The WoW Women series is back! Many of you have told me how much you’ve enjoyed reading my interviews with extraordinary women who inspire us, who blaze the trail and set examples for other women, and who remind us to dream, to live, to be. Whether it’s a career advice or a style tip, there is always something to be learned from women who dare to step out of their comfort zones and into the unknown; women who dare to fail, to fall, to pick themselves up and try until they triumph. Well, I’ve enjoyed writing these stories, too. In fact, it has been such a privilege and pleasure chatting with — and, on a few lucky occasions, meeting — women by whom I’m personally inspired. There’s no better time than now, as we celebrate Singapore’s big 50 this month, to re-launch this meaningful (and frankly, quite awesome) series, simply because there are more WoW Women doing great things on our little island than ever before. It’s time to stand up for Singapore — and her league of extraordinary women. Wrapping up this #SG50 series (yes, already) is none other than Lum May Yee.
It was 1997, and she was the badass gal pal you wish you had — or perhaps identified with in your rebellious adolescence? — from 12 Storeys. Remember that slicked-back pixie crop and green bandeau top you coveted like crazy? Oh, memories!
Three years later, every girl I knew wanted, secretly or otherwise, to be May Yee’s Shakespeare-spouting mean girl “Audrey Chan” in Chicken Rice War. She was too cool. And when she rolls her eyes? Goosebumps! No one does it better, not even Cher Horowitz, I’m afraid. (But I was pretty sure I had perfected the look. It
is was my Blue Steel.)
All that seems like another life now, doesn’t it? For May Yee, it certainly is. Modelling and acting, she says, are all about preparing yourself for different roles. When I met her two weeks ago for our photo shoot, it was obvious that the mother of all roles to her now is that of a mother to her two boys. As many proud
JUST DO IT.
LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR
That morning, we meet at Tangs because the stylish mum needed to tend to her other baby — bycanary. Yes, ICYMI, she is now a businesswoman, too — has been for a number of years now actually.
Shortly after she joined her husband’s family business, The Canary Diamond Co, in 2008, she quickly learned the ropes of running a business, bringing in MCL by Matthew Campbell Laurenza from New York and opened its first flagship boutique in Singapore.
Soon afterwards, she launched bycanary,
For the shoot, May Yee is casually clad in a white camisole, impeccably tucked into a black, perforated knee-length skirt. A denim jacket and her picks of necklaces, cuffs and rings from the bycanary display case on Level 2 complete her effortlessly chic look. She wears little make-up (“because I run around with the kids a lot.”), but a bright lip colour tends to make her feel happy and look less tired. And that’s really all this hot mama needs. At 42 (if you can believe it) and two kids later, her skin is flawless, and she doesn’t look like she’s aged a day since the Chicken Rice War.
I’ll admit it was a tad surreal. Unlike the characters she’s played, there was nary a modicum of badassery or mean-girlness to be discerned. No eye-rolling either — not until the camera and her full model mode were on anyway. In person, Lum May Yee is easy-going, jovial, charming and, put plainly, super nice.
Her modelling days may be behind her now, but I think as she shuttles between the playground and her career, May Yee is a bigger role model than she knows. That’s more than I can say for some of our other girl crushes.
MY: Running your own business means having to do everything yourself from sourcing to hiring, budgeting to shop rentals, and sales and marketing to financing… You have to be hands-on. Thankfully, I have my husband and in-laws to guide me when I was setting up the business.
Modelling and acting were all about preparing yourself for a certain role. The hours were long but sometimes, it was a lot of fun. I gained self-confidence through modelling, hosting and acting, and I learned how to get along with people from all walks of life.
Travelling regularly for work also meant that I was constantly exposed to new ideas, people and environments.
What kind of challenges and tough decisions do you have to deal with at work?
MY: I realised that it’s not easy to find good, reliable retail staff in Singapore… But over the years, we’ve managed to find a few really good employees who are still with me today. How to attract more people to our brands — like Kelly Wearstler from LA, John Hardy from Bali and Darsala from France — is another challenge. Consumers have so many more choices these days with online shopping. The retail business hasn’t been an easy road. To survive, we must adapt to the ever-changing consumer taste
with our products and marketing efforts.
How do you strike a balance and divide your time between motherhood and your career?
MY: I have a four-year-old boy and a nine-month-old baby. With the new baby, I had to choose between work and the kids. I didn’t want to hire another domestic helper because I like my privacy. But that means I have to be at home to take care of them. So I decided to take a year off from being at the office and to work from home instead. I check emails and call the staff and retail outlets when the baby naps and when my older son is at school. It is challenging at times especially when one of them falls sick and needs your attention round the clock.
LIFE IS A JOURNEY OF EXPERIENCES AND CHOICES THAT YOU MAKE, AND I AM IN A VERY GOOD PLACE IN MY LIFE.
What’s a typical day for you like these days?
MY: My day starts with taking my older son to school, followed by a quick grocery run, if necessary, then back home to check my emails quickly before I feed, bathe and put my baby down for a nap. After that, I prepare lunch for my son, drop it off at school and pick him up at 3pm. Three times a week, I visit the shops when my mother comes to visit. Afternoons are spent with the kids — I take them to classes, we draw, go for walks, swim, go to the playground, et cetera. Dinner service is the craziest with feeding and baths — and sometimes a meltdown from fatigue. If I’m lucky, they finally go to bed, and all is quiet by 9pm.
Power to the working mum! What do you do to unwind?
MY: It’s definitely not easy taking care of two kids, a household and a business. You learn to juggle and do what is most important for the day. I try to exercise a few times a week and have a glass of wine to unwind when the kids are asleep. This is also when I catch up on Whatsapp with friends and read the news.
Do you have a go-to mantra for times when things are not going your way?
MY: I always try and stay positive and find a quick solution to the problem instead of complaining about it.
I can’t believe you’re 42! You look amazing. What’s your secret?
MY: Thank you for that kind compliment. I don’t really have a secret because I’m actually pretty fuss-free when it comes to skincare. But I do make sure I cleanse (with Argan oils) and moisturise (from the Sisleÿa‘s range) daily to keep my skin soft and hydrated. Applying a good SPF50 sunblock and wearing hats are essential for me to protect the skin from further pigmentation. Facials, body scrubs and massages are also a must on a quarterly basis. I run around with the kids a lot, so I don’t use very much make-up, but a bright lipstick always makes me feel happy and less tired! My favourite lipsticks are from NARS.
What’s your state of mind and being like after 40? Are you happy with your accomplishments at work and in life?
MY: Life is a journey of experiences and choices that you make, and I am in a very good place in my life. I have two amazing boys who make me smile and strife to be a better person every day, and I am grateful to have this time with them. They really do grow so quickly, and I love watching them cross each milestone. I have a very supportive husband, who encouraged me to take a year off to work from home so I can focus on the kids.
As for work, I am still managing the brands of jewellery that we carry, and I’m always looking out for new and interesting brands, but I’m taking a break from designing until I can find more time for it.
Who are the women you look up to in life and in business?
MY: I admire my mother-in-law who is a savvy, intelligent, kind and generous businesswoman. She is sincere and engaging to her customers, and she’s a perfectionist at work. She has helped my father-in-law with the business for over 30 years, working six-day weeks while she took care of her sons. I am also inspired by women who dare to give up a stable but less exciting job to do something that they really love. To me, that’s what life should be about.
What advice do you have for women who want to make a career switch, to pursue their dreams, or start their own businesses?
MY: Just do it. Life is too short to live with “what if’s”. Choosing how to live and deciding your own destiny are what make a difference in a person’s life.
bycanary is located at Tangs (Level 2). MCL by Matthew Campbell Laurenza is at Paragon #02-K2.