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The House of Yue-Sai

2008-10-02 | The Ritz-Carlton

The House of Yue-Sai

Turning a tube of red lipstick into a lifestyle empire, China's Oprah emerges as an icon of a new world economy.

Yue-Sai Kan arrives at the Shanghai Art Museum charity fundraiser as the welcome speeches are winding down. The Chinese-American television personality, lifestyle guru and makeup mogul slips to the front of the crowd, just in time to enthusiastically applaud as dignitaries snip the ceremonial ribbon.

Soon heads swivel and hands reach for cameras as Yue-Sai (like Oprah, her first names says it all) drifts toward the bidding area, trailed by her assistant and me. She pauses to hug the American consul (his wife, artist Ann Yen, is an old friend from New York), to greet the gray-suited vise chairman of a Shanghai charity (shes on the board) and to introduce me to her close friend Nora Sun --- granddaughter of Chinas revered first president, Sun Yat-Sen.

Yet the most famous woman in the Middle Kingdom graciously accepts a business card from a middle-aged heavy makeup and a lacquered hairdo. She cuddles a baby, posing for a picture with his proud parents. And she flashes the megawatt smile thats graced two Chinese postage stamps and countless cosmetics advertisements as a young admirer in a white hoodie and faded jeans snaps away.

She looks so youthful, the young man tells me, better than I imagined from her photos. His name is Alex Yue, and hes a 22-year-old student at Shanghais prestigious Jiao Tong University. I ask him what else he thinks of Kan, whos old enough to be his mom. I like her story, he says. Shes kind, strong, determined and successful, the ideal example of a Chinese woman to me.

An inspiration to students as well as to their parents, Yue-Sai Kan has been called the Chinese Oprah Winfrey, Emily Post, Estee Lauder and now --- with the launch of her new lifestyle boutique --- Martha Stewart. But although these comparisons are helpful for those unfamiliar with China, none of them fully express Kans vast impact on Chinese popular culture over the past quarter-century.

Her string of firsts --- from producing the Chinese state television network program that opened Mao-era minds to the West in 1986, to launching her line of cosmetics designed specifically for the Asian woman in 1992, to authoring a book on Western etiquette for Chinese men in 2006 --- has made her a household name in the Middle Kingdom. In fact, Kan's a veritable brand, with name recognition greater than 95 percent among Chinese consumers.

To get a feel for her audience, consider this: her latest lifestyle show, Yue-Sai's World (where she chats up celebs like her good friend Quincy Jones and luminaries like Queen Noor of Jordan) has a potential 800 million viewers weekly in China and (by satellite) around the world. Thats more than twice the population of the United States.

Chinas burgeoning, influential middle class somehow both relates to and is in awe of Kans life story. She's one of them, yet also an American citizen, with homes in Shanghai, Beijing and New York. A self-made millionaire, shes managed to fulfill Deng Xiaopings recommendation to get rich is glorious --- without compromising Chinese tradition or culture.

One World Order

Born in southern China but raised in Hong Kong, where her family moved after the Communist revolution, Kan has a firm foothold in both East and West. Her father, a well-known painter, provided his four girls a traditional, cultivated Chinese education; her mother ensured the family finances prospered (thanks to judicious Hong Kong real estate investments) so the sisters could follow their dreams.

Kan was 16 when she begged her parents to send her to the United States. That was the first turning point in my life, she says after the art benefit, when we share a cup of tea in her Shanghai penthouse. My mother sold an apartment so I could go to Hawaii to study, she recalls.

I don't know why, she says, but I was always drawn to America.

Kan's iconic looks, smarts, charm and piano skills soon helped her win a beauty contest in Hawaii --- her first taste of the limelight. Next stop? The Big Apple, of course, where she volunteered to read the news for a Chinese-language cable TV show. Parlaying this internship into a television career, she produced the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) television series about Asia titled Looking East, which ran from 1972 to 1984, as well as the Emmy Award-winning documentary China Walls and Bridges for ABC about Chinese religious beliefs.

By the mid-1980s, China was stabilizing from the after-shocks of the Cultural Revolution and preparing to open the door to outside investment. To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Peoples Republic of China in 1984, the Chinese national television network, CCTV, asked Kan and PBS to host a groundbreaking co-production from China, covering the events for the U.S. audience. Shortly thereafter, CCTV invited Kan back to China to host a new weekly program called One World, in which she would bring the world to China through her reports from international locales such as Egypts pyramids or an Iowa farm.

Kan literally started a revolution --- of the media kind --- in her native country. She cites the launch of the One World series, in 1986, as her proudest life achievement. It was a first in so many ways, she recalls. It was the first program in Mandarin and English. You know, at the time, my Mandarin wasn't all that good, because I grew up in Hong Kong speaking Cantonese, she says. And, after living in the States for so many years, my English was even better than my Mandarin. So I was also, in a sense, the first foreigner to broadcast from China. They even had advertisements --- another novel idea in the communist country at the time. I truly changed the whole television landscape in China. Kan says.

The show ran for two years. Those now in their 50s, such as Yvonne Huang (a manager at Kans sister's Shanghai company), remember the program well. At that time, China was just opening, Huang says. One World was our first exposure to Western culture, and thats how we got to know Yue-Sai Kan.

One World not only opened Chinas eyes to the West, it also propelled Kan to the celebrity stratosphere in the Middle Kingdom. Women like Huang shed their Mao jackets and asked for a Yue-Sai haircut, modeled after Kans swinging pageboy. Students studied her shows, reading from One World texts and watching the videos in school.

I don't see how you can have an opinion of a country if you've never been there, Kan says. That's why I think these types of travel shows are so important, because they open your eyes to other people and cultures.

Giving Face To China

Back in New York, Kan enjoyed relative anonymity. She married a prominent American management consultant in 1989. The marriage lasted five years --- which happened to be the period when Kan went into business big time with her eponymous cosmetics line in China.

This was a huge turning point, she recalls of the 1992 launch. When I was working on One World, I couldn't find cosmetics for my skin type in China. Asian women needed colors and formulas developed for them.

In China, theres an expression called giving face to someone. Its when, through words or actions, you build up a persons self-esteem in front of others. Through her cosmetics company, Kan gave face --- literally and figuratively --- to millions of women for whom makeup had long been taboo. By 1996, the company had 600 employees and was bringing in $27 million in sales.

In 2004, Kan and her partners sold the cosmetics empire to L'Oreal. But although she made a fortune and easily could have retired, she quickly launched a new, more lifestyle-oriented, talk show, Yue-Sai's World, and published a series of books, including The Complete Chinese Woman (with advice like do not marry for money) and The Chinese Gentleman. The latter became a kind of behavior Bible for Chinese middle managers working with Westerners. Kan dryly recalls one of her points: Don't blow your nose in your napkin!

Kan says, Im lucky because I've always chosen what I want to do in life. I've done it on my own, and I work harder than anyone I know. She admits that she doesnt have time to suffer fools where business is concerned. I'm honest, and that can sometimes seem blunt, she admits. I just don't have time to finesse my words. If I don't say anything, thats a bad sign! One American business woman, whos know Kan for almost 20 years, calls her driven business yet warm and protective in friendship.

Business and friendship intermingle at Kan's legendary soirees. Chinese contemporary art dealer Elisabeth de Brabant, who worked with Kan on her sponsorship of the 2007 Contemporary Art Prize for emerging Chinese artists, has attended many parties at Kans Shanghai digs. She's an expansive hostess, de Brabant says, and its not about her. I think she feels it's her mission to bring people from different countries and points of view together so they can learn and connect. Shes helped me in my business, and I know Im not alone.

Creating A Lifestyle Empire

Kan may have to rely on her extensive guanxi for honest advice on kick-starting her newest venture: a chain of upscale lifestyle boutiques branding Kans personal style for Chinas nouveau riche (a la Ralph Lauren Stores). The first boutique opened in December 2007 to great fanfare, but when I visit four months later, Im the only lunch-hour customer for a full 15 minutes.

Eventually, a few others drift in, but still were outnumbered threefold by the fawning sales staff.

Later, when I ask how she got the idea for the House of Yue-Sai stores, Kan spreads her arms to take in her penthouses comfortable expanse of cushy Thai-silk sofas, Vietnamese lacquered knickknacks, contemporary Chinese paintings, leather-covered picture frames and attractive soft lighting --- all features that would be unusual in most Chinese homes. People are always asking me how I manage to mix all these influences and make it look so nice, she says. They tell me theyre intimidated, that they don't know how to decorate. So I thought I could share my ideas. Everyone deserves to have a beautiful life.

It's a smart business move, given the booming housing market in China, where one-quarter of the world's housing stock (5.5 million new units in 2007, according to Euromonitor) is built every year. But it remains to be seen whether or not her support base --- the ladies who bought Yue-Sai red lipstick --- can afford the crystal chandelier ($2,800) from her over-the-top boutique. Or, more important, whether China's nouveau riche will chose the Yue-Sai brand over Versace.

But Shanghai retail exec Dashiell Chien, whos worked for giants like Sears and Home Depot over the past 20 years and knows Kan well, thinks that --- despite a rough start with store location and top retail management --- she'll pull through with success, as she has in the past. Yue-Sais always been ahead of the curve, he says. She'll learn and adapt to make it work.

Indeed, perhaps her nextfirst in China, where she's recently settled for good (after year's shuttling between New York and Shanghai) will be to give face to the nouveau riche as they race along the path to a beautiful life. Chinese people need to learn how to be wealthy, Kan says. Given her track record, theres perhaps no one better suited to sell the finer points of taste and culture to Chinas rising rich.


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