The first time I came across a Susan Alexandra bag, I did a double take. I hadn’t seen it before, but I recognized it: A purse encrusted with thoughtfully chosen colourful pastel stripes, like a disco ball-turned-box. They looked uncannily similar to those tissue-box covers that my Chinese grandma used to make from her glass coffee table that I ate fried rice cakes off of when I went to visit her in Shanghai.
My grandma wasn’t limited to just Kleenex boxes (which we displayed on top of our piano at home). She would send me and my brother all kinds of beaded characters: a palm-sized sneaker with a slightly wonky swoosh on the side, a keychain of a bootleg Hello Kitty, and intricate beaded lanterns to hang on our door handles. Our home in Indiana was filled with her work. But she never made a beaded bag because the available patterns were for knick knacks and toys — things to display, and not to take outside. For her, making these beaded trinkets was a way to pass the time with her friends, who were also in the business of giving away fun, sparkly gifts. It was their version of knitting, a hobby for restless hands.
But if Asian aunties like my grandma and her friends made them first, its recent renaissance is entirely owed to Asian-American aunties.
Susan Alexandra didn’t have a grandma who beaded, but she wasn’t immune to the lure of the craft. One day, while walking through Chinatown, she came across a closet-sized storefront that stopped her in her tracks.
“I was so transfixed. It was this tiny tiny room just packed with little creatures made out of beads. There were Spongebobs and Hello Kittys, and I just had this idea that I wanted to make something, too,” Susan told me over the phone. At the time, Susan was making hand-painted jewellery, but she instinctively and immediately thought of bags at the sight of the beads. The shopowner, Lisa Deng, explained to Susan that she hadn’t yet had the chance to make purses, and Susan commissioned a watermelon bag from her.
One week later, the watermelon bag emerged ripe and ready, no grocery store tapping necessary. Susan made more, which became immediate hits; they all sold within a few days. Today, Lisa is now the head of production for Susan Alexandra, and, as the business grew, she led the charge in employing 35 more Chinese women to manufacture the bags. The bags aren’t easy to construct, and one bag takes at least one day to complete. So for these women, a flexible work schedule is paramount. “Most of them have children, so they all need to work from home,” Susan explains. The bags quickly became cult favourites, and were featured in every major fashion publication. This past summer, the bags became stocked at more than 30 stores around the world, and quickly outgrew what Lisa’s production team could handle.
Enter: Syeda Sonda, a Bangladeshi woman who moved to New York City with her husband in 2015. Growing up in Bangladesh, a neighbor taught Syeda how to make these beaded bags, as well as extravagant plastic-beaded chandeliers. Susan found Syeda’s resume online on career site Maker’s Row this past summer in an effort to keep things local. As Susan’s second production head, Syeda leads a team of 40 Bangladeshi women based in Queens.
“When I first moved to New York City, I didn’t know anyone except my husband and his friends, but now through making these bags, I’ve made my own friends,” Syeda explained to me in Susan’s Chinatown studio. “We’ll video chat each other if we’re up working late or run into any problems while beading. We’ve built a community. We’ll have large dinner parties and celebrate the Bengali New Year together. Now through word of mouth, other mothers also want to contribute to the business.”
Both Syeda and Lisa give their input on how the designs should be, what new techniques and beads they’ve discovered, and what the new colourways could work well. They work alongside Susan Alexandria to push the limits of the craft now that the originals have created a ripple effect across the world. Today, you can find fashion-forward beaded handbags as part of designer collections around the world, from Lisa Folawiyo in Nigeria to Truss in Mexico to Shrimps from the UK. You can even find them on Asian e-commerce sites Alibaba, AliExpress, and Lazada, alongside Kleenex boxes, demented Sanrio characters, and rainbow chandeliers
My grandma might have beaded as a hobby, but now it’s a craft that is garnering the attention of fashion obsessives worldwide. When I show my grandma pictures of these bags, she thinks it’s hilarious that they’re so coveted. The last time I went home, I found a purple crystal bauble and brought it back to my New York City apartment to hang in my living room, where I also keep my Susan Alexandra bag. Side by side, they remind me of all my homes, and the physical and cultural journeys that I, Lisa, Syeda, and other diaspora women like us make in our lives. It feels good to know that something as small as beaded crafts have this kind of staying power, and sparks this kind of happiness.
In #NotYourTokenAsian, we take on the pop products, stereotypes, and culture wars that surround Asian-American identity. Follow along as we celebrate our multiplicity during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.