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Walking in Two Worlds: Louie Gong's Eighth Generation Vans and Cultural Identity (Mine, Too)

A cultural-identity story I wrote for Metro News makes me think of my own multii-national heritage -- and a tattoo.
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I have a story in today's Metro News, a sort of First Nations profile piece that includes designer Angela DeMontigny, footwear company Manitobah Mukluks, eyewear from AYA Accessories and Louie Gong's Eighth Generation Vans art. And suddenly I'm thinking about a tattoo. Again.

Angela DeMontigney is the group's veteran designer whose garments have been worn by First Nation celebs such as the lovely singer/songwriter Susan Aglukark, actor Adam Beach and actor/singer/songwriter Tamara Podemski. She's designing for the 2009 Calgary Stampede Royalty and serving as fashion director for a showcase at Harbourfront's Planet IndigenUS festival this August.

Sean McCormick's Blue Moose Clothing Company may well be the world's largest manufacturer of mukluks. The Fleeceline division of the company makes the mukluks, moccasins and other traditional items that are an integral part of Canada's tourism industry, but it's the Manitobah arm making the splash. Celebs such as Kate Hudson, Paris Hilton and Kate Moss have been snapped wearing Manitobah's high-end rubber-soled mukluks, which can go for as much as $1100.

Corrine Hunt is the First Nations artist whose work appears on AYA Accessories' new Pacific Northwest Collection of reading glasses, sunglasses and frames. A jewelry designer who decided to branch out into custom furniture design because she wanted to try a larger medium, Hunt was invited to work with AYA Accessories by the collection's creator, Carla D'Angelo Taylor, who spotted her art at a gift show five years ago.

Louie Gong is just four months new to the First Nations fashion scene. His is the quirkiest story of the four:

Nooksack, Chinese, French and Scottish, and a Canadian living in the US, Gong is actually a cultural-identity activist first. He stumbled into a budding career as an artist when he used a new pair of Vans as a canvas in March of this year. "Vans were things other people had when I was growing up," he explained. "As an adult with my own resources, I thought now I can have Vans. But none of the existing designs like the checkerboard spoke to me or were representative of me, so I bought plain grey."

The plain Vans just sat in Gong's living room for a couple of weeks until one night, while he was watching "The Family Guy," he picked up a shoe and a Sharpie and started to doodle. "My cultural influences just came out." He wore them to work and kickstarted a demand. Co-workers wanted Vans like his too. And when he posted a photo of his shoes on his personal Facebook page, the 30 or 40 comments the image got in the first hour told him he was onto something. The Facebook fan page he subsequently started has about 2000 members and is still growing.

Gong's multi-cultural heritage rings a bell for me. I'm Chinese, Portuguese, English and French -- a party mix, I like to say. I was born in Trinidad and lived in England and St. Vincent before arriving in Toronto with my family the year I turned seven. I wasn't the only Asian-esque kid in my grade-school classes, but I was the only one in pretty much all my classes at Carleton University in Ottawa. It didn't really bother me; our family doesn't really have strong identity issues either way. We're more British than anything. Dad was born and raised mostly in England (he had a few early years in Nigeria when his father worked as a tin-mine engineer), where he met my Chinese Mum, who had left Trinidad at 20 for a nursing career at St. Helier hospital in south-west London. (I must ask, but I think she lived in England for about seven years, all told.)

Although my different background wasn't a big deal for me -- I was used to it -- I noticed a shift when I returned home after university. On the subway, suddenly more faces were non-white. A couple of years later while I was taking a course at George Brown College, I glanced around the ladies restroom and realized all nine of us in there were of some kind of Asian descent. And then in my first year of magazine world, I met two others who are a similar mix: Chinese mothers of the same dialect and British fathers. That was a big deal, for all three of us, Denise, Lesa and me. And later, on a Coty press trip to NYC, I told Coty Canada president Jeff Wagstaff that Denise, Lesa and I are the same recipe but from different chefs. He probably doesn't remember, but we do. Same-recipe-different-chef sisters.

These are the things Louie Gong's personalized Vans make me think about. I also think about "Meking," the Chinese name my Apo, my mother's mum, gave me when I was wee (my siblings each have a name from Apo, too). And I think about the faint intention I've always had in the back of my mind to get my Chinese name tattooed on my shoulder. One day, maybe. When I figure out how to spell it. In Chinese.