Chinese History in Malaysian Coffee Shop Culture, Chia Lee
Chia Lee is a recent Fashion Design graduate from Parsons the New School for Design. She studied abroad at Central Saint Martins’ BA Fashion knitwear pathway in the spring and summer semester of 2016. It was an eye-opening experience for her as she discovered a whole new world of creative textiles crafted using unconventional materials. Raised in Malaysia, she was exposed to a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society with diverse religion and traditions. Chia’s appreciations towards cultural heritage and sense of nostalgia are deeply rooted in her work. Through knitting, sewing and embroidery work, Chia creates textile-based designs that are heavily focused on materiality. Her work embodies nostalgic memory of the past by interweaving innovative ideas from the present, embracing the beauty of traditional craftsmanship with a twist of the present through material and technology.
How did you get into fashion?
I started fashion when I took a summer course before college and it really sparked my interest in fashion. I’ve also always loved making things with my hands.
What’s the inspiration behind your Kopitiam collection?
Found in the crooks and corners of the streets in Malaysia, there are establishments that offer a glimpse into the country’s heritage and the locals know it as “Kopitiam”.
Kopitiam [“kopi”, Malay for coffee, and “tiam” Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) for shop] is a traditional coffee shop where the locals start their day. The Kopitiam serves a simple breakfast menu that consists of charcoal-toasted bread with kaya paste, half-boiled eggs and homemade coffee. It tells the story of how immigrants from China came to Nanyang (“south sea” or South East Asia) in the late 18th century, a land they saw as a heaven for prosperity and a life-changing future for their family. Kopitiam is the evidence of a melting-pot culture started by the Hainanese immigrants who called Malaysia their second home. Societies collided and new cultural practices were formed as the local's and the immigrant's lives intertwined.
Inspired by the Kopitiam's down-to-earth interior and unique material culture; this collection acts as a medium to revisit my childhood memories, to trace my heritage, and to preserve the rich history and nostalgic value attached to these establishments. The collection envisioned a nostalgic representation of 3 generations within a family within the setting of a Kopitiam through the materiality and the reiteration of traditional crafts.
However, a lot of these establishments are disappearing because of places like Starbucks and younger generations aren’t going to them because they don’t tend to have air conditioners.
For the collection, I really wanted the audience to experience what I had during my childhood. Therefore, I not only created garments but furniture as well - so people can feel like they're in the coffee shop when they see it.
How has living in both Malaysia and New York inspired your work?
I wanted to do a collection that was true to myself and one that spoke to a culture that I was deeply connected with. I think that's what makes my designs special - the intimacy you can derive from my memories of this place that is from my daily life. I think living in New York definitely opens up a lot of opportunities for me and I think the creative vibe of this place really inspires me a lot, especially when you're surrounded by really creative people and really creative work - it definitely expands your creative horizons. For example, how to portray my culture in a creative way.
And how do you see the fashion differing between these two cultures?
Malaysia's fashion scene isn't as mature as NYC's, it's just really starting now. Even though there's a lot of new designers starting out, there's still a bit of a way to go!