Born in Guilin, China, Yue Sai grew up in an environment that gave her an appreciation for art. Her father, Wing-Lin Kan, is a revered painter and calligrapher. “Ever since I was young I was sensitive to color, composition, balance and the search for beauty and perfection,” she says. After spending most of her childhood in Hong Kong, followed by studying for a degree in music in Hawaii, Yue Sai moved to New York in 1972 where she began a career in the television industry introducing Eastern culture to an American audience.
Throughout the 1980s Yue Sai notes “China was all gray. People did not understand the word ‘aesthetics.’ ” When the Vice-Premier approached her after Tiananmen in 1989, suggesting she start her own business, Yue Sai immediately thought cosmetics. After being a television personality for several years, she was aware that “there were certain colors [a Chinese woman] should not wear.” After doing a “color study,” she discovered there “is a reason why I did not look good in the same things as my blonde-haired friends… I did not feel any cosmetics company really realized how I was different, with my [Asian] skin tone and hair color.” By 1986, since she was already the most famous woman in China, Yue Sai felt that it was “natural to move toward creating a self brand.”
She established the wholly-foreign-owned business Yue Sai Kan Cosmetics in just 16 days (an incredible feat considering the challenges westerners faced doing business at that time). She soon became the name and face on her cosmetic line and is recognized as the first to introduce lipstick to China.
Yue Sai spent two years creating the line. She studied what colors looked best on Asian faces, including what they should wear to achieve the best effect. “Most Chinese never used make up at that time, and thus I had to teach them the techniques.” Building her brand entailed writing a book, producing a television series, and placing television screens in stores. She persuaded the store managers to have beauty consultants – the first time in China – and to have her own store counter with representatives wearing her own uniforms. “Training was difficult since they had no make up experience.”
Other challenges included infrastructure, which was a “nightmare” to the point “I had to send someone to a railway station for a week to await a shipment.” However, today infrastructure is more advanced. What’s more, the industry has become more savvy and Yue Sai has begun to face “tremendous competition.” “Everyone sees China as a virgin market, and you see products you have never seen elsewhere.”
Despite the challenges, Yue Sai’s savvy management style paved the way for her to became the Number One cosmetics line in 1996, after spending only US$ 3 million in advertising since the launch. Such an accomplishment would not happen today. Establishing a joint venture with Coty, a US$ 1.7 billion US cosmetics company, allowed her to expand production through the opening of a factory in Shanghai in 1997. “In China today you would have to spend about US$ 75 million worth in advertising to really build out a brand. Media is more expensive and competition is very keen.”
Yue Sai’s latest venture is the launch of her Yue Sai Wa Wa (little one) doll – essentially a Barbie for Asian children. Viewing the doll as a small business in a small market, she does not know if it will be a long term success, but having spent under US$ 200,000 for the launch, the business is already extremely profitable (the dolls can be found in FAO Schwartz, Toys “R” Us and Harrod’s of London). The doll became so popular that Yue Sai created a weekly cartoon series published in children’s newspapers throughout China titled Yue-Sai’s Adventures, giving children a female cartoon heroine they can call their own.
Every move Yue Sai has made in her career has been with a view to bridging the gap between the East and West. More importantly, she has created a brand that fosters pride in Chinese culture. When asked how her brand has contributed to the growth of her own character, Yue Sai responded that it “forces me to get to know my culture and the China market better – to get back to my roots and develop sensitivities to them…. Without cultural understanding, you can’t manage.”
Hip and savvy, Yue Sai is also a woman of grace and warmth. She loves music and languages (her current passion is Spanish and singing). In addition to her endless energy, Yue Sai is full of generosity. She holds several honorary positions for her humanitarian efforts, including Ambassador to UNICEF for the “Say Yes” campaign. Her latest honor was the issuance by the Chinese government of an envelope for the 10th anniversary of her cosmetics brand, displaying Yue Sai clad in her trademark red – a postage stamp is soon to follow.