Veronica Chu was introduced to the beauty industry at an early age. Her mother was an aesthetician and cosmetic tattooer who opened her own beauty clinic in Toronto after immigrating to Canada from China.
“Watching and learning [in my mom’s salon] made me appreciate the beauty industry because I would see these women come in feeling a little low and then leave with a new sense of self. It was interesting to see that change in their mentality,” Chu said. “So I started to associate beauty with my mom being able to support her family and giving women the confidence to walk out the door and conquer.”
Despite this exposure, Chu’s mother never expected her daughter to choose a similar career. “At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information about the beauty industry. In my mom’s eyes, you either worked at a beauty clinic or you worked at a counter, so it was hard for her to wrap her head around,” Chu explained.
It took a while, but she eventually got her mother’s blessing. Now, over 20 years later, Chu has had the opportunity to work with big clients like Coco Rocha and Maye Musk, as well as big brands like CoverGirl. But throughout her journey, Chu has never forgotten where she came from.
Chu’s mother is Vietnamese and her father is Chinese-Vietnamese. They immigrated to Canada when she was roughly two and her brother was five. Although her parents divorced when she was young, her mom remarried a Vietnamese man, who was also an immigrant. “I was always quick to tell people who I was and where I came from,” she said. “I’m a refugee. English is my second language. My parents are immigrants who started from nothing and built successful businesses. I would always try and remind people of that because I never wanted to forget that part of me.”
Below, Chu talks to The RepresentASIAN Project about what it was like adjusting to Canadian culture as a Chinese refugee, why she was compelled to speak out about anti-Asian racism, and how her heritage influences her work.
On adjusting to Canadian culture as a Chinese refugee
I don’t have any recollection of [the refugee camp] because I was a baby. I was conceived in Vietnam and came over to China when my mom was pregnant [during the Vietnam War]. They allowed my mom to leave the camp to have me in a hospital and then come back with me.
When we came to Canada, I was almost two years old, but I still [had to adjust to Canadian culture] because in my household, we were still so Asian. We only spoke Vietnamese to one another. Everything we ate was Asian [and] all our friends were Asian. So I didn’t really start learning about North American culture until I went to school and until my mom started learning about it.
I remember moments [when I was] trying to fit in and learn the ways. In elementary school, my mom would put my lunch together and it would be rice, barbecue pork, and soy milk in a rice bag. I remember all the kids saying, “What is that? What’s that smell? What do you mean barbecue pork? Why don’t you drink normal milk?”
So I remember coming home and asking my mom for a bologna sandwich. My mom just looked at me and said, “Barbecue pork buns are your favourite! Don’t you love them?” So I said, “I love them when I’m [at home], but outside, the kids don’t understand.” She [eventually agreed], but was very reluctant. So I always felt stuck in these two worlds where I wanted to fit in. I loved my culture. I loved the food. I loved everything it stood for, but I was always suppressing it just so I could fit in.
On how visiting Vietnam renewed her love for her culture
My documents were kind of wonky from coming to Canada, so I didn’t actually become a Canadian citizen until I was 20 [and] I didn’t leave Canada until my mid-twenties. But eventually I did go back [to Vietnam and China]. Both times were for work, but in Vietnam I extended my trip. It was one of the most memorable times of my life, seeing basically where I came from. It was very emotional for me. It gave me a renewed sense of who I was. But I think what I got from it, more than anything, was the strength of my parents, [but] my mom specifically because [I saw her in] every person that was in her age range [when she lived there].
I was comparing everything to my life and [to] what would have happened if my mom didn’t marry my father. Who would I have been? So I went to a lot of museums and tours that were war driven because that’s basically what most of the tours are. I wanted to experience what a lot of people experienced during the war and what my mom would have experienced.
It was just humbling and really renewed my love for Vietnamese people, the culture, the food, the landscape, and the strength of them. It was definitely life-changing [and] probably the top trip I’ve ever taken that I will always love and cherish the most until I go back again.
“We tend to be a little more passive [with the mentality of] keep your head down, keep walking and try to stay out of trouble. But even now, we’re still being attacked, so that tactic doesn’t work. Now is the time to speak out.”
On why she was compelled to speak out against anti-Asian racism
I was very angry about what was happening, and I was scared for my mom and my dad, specifically. One day my brother called me and said, “Maybe I’ll come to a [Muay Thai] class with you one day,” which was shocking because my brother is not that type of guy. I asked him why he was so interested suddenly and he said to me, “Because our people are being attacked and I could be one of those people. I want to be able to defend myself.”
And then it hit me. He’s so right. This is mainly happening in the U.S., but it is happening in Canada. And the more I did research about it, the more I saw stories [and I realized] I need to help bring awareness. I need to let people know that this is happening around the world and that it’s not OK. Maybe [if I can] change the mind of one person, maybe they can stand up for an Asian woman or man being attacked by someone and that will just have a positive effect.
When you see it and don’t speak up, I felt as though [I was] being complacent. I know I can’t be out here fighting everyone’s battle for them … but at this point in my life, at this time in the world, I feel as though I need to be a voice for a very under-spoken subculture of Asian people that tend to be more quiet about things. We tend to be a little more passive [with the mentality of] keep your head down, keep walking and try to stay out of trouble. But even now, we’re still being attacked, so that tactic doesn’t work. Now is the time to speak out.
On how a Hudson’s Bay campaign validated her reasons for speaking out
The Bay asked me to be a part of this initiative called Charter for Change where over the next 10 years they’re going to be donating $30 million to different BIPOC organizations and charities to help raise awareness. [I had to] submit a photo to go on their store windows with a quote [saying] what I want to see change going forward in the next 10 years. [My brother and I] came up with my line together, and I remember just being scared that I could get penalized and judged for what I was about to say on such a large platform. It didn’t become real until I went to the store, saw it, [and] read it out loud to myself.
Then someone asked me, “How do you feel about your words out there?” I said, “Terrified, but at the same time, I can’t be concerned about what people think.” I’m concerned about that little Asian girl walking by the poster, having a really bad day and being able to look at it and say, “Oh my god, there’s someone that kind of looks like me and is speaking up for me.” That’s why I’m doing it. I just want to be able to give that young girl a fighting chance to love herself and not have to have these conversations [about identity and representation] all the time. Someone has to stand up and not be afraid anymore.
On how having more western features affected her sense of belonging
I don’t necessarily look stereotypical Asian. I have a bit more of what you would call western features. My nose is taller, my bridge is higher, my eyes are larger. For most of my life, a lot of people thought I was mixed. Nobody really said I had Asian eyes. If anything, they’d say, “Oh, your eyes are so big!” That was always the comment from non-Asian people and Asian people.
So it was frustrating in the sense that, obviously I knew what I looked like, [but] I was always being asked, “Where are you from? What’s your background?” And then [I would get comments] like, “Oh, you don’t look Chinese. You don’t look Vietnamese.” So I’m thinking, is that a backhanded compliment? Now you use the term microaggression, but when you’re young, you just think, what did they mean by that? Are Chinese girls not pretty?
“I just want to be able to give that young girl a fighting chance to love herself and not have to have these conversations [about identity and representation] all the time. Someone has to stand up and not be afraid anymore.”
It still feels a little strange sometimes because the microaggressions get louder as you get older and it’s harder not to respond in a different way when people are just curious. I think as Canadians, we [ask], “Where are you from? What’s your background?” whereas Americans say, “Oh, I’m American. I’m from New York.” Or [it could be] Georgia or California. They’re very state driven. [While] in Canada, we need to know your whole blood line.
So it was always so confusing for me. And even my mom’s friends would say, “That’s your daughter? Is the father mixed? What’s her background?” And in my family, I was considered the mixed-looking one. So it was strange because you don’t always feel like you fit in everywhere.
On how her Asian heritage influences her work in the beauty industry
When I was younger, [my mom] would do a winged liner for me and I loved it! It was her signature staple, so my mom taught me at a very young age. As I grew older, that became my signature.
Now when I think about it in my older years, a cat eye elongates your eye. It can make it look longer, lifted, bigger or smaller. It can do anything that you want it to. For me, I have more almond-shaped eyes, but I love the look of an upturned, long eye. I think it’s beautiful and I think that’s what I’ve been trying to emulate all my life doing this cat eye.
For me, when I’m emulating that, that to me is a very Asian eye look — a larger lid space and a bit of an upturned, feline look. That’s just my opinion because I had this Korean friend and her eyes naturally upturned, and she would always be like, “I hate my eyes. I wish they were big like yours. I wish I had the double lids.”
I’d be like, “Oh my gosh, I would trade my eyes with you in a second.” I wanted that upturned [look]. And I just remember always thinking that there’s so many types of Asian eyes: flat, hooded, upturned, almond, double lid, single lid, monolid…. whatever you can think of, we have.
I still love and wear the cat eye. I think it looks great on everyone. And seeing now that the fox eye trend is so big — where the eyes are lifted — I can’t [help but] think, you just want an Asian eye. You just want a beautiful, lifted Asian eye that’s a bit pulled back and has bigger lid space. Generally, Asian people have a lot of space from their lid to their eyebrows and that space is accentuated even more when you have a flat eyelid. So it’s no surprise to me that that’s a trend because K-pop and K-beauty is so big. A lot of what Asian women naturally have is very trendy right now in the beauty world. So yes, I do feel as though I’m inspired by my Asian heritage [in my work].