Heirlooms from my Asian family: 7 women on the meaning and journey behind their keepsakes

Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML

Our connections to our past — and to our families — are often tied up with the physical, tangible things that have been passed down to us. For me, it's memories of my dadi (my paternal grandmother, who I only knew for the first few years of my life) in the delicate blue-and-white porcelain dinnerware set my dad inherited from her and passed on to me. And the bond I have with my mother captured in the necklace and earrings set she gave me to wear on my wedding day.

Whatever the memento, there are certain heirlooms so precious to us that they remind us of who we are and where we've come from. Here, seven women reflect on their personal treasures.

Pay Chen, TV and radio host/producer and writer

Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML

“My uncle played a large part in my childhood. He sponsored my parents to move from Taiwan to Nova Scotia when I was a baby. He provided a lot of extras for us that my parents were unable to afford in their early years of trying to settle into Halifax and start their own business. My uncle would travel and bring us souvenirs from every country he visited. In my 20s, I was going through my old things when I found a small leather pouch in an old music box. On it, my uncle had written 'topaz' and inside was a brilliant blue stone. I brought it back to Toronto with me and commissioned a young jewelry maker to design a ring around it.

It reminds me of my uncle's travels and how he would encourage me to visit new places. My parents were typical Asian parents. Traveling in my 20s wasn't something on the list of things I was supposed to work at. I was a homebody, paying off student loans and doing contract work with no financial stability, and didn't know how to navigate trips or embrace change. I did eventually shake the guilt of spending money on travel — while not making a lot of it — and learned to love the new experiences that each trip presented. I don't know what country that stone came from, but it reminds me to be more spontaneous, ease up on trying to plan every stage of my life and value — instead of being consumed with guilt — the opportunities I have to see the world.”

Hina P. Ansari, Editor in chief of ANOKHI Magazine

Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML

“I have a pair of crystal earrings belonging to my grandfather that were given to me via my mom. They are huge, teardrop-style, green and white crystal earrings. They're from the costume department of my grandfather's film production company, Bundelkhand Films. N.A. Ansari was a noted director, actor and producer during the golden era of Bollywood.

It wasn't a ceremonial handing down sort of thing. Mom had them because he'd given them to her as part of a larger set, and she gave them to me because she knew how much I appreciate jewels and pieces that have a story behind them. In this case, these earrings definitely held so much meaning. Also, given the fact that I was the only granddaughter who followed the creative path like he did, there was an unspoken bond.”

Ellen Wong, Actor

Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML

“I received this heart jade necklace as a gift from my aunt. She bought it in Paris and got one for every girl in the family, so all of us cousins have the exact same necklace. I love that the shading and colour on the stone is different for each one of us. This necklace makes me feel more connected to all the women in my family, which I love because we all live in different parts of the world. Jade creates balance and harmony, and it is also a protective stone. It brings out courage and also attracts good luck!”

Jackie Kai Ellis, Author of The Measure of My Powers

Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML
Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML

“My grandmother was a big collector of Chinese antiques, and her home was full of delicate ivory statues of women in flowing dresses, jade birds and intricately carved rosewood. As a child, I would spend hours tracing my fingers along the designs and searching for loose threads in the embroidered art  — I was told that I would never find one as it was so finely crafted. She gifted me a number of antiques, some of which I brought to Paris with me. These hand-painted bowls depict a story of Confucius with his characteristically misshapen forehead.

I don't know much more about them, and I should probably ask. Though I love them because they remind me of the many hours I was lost in the beauty and appreciation of this art … and in the whimsy of my imagination.”

Flo Leung, Illustrator

Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML
Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML

“I received a Blue Willow serving platter from my mother. It's made in Japan, and the brand is Nikko Double Phoenix. She let me borrow it since she still has the rest of the set with her! It's from her dinnerware set that she received from her family as a wedding present. Growing up, we always used the set when celebrating special occasion dinners — it's what I think of when I think of Christmas and Thanksgiving meals. I originally borrowed the platter a few years ago when [my family] started hosting our own family meals, and my mom let me keep it. I still bring it back to her house every Christmas and Thanksgiving though — where else would the turkey go?”

Aya McMillan, Senior manager of brand and content at Elte

Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML
Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML

“An item that's not nearly as valuable but feels just as precious is a clutch my mother gave me. Like many Japanese women, my mother chose to get married in a kimono and paired it with said clutch. It would have been ordered and made at the same place and time as when she had her kimono made for the wedding. They married in June 1975. It's a gold and burnt orange embroidered piece that barely holds more than my iPhone and a card case, but I absolutely love it. I doubt my mum ever thought it would get any use beyond her wedding day, but I think it works equally well with a cocktail dress or a pair of jeans.”

Maria Qamar, Artist and author of Trust No Aunty

Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML
Pay Chen, Hina P. Ansari, Ellen Wong, Jackie Kai Ellis, Flo Leung, Aya McMillan, Maria Qamar, 100 ML

“We left our homes [in Pakistan] and every book, toy and trinket along with it to come here nearly 20 years ago. Our families had endured war, famine, poverty and sacrifice. No heirlooms were passed; we grew up understanding that home is a temporary place — it's family that lasts forever. The only thing we brought along were physical photographs of our childhood. My mother documented our lives since we were born. We have hundreds of developed film from every birthday, social gathering, family trip and miscellaneous moment from the '90s. Though she never officially handed it over to us, we decided to keep a few in our homes. There are stories I can't fully recall which were captured in each album, but I can still remember the smells, lights and tastes of that time. It makes me a little sad that we switched to digital storage and hard drives. Having physical photographs in such quantity makes me want to start a collection of my own someday.”

Mishal Cazmi is a Toronto-based beauty and fashion writer and founder of 100 ML. Follow her at @mishalcazmi.

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