Add Oil:
Meals that feed the soul
with Nicole Chui

INTERVIEW BY ELAINE ZHAO | Published December 2021

Nicole Chui aka. @thatsewnicole is an artistic force of nature with Hong Kong Chinese and Malaysian heritage. At only 26 years old, she’s built a reputation as a renowned textile-based artist, blending striking IRL scenes with her iconic embroidery and working with the likes of Nike.

As a fellow HongKonger, I spoke to Nicole about her creative inspirations, representing her community and social connection through feasting - especially during this festive period.

Before we delve into food, it’d be great to hear a little about what inspires you as an artist.

I mostly draw from my own emotions and reactions to things happening around me. Disrupting perfection is a theme that goes through a lot of my pieces. In connecting to my cultural identity, my art is naturally connected to who I am because it's me in the work, but also in terms of how I show it - like involving my work in different community projects, or physical spaces. For example, The Steam Room is a place that celebrates a lot of Asian artists so being part of spaces like that is a way that I've tried to connect to my own heritage.

It's also getting to know other people in the community and contributing our voices - being present in these spaces to express who we are as ESEA people. I've also included motifs and sayings that are to do with my culture, like my Hong Kong heritage, into pieces which show part of where I come from and who I am. In these ways, I've grown to connect and respect my heritage and the wider ESEA community.

"Disrupting perfection is a theme that goes through a lot of my pieces"

Nicole Chui @thatsewnicole

Ooo I’ve seen the Steam Room IG, it’s in Haggerston (London) right?

Yes, so they're a dry cleaners, but in the front, they've got a store that sells their products. Fran, who is one half of the Steam Room, is an illustrator so she sells a lot of her illustrations. They've started stocking a lot of East Asian and Southeast Asian artists. This year they had an exhibition celebrating Merdeka day, which is like Malaysian Independence Day - with an exhibition celebrating Batik, specifically Malaysian Batik. 

nicole Chui @thatsewnicole

"In Malaysia, we tend to paint the batik on whereas in Indonesia, it's more known to be like wax and stamp"

What is Batik?

Batik is a textile specifically known in Malaysia and Indonesia, but the techniques are different. Usually what you'd see in batik are images of flowers and hibiscus, or nature related things drawn on a beautiful textile. In Malaysia, we tend to paint the batik on whereas in Indonesia, it's more known to be like wax and stamp. It’s usually used to create a kebaya, which is a traditional form of dress - but you can make anything! I even have a batik mask... the material is really stunning.

Nicole's Grandma in Batik - Nicole Chui

Beautiful! So speaking of Malaysian culture, this series is all about the meals that fill you with the warmth of feeling at 'home'. What does that mean to you?

Home to me, in terms of food, means comfort and being nourished. It's a way to care for others, like a love language - and also evokes time spent with my family at home. I'm one of four sisters so we have a relatively big family, but after school and our activities, we always made it a thing to sit down and have a meal together. Family meals meant having rice (of course!) and a broth-like soup that had been slow cooked throughout the day. We would have a fish dish, vegetables, a meat dish - and we’d all sit around and catch up on our days and be together.

That was something I know my parents wanted us to have growing up because family is so valuable, in our culture but also generally across different Asian cultures, and I really treasure those memories. I really miss that now because growing up, I didn’t value it as much - but now I miss the spread of food prepared and the deeply social aspect. Even hanging out with friends in the UK, a lot of people go for drinks but I always prefer going for food, especially to share dishes - it’s my way of socialising and catching up with others.

Ricecooker Hotpot - nicole Chui

What would a typical Christmas be like with you and your family?

So Christmas is spread across a few days and types of meals. We’d always do a hotpot, with your classic fish balls, meatballs, wonton, stuff like that for Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, we’d usually either host or go to a family friend’s house to do a potluck - it’d be this amazing mix of Western and Eastern fishes, so turkey, lamb, brussel sprouts and potatoes - my dad makes a great dauphinoise. That was amazing because there were loads of different families, so you’d have chicken curry, rice, all sorts of dishes that were so different but so delicious - like prawn paste chicken wings!

Then there’d be loads of leftovers, and we’d take the turkey and make turkey sandwiches and a soup broth from the bones. It was a really festive time, especially if we were hosting - my mom would go all out with decorating, making everything red and putting tinsel down the staircase. Christmas is about family, just like Chinese New Year is for me.

Christmas Potluck - nicole Chui

What are the first meals you eat when you go back to Hong Kong?

In Hong Kong, I always have to have roast duck rice and soy sauce - and chicken rice, that's the thing I really need to have. I go to this one guy who when I was a kid, I'd only know him as chop man, because me and my dad would go to get our chopped roast meats there every single week in Tai Po market. So that's my absolute favourite, I have to have it every time I go back and it just hits different. And then I have to get wonton noodles. There’s a place in Lucky Plaza in Sha Tin on the first floor, on the corner next to the bridge. I also love gei dan zai - egg waffles! Maxims is another place that is iconic in Hong Kong, that’s a formidable institution - and I love the afternoon tea sets at Cafe de Coral.

nicole Chui @thatsewnicole

What about your favourite places to eat in London?

So Dimsum and Duck in Kings Cross - with the best host, Alec, who works there! He told us that Keira Knightley goes there and it’s massive with Japanese tourists after a famous Japanese influencer shared them. I'd also recommend Mama Li or Three Uncles for roast meats on rice, because I crave roast meats, which are both takeaway places in East London - I haven't found a good one in Chinatown. Get the lo mein noodles at Three Uncles! I was blown away.

Nicole’s latest project has been designing these awesome shirts in collaboration with design practice Meat Studio for media agency TONG's brand refresh. All proceeds help fundraise for EVR (End Violence and Racism Against East & Southeast Asian Communities) - buy yours here from TONG's website.