Friday, 15 February 2013

Island Girl

I am an island girl.  I was born on an island and ever since almost my entire life has been spent on islands.  Even my ancestral roots are embedded deep in what was once considered a small island paradise known as the Pearl of the Orient.  This is where my parents and grandparents hail from, a tiny turtle shaped island in South East Asia called Penang.

With the rise of the economies of Asia the spirit of our times seems to be very much about east meeting west. On the eve of London Fashion Week I couldn't help but notice how this mindset has even managed to trickle into fashion's consciousness in the form of Asian inspired prints incorporated into western designs. East West fusion is the new black if you like.  I kind of find it amusing.  This multicultural fusion has always been the island way of life in Penang which, as a busy trade port, received waves of immigrants from Asia and Europe over the ages, resulting (literally) in the marriage of the two cultures.

As a result of this mixed ancestry I have a face that's hard to put an origin on.  Very often people who meet me for the first time ask me if I hail from islands I have never even set foot in, suggesting I bear a resemblance to islanders the world over.  I was born in Singapore, an island country made up of no less than sixty three islands. When I was a girl I migrated to Australia, officially an island continent rather than an island, but those who grow up there know that it's pretty much just one big giant island.  Even after leaving those shores more than a decade ago I came to live on yet another island in Britain.

They speak about having an island mentality.  I'd like to think that growing up on a succession of different islands has made me more curious about the world at large rather than less, that it has made me strive to be more open minded rather than narrow.  I'd like to think that as a serial island hopper I have become a collector of rich cultural experiences, with the wonders of living in each island strung like flowers on a lei that permanently adorns my memory, vivid and treasured blooms that will always draw me back to those places.

Recent yearnings for home (wherever that is!) and my family have rekindled a curiosity in my roots and this year Mr V and I met up with my parents in their childhood home of Penang before heading to Australia for Christmas.  Up until then I had not been back to Penang since I was a child.  I spent many a school holiday here on this very beach as we would stop en route to visit my grandparents in Australia.  There are photos of my mother on this beach from before I was born, looking like a sea siren with her long thick dark hair, buried waist deep with a mermaid's tail sculpted from sand by my father to take place of her legs.  My father tells stories of cycling as a teenager with his friends around the island, all the way to the hills in the distance in these photos and through dense, unspoilt jungle.

As far away as one might travel, you can never truly escape from the things that shape who you are.  I grew up listening to tales of the island from my older relatives and eating the delicious island food my mother cooked.  I had a grandmother who always wore a traditional sarong, a grey eyed grandfather who resembled an Irishman yet spoke with a heavy Asian accent, and great aunts who served curry puffs at their English high tea parties.  With a family tree full of migrants who arrived on distant shores in search of adventure and a new life I am convinced my love of the sea and of travelling is in my genes.  My great, great grandfather was a Frenchman who arrived here from Saigon, and as he was the captain of a ship an anchor adorns his headstone.

The one item of clothing in my wardrobe that takes me straight back to my island roots in terms of how I dress is this beach sarong.  It's the closest thing to a traditional sarong I ever wear and ironically I received it as a gift from Mr V. whilst living in the only country I have lived in which isn't an island - Spain.  He'd bought it for me because he tells me I remind him of one of Gauguin's Tahitian women.

Amber of Butane Anvil asked this of her readers in a post:
"Do you have anything in your wardrobe which brings back such visceral memories of a gold-lit time period with an intensity that is almost painful?"
I instantly thought of this beach sarong, which I nicknamed "The Gauguin" and which is my own little mix of east and west in a strip of vibrantly printed cloth.  The story behind the nickname and those visceral memories of the gold-lit period it brings back for me so vividly were written about here.

If I'm travelling to new shores where there will be sand and sea and a new horizon where the water meets the sky, the Gauguin comes with me and another fond memory is woven into it's fabric.  So it had to come with me on this trip to Penang, a trip not just of seeking sun, sand and sea, but also one of self discovery, and memories old and new.

Sarong: a gift from Mr V. via Mango.

Linking up this week to Visible Monday over at Not Yet Dead Style.


  1. Sarongs! They bring back such happy memories. I bought my first one in Singapore.

    SSG xxx

  2. I love the (mental) image of your mom with sculpted mermaid find! And this sarong is very lovely, evocative of the islands for sure. I too live on a coastal island off Florida, although with daily hustle and bustle, I can forget that marvelous fact!

  3. Wow-- amazing how Butane's question sparked such cool little journey all the way back to your ancestral roots and how that has shaped you into the person you are today. Lovely sarong and I always love beach pics :)

  4. What an exotic ancestry you have. I love your great-great grandfather's headstone and the image of your mother on the beach with her long hair & mermaid's tale. The pictures of you are beautiful.
    No exotic ancestry here, I can trace one side of the family to Oliver Cromwell, yet I'm constantly asked where I'm from as I "don't look English". x

  5. What a beautiful post. Love the sarong and the nickname, and that your Mr bought if for you with beautiful images behind it.

  6. That is a poignant way to remember your past. My husband is from India and he is hesitant to bring his traditional dress here to the US.

  7. This post is quite possibly my favorite. Once an island girl always an island girl, I say. I can relate to much of what you say here. Even though I am from the US mainland, I spent a large chunk of my adult years living in a tiny Caribbean island - tiny meaning 17 miles long and 3 miles wide. Because it was like living in a fish bowl at times, island fever (also called rock fever or "gone troppo") was a common problem amongst the expats who didn't get off-island much.
    "Serial island hopper", you are indeed! I was merely a run-of-the-mill island hopper, from Puerto Rico down to Trinidad on sailing adventures and in puddle jumpers. Good times.
    Love your sarong! I still have my favorites, faded and worn from years of use.
    Beautiful post.

  8. I love and am so moved by this post. Amazing how so much is woven together both here and in "The Gauguin" - thank you for sharing it with us!

  9. Loved this post and getting to know you a bit more! Most of my childhood was spent in different countries so I'm probably influenced by where we lived. Even though I know all of my heritage I don't usually talk much about it, as there's many cultures, but I am certain that I get most inspiration from my German/Ghanaian ancestry, etc. I love your beautiful sarong,

  10. I am certainly an Island Girl at heart and geographically misplaced here in Boston. May we both find our inner roots~

  11. I love sarongs even if I am not an Island girl :-) It's easy to pack, easy to wear and always reminds me of the sun, sand, beach... a good life.

    visiting from
    Have a great week!

  12. What beautiful pictures you paint with your words. Your sarong is lovely and looks wonderful on you.

    I am an inland girl. Born and raised mostly in the almost geographical center of the US I love the openness of the plains. I think it is in my blood much as the islands are yours.

  13. Lovely, lady ... as always. On the fly, so just stopped by to say hey with the promise of coming back to read the whole article.

  14. Sarongs are the best! I pick one up whenever and wherever I see one at thrift stores. They're so versatile. They can be a scarf, dress, skirt, swimsuit cover, head wrap...whatever!
    You look especially lovely in yours.


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