out to her? Was she supportive? What was her response?
SDL< I did come out to her, I think I was about sixteen or seventeen. I remember, I came out to her in the car. We were driving, driving over a bridge, and I remember coming out to her first as queer. And my mom, I don’t remember actually what her response was to me, but I think she was, I mean, generally speaking at the time she was like, “okay sure.” You know, supportive in that way. What was interesting was later on in life, when I was transitioning. I remember she’d said, “ah, I don’t know much about transness or being transgender.” So, she was at that point trying to inform herself, learn about being trans and transitioning. Whereas she didn’t really take an active interest in informing herself about my being queer. Because I guess in her mind, she felt like she knew enough about that, it was just a matter of, yes, I accept that, and she was very staunch about it. Even in the years when she was dating, she would ask prospective partners about their politics. And if they were homophobic or transphobic, it was a done deal, that’s where the dating stopped. I feel like with my mom, her experience in art school probably informed her politics in some ways, she probably did know a lot of queer artists, and have queer friends in the art community. But I think it was also partly her personality, too. She just is an open person. You know, my mom really broke the mold in her family. She’s not queer, but she was a rebel in her family. Her parents had an arranged marriage. They really expected her to have an arranged marriage. It was unfathomable at the time for her to date a non-Chinese person, never mind a Mohawk man. It was a big deal when my mom brought my dad home apparently. So much so that for the first years, my grandparents disowned her.
SDL< Yeah. And it was very painful, actually. It wasn’t until I was born—cause I’m the first of their grandchildren—when they wanted to be in my life. They wanted to be around their grandchild, and then they accepted my mom and my dad back into the family. But it was a real turning point in our family in which her generation was just choosing not to pick up on some of those traditions because she found them oppressive and her experience of the world, you know as a woman.
GW< I guess you had two quite radical parents in different ways. Do you remember your mother’s relationship to your grandmother growing up? You went to visit the house and there was the altar and the photo. I’m sort of wondering how she then slotted back into her family culture as someone that has stepped out, and what that relationship was like? Was there a resolution between your mother and your grandmother?
SDL< I think it was complicated for my mom. She grew up carrying the weight of having certain responsibilities of what it would mean, culturally in a Cantonese family, being the eldest daughter. While at the same time, she was pushing against what she felt she didn’t want to take on. And I think she had a lot of shame, culturally, due to the racism she experienced. My mom very much grew up in the generation where assimilation was a desired thing. It was a desired thing in her family, it was a desired thing for other friends that I grew up with in school, whose parents were descendants of immigrant families. I remember having South Asian friends and in the eighties and nineties, it was really common for us to talk about how our parents did not want us to learn our mother tongues. Our parents or our parents’ and grandparents’ mother tongues—we were urged to only speak English. You were not allowed to learn the other language. And my mom was very vocal about it; she even refused to speak Cantonese or teach my brother and I, even though she knew how. She grew up with the language and every Wednesday night when we’d go over to my grandparent’s house for dinner, Cantonese was the common language. She’d have to speak it there and translate for me. But she wouldn’t speak Cantonese outside of the family. When she was growing up she had a speech impediment; she stuttered. And she struggled a lot with being teased. She worked really hard to work through no longer having that stutter and as well on top of it, to have an Asian accent.
GW< Talking about trying to find out about this heritage from China, do you feel there’s a loss, that maybe quite a lot got lost in that process of assimilation?
SDL< Yeah. I do feel like that. I mean I understand; I empathize with my mom’s generation, and their parents—the generation before that—the struggles that they had in immigrating somewhere else. And the racism that they had to endure. And why, as a survival mechanism or strategy, they would choose assimilation. I get it, you know, but did it come at a cost? Yeah, totally. It did, because I do think that that makes it hard to recover. And I personally feel like I can’t, you know, in this lifetime I can’t, I can’t recover all of those things. I don’t have the energy and time to dedicate, to learning Kanien’kéha (the Mohawk language) and Cantonese and you know, and all these things at once. On top of my doctoral research and being an artist and all this stuff, you know? I think that we choose if those are things that we’re interested in recovering. I think we choose our projects of recovery in our families. And I’d like to know, for example, what my brother is thinking about lately, because we haven’t had a chance to talk very much because of the pandemic. Am I the only one in my generation who finds that important? You know, sometimes I think we even skipped generations, like when your cousins or siblings could be into totally different things than you are. But I suspect that we all have our part in the weave. If it’s a collective weave, it’s family reparation or family repair that we all are working on together, working on a different part of the textile, the tapestry. And we might overlap sometimes, you know, but we might be over here doing our part while someone who’s over there is working on this other part.
Read part 2 of the interview with Sebastian De Line here.