Interview with Yue-Sai Kan
Today we are interviewing Yue-Sai Kan – @yuesaikan is an Emmy-winning television host and producer, successful businesswoman and entrepreneur, fashion icon, bestselling author and humanitarian. People magazine called her “the most famous woman in China” and Time magazine proclaimed her “the Queen of the Middle Kingdom.” Born in China and raised in Hong Kong, Yue-Sai moved to New York City in 1972, where she founded Yue-Sai Kan Productions and created a weekly television series “Looking East”, the first of its kind to introduce Asian cultures and customs to a growing and receptive American audience. The series garnered critical acclaim and won dozens of awards, and lasted 12 years. Based on this and other work, Yue-Sai was mentioned in the US Congressional Record and credited as the first TV journalist to connect the East and the West.
In 1984, PBS invited Yue-Sai to host the first live broadcast of a television program from China on the occasion of the 35th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The program was the first ever co-production of an American TV station and China’s CCTV national network. This led the Chinese government to offer her a new television series, One World, which was produced and hosted by Yue-Sai, and aired on China’s CCTV. With a weekly viewership of 300 million people, One World gave many Chinese their first glimpse of the outside world, captivated the entire nation, and made Yue-Sai a household name.
In 1992, Yue-Sai successfully transformed herself from a TV personality to an entrepreneur by creating the Yue-Sai Cosmetics brand which grew into China’s leading cosmetics company, selling products in more than 800 outlets through 23 regional companies in China’s major markets. The company started a revolution by encouraging Chinese women to be proud of their image, and truly began the cosmetics industry in China. More than 90% of the Chinese population today recognizes the brand, which was purchased by L’Oreal in 2004. Yue-Sai’s other entrepreneurial ventures include an Asian-featured doll line called Yue-Sai Wa Wa and an East-meets-West lifestyle retail brand, the House of Yue-Sai. She is a director of IMAX China, which went public on the HKSE in the fall of 2015. Additionally, she has written 9 best-selling books in Chinese.
Since 2011, Yue-Sai held the position of National Director for the Miss Universe China Pageant. She uses the final pageant as Shanghai’s most glamorous charity ball. Attended by the Who’s Who of China, the charity has raised millions to build hospitals in poor regions, fund cleft lip and palate correction surgeries and grant scholarships for students in China’s best music, TV and film schools. UNICEF once named Yue-Sai as its first and only Global Chinese “Say Yes for Children” Ambassador. Yue-Sai also sits on the board of China Institute and Prince Albert of Monaco’s Philanthropy Round Table. Yue-Sai is the first and only living American featured on a Chinese government-issued postage stamp. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Music from Brigham Young University in Hawaii, and an Honorary Doctorate Degree of Human Letters from the Worcester State College. She lives between homes in New York and China.
Question: As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career?
Yue-Sai Kan: As an American working in China, I can tell you that there are many barriers out there, the language, the culture, the laws, etc. But as a woman, I found it amazingly easy to do business in China. Chinese women are brought up under the ideal of “holding up half of the sky”. They are treated equally as their male counterparts when it comes to opening a business, getting a loan, buying real estate and etc. Many people have questioned me if I had found it difficult to do business in China as a female. Actually, not at all. I have found that being female sometimes is an advantage. When I started doing business in China in 1990s, there were very few entrepreneurs let alone women entrepreneurs. Today, according to the Hurun Report, 61 of the world’s top 100 self-made female billionaires are Chinese. They cover all industries, real estate, manufacturing, technology, you name it! However, I don’t see that many Chinese women holding the highest political positions. Even if they do, their positions tend to be ceremonial or women related. Here in the United States, we just elected our first female vice president. It’s a big accomplishment. But in Europe, quite a number of countries have female heads of state or government. Even in Asia, look at India, South Korea and Australia, they all have had female heads of state or government already. So both China and the United States have a lot to catch up in this regard.
Question: What is the best or most worthwhile investment you‘ve ever made?
Yue-Sai Kan: In 1992, I launched Yue Sai (羽西）Cosmetics in China. My biggest investment in the venture was my name, my image and my celebrity status. At the time, I was already known as “The Most Famous Woman in China” because of my “One World” television series. It opened the eyes of a billion Chinese to the outside world. My hairdo was copied, the way I wear makeup and fashion was the talk of town. My celebrity status is like free advertisement for a beauty business. So I invested it. And I consider it my best investment.
It was also my most worthwhile investment because I was able to start a revolution in China by injecting colors into a colorless country and “changed the face of China one lipstick at a time” as Forbes puts it! The idea that every woman can look her best using cosmetics is so emancipating that it not only changed the way Chinese women look at themselves, but also directly impacted other aspects of their lives, including career, education and their place in society. I’m glad to have played a significant part in changing a deep-seated old mindset.
Question: For you, what makes China so special?
Yue-Sai Kan: In the last 36 years, I have been involved with China as a media person, entrepreneur, best-selling author and philanthropist, from art to culture, from education to technology, from economy to entertainment, I witnessed so many unprecedented changes on such a massive scale. And I personally was able to do so many pioneering things which no one ever did before and no one will ever be able to do again. These things only happen once in a lifetime and they will never repeat elsewhere. They made China extra special for me.
I’m currently working on my memoir and in the book, I shared many of my own experiences and observations on the constantly changing China, I hope that when people read the book, their perception of China will be closer to its reality.
Question: What habit do you have now that you wish you started much earlier?
Yue-Sai Kan: I would say to take care of myself, health-wise. When I was working on “One World”, I was on 24/7. I worked on weekends and during holidays. My weight was an unhealthy 90 pounds. Then I traveled so much for Yue Sai Cosmetics that every time I flew, I would catch a cold.
During this pandemic, I finally learned to slow down and enjoy life. I picked up Spanish again and even learned how to cook a few dishes. I do yoga and swim 3 times a week. I also do TRX every day. I sleep soundly every night. Here in Hawaii, I eat locally grown organic food. I have never been this healthy. I’d like to keep it this way.
Question: What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career? How did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?
Yue-Sai Kan: I think nothing I have done in my life came easy because most of them were things no one had done before. Let’s just single out one – television. I started my career as a TV host in 1972, and in the early 1980s, I signed with China Central Television to produce and host a 104-episode bilingual (Mandarin and English) TV series called “One World”. I signed the contract knowing I could not even say my own name in Mandarin! That was a huge challenge as you might imagine. It’s like anchoring a show on BBC as an impeccable British English speaker when you are from South Carolina.
In those days, there were not too many Mandarin teachers in New York. For six months everyday, I studied Mandarin from 6pm – 9 PM on weekdays and 9 AM- 9 PM on weekends. Everywhere I went, I was carrying a Walkman with headphones listening to Mandarin. I was determined to be eloquent enough to present the programs. To shoot the first 30 seconds of my first show, I spent three hours taping it over and over again. It was harder than hard but I made it! Hard work paid off.
What’s the greatest thing you got from your parents?
Yue-Sai Kan: Generosity. My parents both had a very kind and generous heart. I remember when I was about 10 years old, my parents told me that an Uncle Zhou needed to stay with us. We thought that he was a relative of ours. It turned out that he was just my parents’ friend. His business had failed, and he had no where to live. Back then we were not a wealthy family, so having someone stay in our small home for 2 years could not have been easy on my parents. That kind of generosity was one of the greatest things for me to learn from my parents.
Question: What’s the best and worst thing about getting older?
Yue-Sai Kan: There are really a lot of bad things about getting older. You notice that your skin is not as beautiful as before. Your body is changing shape. You have pains you never had before. You go to the doctors more often and even your tests are more elaborate and expensive. You tend to be more careful about what you eat, but you’re always confused with everything that you read on the Internet about health because sometimes they are so contradictory to each other. The only thing good about getting older is if you have enough money to go through this period of your life without financial burden and physical impairs. So my advice? Be sure that you plan for this part of your life when you are young! As early as possible! Develop good health and money-making habits so you will have a rewarding and enjoyable last quadrant of your life.
Question: What is your motto for life?
Yue-Sai Kan: I have different ones at different stages of my life. My favorite one right now is “Be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.” from Dr. Maya Angelou.
Be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.