My original chat with Jacqueline focused on her art career. Two years on, her adventure has taken new developments. What piqued my interest was what she said “The destination is the excuse to take the journey.” Here I sat down with her to learn more of her adventurous and fun-loving side and a candid sharing of life, work, and pursuits.
Karen Tsui, Where My Heart Leads:
Can you tell us how you got from art to business?
Jacqueline Shiu, founder of her eponymous brand and painter
My trade is painting. But since being back in Hong Kong, I was thinking about how I could promote my artwork, how do I get into galleries.
Of the few gallery openings I have been to, I really didn’t enjoy that social environment. I felt it was very superficial. Also, as I was younger and quite shy I wasn’t very confident about myself, so I never made it into the scene. I was teaching most of the time – I stayed teaching, and I stayed learning just as a student, so I wasn’t a professional or I didn’t see myself as an artist. I had always called myself a painter. Because I think the connotation of being an artist is so vague?
Do you consider yourself an artist now?
More so. I’ve learned to appreciate art, through my exploration in psychology, or I guess, you know, being more mature and older, I know better what art means. And its value. And it’s easier for me to admit that I’m an artist.
How did you come to the understanding?
Probably through my learning about Thangka painting, and spending time with my Thangka teacher, I got into the spiritual meditative side of art. There’s a lot of psychology, talking about Mandalas and the visual representation of something deeper. So that gave art or images, paintings, a bit more meaning. So once I can associate the meaning behind images, and that I’m not just trying to paint a picture, I’m trying to create a meaning. That makes it easier to associate myself as an artist.
What led you to diversify?
The combination of me not seeing myself as an artist to begin with. So 10 years ago or more, with Chinese contemporary art, the prices were getting absurdly high, which is really exciting, of course. But at the same time, I feel like that’s so superficial and false, and feels like people are liking art for the wrong reasons.
What did you feel they were liking art for?
For the investment value or money laundering that kind of thing. And, of course, with art, the value is not quantifiable, and hence, the price could be so crazy. But as an artist, if you ask me, do I want to sell my painting for 10 million? Of course, I want to. So there’s a contradiction between what is right and what I want, and what’s living honestly, and not honestly that kind of thing. And I thought, doing small businesses, selling things in itself is quite an honest way of making money. So that’s one reason.
And also my guru. I remember having a conversation with him once and it was right around when I went to college, and I told him, I was studying art. He said, “Oh, why don’t you study business?” And it got me thinking, there’s nothing about me that’s business. So I wouldn’t even know where that idea came from. But I also kept this in mind and thought, maybe he’s trying to say I should do business. So there are lots of things coming together.
1. Serendipity – things come together
How did you take the first step?
So I remember the first time after I learned about Thangka in Nepal. When I came back, my friend commissioned me to do a painting. “It just needs to be blue and big.” So she’s Catholic, but I painted a Mandala for her, and well, she decided it’s not what she wanted or whatever. But I was happy to keep the painting. So I did. A lot of people saw the painting and they were all like, “I can see this on a scarf. It’s kind of like the Hermes design with the symmetry.” So that was another reason. And my then mother-in-law runs a charity in Nepal. So she traveled there quite often and she was saying, “Oh, I know a scarf maker. They make the most beautiful scarves ….” So all these things kind of came together and gave me the idea.
Was it hard? Or was it easy?
It wasn’t hard. I’m sure I had my frustrations, but it was quite fun. To me, the most fun part was designing the logo and the packaging, the nitty-gritty things – the wedding planning part of the business. The frou-frou, the small things, so that was really fun. And then, of course, it’s trying out different factories.
Can you tell us more because it sounded like you really looked for something that aligned with what you wanted to give birth to.
I did. I first looked in Nepal. I also went to Shanghai, and I sampled with them. And then of course, there’s the trade fairs and trade shows in Hong Kong. So there are tons of factories I got in contact with. And I’ve never been to Mongolia. Even though I sampled from several factories in Mongolia. I did go to Shanghai to visit the factory. I went with my sister and the staff brought us to some local noodle shop. So that’s the fun part of going there and doing all these things, including chit-chats with my sister in the hotel room.
You mentioned that some of the most memorable moments have been visiting factories.
Yeah, that has been really fun. In China, I spoke with the staff, because I think the factories are bigger, the owner doesn’t usually do the sales. So in that sense, it was less pressure because you’re dealing with staff. But in Nepal, I was always dealing with the owners, because the factories are small, and they do the business.
My then mother-in-law has a friend called Samir. Samir introduced me to a guy that he works out with at the gym who has a Kashmir factory. His company is called The Kashmir company. Meanwhile, I found another company online called The Kashmir Industries, to which the owner’s name is Samir. I made a bunch of appointments to meet these factory owners, and I guess I got Kashmir Industries and Kashmir Company mixed up. So they all came to meet me at the same time.
I met with Kashmir Industries first. And I shook hands with him and I kept talking, “Oh you’re a friend of Samir…” and he had no idea what I was talking about. But he didn’t catch that I was talking about the wrong person, because his name was Samir. So he just got confused. I just kept talking. And then the other guy came to pick me up. But by then I had left with the first company. My then mother-in-law who was with me in Nepal thought I had been kidnapped, because the other guy showed up, and I wasn’t there. So there was a huge fiasco.
What was your criteria in finding your business partner, or what you call the surrogate mother to create your scarves?
I asked for signs. And I have to say that I had very promising signs for this particular factory.
Did you have an inkling that this was the most probable one?
Yes, it was quite good. The first sample they made was really, really good. The problem was, because it was the beginning stages of sampling, I didn’t know what the standard was. So of course, their scarves are really nice. But it wasn’t until I saw the other scarves that I realised they’re actually really good.
So it helped that you actually did sampling with various factories.
Yeah. But of course, in the beginning, we had the samples, but I was still dubious, because, maybe every factory makes nice scarves. But it turns out, theirs is really quite nice. So as I went through all the sampling and factories, I learnt what makes the scarf better or worse.
2. Work and relationships as learning ground
How have you grown from working relationships?
You really see the character of the people you work with. And you understand that everyone has different qualities. Some qualities you might like, some you might not.
So for example, a lady who helps with some of the sewing, I get to see a little more about this person and her life and that’s interesting. Then it’s also how you deal with this person. Because, under normal circumstances, she won’t be my friend. But now I’m put into a situation where I work with this person because of her other qualities. From there I get to see other parts of her which are valuable in ways I wouldn’t see otherwise.
Likewise with my factory in Nepal. In the beginning, I was so annoyed by how things were. For the first few factory visits, we had to take the car for half an hour, an hour, on a very shitty road, and it’s a very small, dingy car. And I was always getting carsick. And for the whole journey, the owner would talk to me about Hinduism, as though he’s trying to convert me. Obviously, I’m Buddhist. And I found it really annoying. I tried to have a conversation with him. But I realised it was pointless. Plus with the carsick. So towards the end, I was just nodding and was like, “Okay, okay, okay.”
But then the relationship changed. Two months ago, he was telling me, “I’m very fond of the Buddhist religion.” And he was sharing with me some videos about Buddhism and some experiences of his life as well. That’s a nice, meaningful connection that I wouldn’t otherwise have if I’m not using this factory. So that’s the kind of relationship that I get to experience outside of my own social circles.
Because you’re working with different people, you naturally would share who you are, you naturally share your Buddhist experience or other things. In this case, it kind of opened him up to something new as well.
Yeah. And I’ve always been told that I am too honest with who I share information with. I try to say less. But then actually, I feel like it really isn’t who I am. And maybe I should just be more confident about telling people things. So I feel if there’s a part of me that opens myself up to other people, maybe that encourages them to be honest with me as well.
Being told you’re being too honest. Has it created problems or actually created surprises for you?
Well, not that I remember. I’m sure there are cases where I didn’t have to volunteer so much information. And maybe that made me less glamorous? I don’t know.
You think so? What if your genuine sharing is actually more inspiring?
I would like to think so. And, I think at the end of the day, you’re just who you are. Maybe you should have done this, maybe you should have done that. But maybe it’s just better to do whatever you do, right? Because there’s no measure of how much is too much. And how little is too little. So.
What did you mean when you said “The destination is the excuse to take the journey?”
When I was saying that I was thinking of all the fun that I’ve had with the business. And sometimes I feel like, “Oh, you know, where do I want to travel? Of course, maybe I should go to Kashmir because I’m making cashmere.” So it’s almost like an excuse for me to go and have fun.” Yeah, forcing me out of my comfort zone. I guess it’s almost like planning backwards. Planning backwards, meaning make the destination fit the journey, or make the journey the priority. I mean, this is just one way of thinking. You can also think normally, which is, I want to go there. So I’m gonna take this road to get there.
What’s that destination?
So the way I see destination, I guess being Buddhist, or being a painter, I realised, the most fun part about painting is you feel like you’ve done something awesome (destination). And then, but always, always, always, you look at it again, it’s actually not that good. But then you chase for another awesome, and then it becomes mediocre again. So the fun part is the chasing part. The journey.
So the destination is just, it’s like an oasis. You feel like you’re getting there, but you’ll never get there. And it’s actually the desire to get there. That’s the fun part. Because you will actually never get there. So that’s definitely the case with painting. Because there’s no perfect painting where “Oh my God, I’ve done this, I can never surmount my great work. So I need to stop.” You know, there’s never a destination. I guess it’s the same with life, money, and everything. Right?
3. Tenacity and renewal
Is there anything else you want to share or add?
Well, I was recently divorced. So that had a huge impact on my growth as well. So everything that I’ve told you should be taken into consideration that my personal relationship had a lot to do with this growth, this revelation.
Did it set you free? Or did it give you an impetus to stand on your own?
Yes. So basically, my life was, let’s say 50% spouse 50% work. Now it’s 80% work and 20% parents and siblings. So I’ve been a more devoted to my work since the divorce. And that also means thinking more for me. Rather than thinking more for let’s say me and my spouse, what are we going to do together today or tomorrow. Now it’s more like, what am I going to do for myself?
It must have been very tough. How did you pull yourself through?
I pulled myself through by knowing that I did the right thing. And that it can only get better for myself, in the future. Because I mean, I think all in all, as much as I cry very easily. And I seem to be a softy. But I do think that there’s a part of me that’s very tenacious. The thing is, if you never give up, then you can only get better, right? And, I don’t have a reason to give up. I mean, and luckily, I’m well-fed, I have family support, I’m making money. I love what I do, and I find it meaningful. So you know, there’s no reason for me to give up. So, all in all, I just feel like it’s going to get better eventually.
For this brand, you said you wanted to bring something to the world? What is it that you want to bring?
Let’s say I’m a customer, and I see this brand. I’m not going to be enlightened by buying a scarf. If you look at my pieces, you’ll just be reminded that, “oh, there is such a thing.” Just like you see a yoga center, you might remember, “oh, that’s where people meditate.” So just to remind people that these ideas are there. That’s one thing. But then, this doesn’t just apply to business, but also to being a human being.
Now, whenever I come across anybody, I just have to remember I stand for Jacqueline Shiu. I stand for myself, I stand for my brand. So I don’t want to do shitty things and ruin my brand and ruin my reputation as a human being. I think if everyone does that, then it’s good. Right? What was your question?
What do you want to bring to people?
I mean, it depends how people like my brand. Some people buy one scarf. And that’s it. Some people are so in love, they end up buying my paintings. And maybe if I have a biography, they read it. So maybe in that sense, I can share a little more. I mean, a lot of the ideas that I’m sharing, they’re not original. It’s a compilation of other ideas that I’ve learnt. So I’m just a source of dissemination just like everyone else is in this world. So it’s just how far and wide you broadcast pre-existing ideas through your own kind of understanding.
Cool. Thank you.
All photos and videos from Jacqueline Shiu.
Date of chat: Tuesday, 23 February 2021 at Jacqueline’s studio.
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