Rebecca Eu, the youngest child and only daughter of Eu Yan Sang’s non-executive chairman Richard Eu, is ready to spread her wings and leave the nest. She tells Options about her move to the Philippines to focus on her social enterprise project, Mei’s Own

SINGAPORE (May 27): At just 25 and fresh out of school, Rebecca Eu is preparing to embark on the next stage of her life’s journey. This July, she intends to move alone to Manila — a city notably ranked 55th out of 60 of the world’s safest cities, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Safe Cities Index.

Sponsored by Japanese IT multinational NEC Corp, the Safe Cities Index assesses major cities globally across several sectors, including digital, health, infrastructure and personal security. For the 2017 edition of the index, Manila scored the lowest in terms of digital and infrastructure security. The capital did not make an appearance on the EIU’s latest index in 2018, nor did any other Philippine city. 

Yet, Eu considers the city her “second home”, where she is determined to steer her years-long social enterprise project, Mei’s Own, to fruition. The project was originally launched as Love, Mei in 2016 with a focus on retailing handmade apparel and accessories. All net proceeds went directly to residents of a halfway house run by Philippine-based non-profit Visayan Forum Foundation, which focuses on providing services to sex-trafficking victims, especially women and children. This year, Love, Mei underwent a rebranding and was relaunched as Mei’s Own, a lifestyle company that produces homeware with artisans in the Philippines.

Shawl collared poncho, denim shirt with beaded cuffs, wide-legged trousers — by Brunello Cucinelli. Black and white diamond earrings, black and white diamond ring, Swirl diamond ring — by Mouwad. Golden Bridge Round 39 timepiece in rose gold by Corum. Heels, model’s own.

Baby of the family

Eu says the name of Love, Mei was initially inspired by how she signed off on the letters she wrote to her family members whenever they were apart. With her being the youngest sibling and only daughter in a family of six, the term mei mei, or younger sister in Mandarin, has always been exclusively reserved for Eu.

“Love, Mei was based on my childhood, while Mei’s Own is a bit more grown-up. The new name is a play on the word ‘maison’, which means ‘house’ in French. ‘Own’ refers to ownership, so it’s about belonging. For the consumer, it’s about having something that tells a beautiful story, not just for your home, but for the women whom I work with, the beneficiaries. It’s about reclaiming what was always yours — and being accountable and responsible for that. I thought of Mei’s Own as Love Mei 2.0 because I wanted to extend the focus to lifestyle and homeware products as well,” she explains.

“Yet, I still wanted to encompass the idea of mei mei, because there’s no word for that in Tagalog, although there is ate (elder sister) and kuya (elder brother). Because I was always a mei mei, and I wanted to bring that culture — not the word or the language, but the culture of being taken care of — to the Philippines with my project.”

Asked what it was like to grow up in a household with three elder brothers, she likens it to “having five parents” fussing over her: “Growing up, I was always told not to dress a certain way, or not to act a certain way, not to go out late and so on. My brothers were a lot stricter in these respects, although my mother on the other hand was very chill. I was always quite responsible. I don’t drink alcohol and never did. So, [my mother] was always happy for me to just hang out with my friends, although my brothers would be the ones who were watching me like hawks.”

Eu, who is single, shares that her siblings — aged 35, 31 and 30 this year — have remained rather protective of her even as adults, which may pose a challenge to her potential beaus.

“During my last relationship, I remember my brother flew back from Hong Kong just to join us for dinner so that he could meet the guy in person. They [my brothers] really care about me a lot, and I’m very grateful for that. Now that we are older, we can have very honest conversations with each other and I like involving them in my life — whether it’s my love life or professional life. So, if you’re not ready to face my brothers [as a suitor or boyfriend], then you probably don’t deserve me,” she laughs.

Growing up Eu

If the last name “Eu” sounds familiar, that is because her illustrious family’s history spans well over a century in Asia. In 1879, her ancestor Eu Kong Pai founded Eu Yan Sang, a household name in the local traditional Chinese medicine industry today. His son, Eu Tong Sen, has a street in Singapore named after him in recognition of his contributions. 

Eu came to understand this only much later. She recounts the day it dawned upon her that her family was no ordinary one: “I had a really strong shock to the system during a school trip when I was in Primary Two or Three. We were on a bus headed to the Chinatown Heritage Centre museum, and [when we arrived at Eu Tong Sen Street] my teacher suddenly called for me to stand up in front of my classmates as she told them that the street was named after my ancestor. I can’t remember what she said exactly, but I remember being singled out for that. Everyone in the bus turned to look at me, yet I obviously had no idea where I was, or who we were talking about.

“My parents have made a pretty strong attempt to raise me in a way that wasn’t entitled. I never really understood how big the family business was. I knew that Eu Yan Sang did traditional Chinese medicine, but I didn’t know what the relation was and I never really asked either. I only saw my dad working very, very hard, but I didn’t know exactly what his job was,” says Eu, whose father Richard Eu spearheaded Eu Yan Sang as CEO for 28 years before he stepped down in 2017. He remains on the company’s board as its non-executive chairman today.

While her eldest brother, Richie, is managing director of the group’s Hong Kong subsidiary Eu Yan Sang Trading, Eu herself says there was never any pressure or expectations for her or her siblings to succeed the family business. 

“We talked about it a lot growing up, but there was never an expectation for any of us to join [Eu Yan Sang]… If we are capable and passionate, the door will be open. But, then again, the business it not just something to be handed over, as we would still have to work for it. I’ve always been interested in working with women and children in developing countries. So, that’s something I would like to focus on for now.”

Peak lapel gilet and silk safari shirt by Brunello Cucinelli; black and white diamond earrings, black and white diamond pendant and yellow and white diamond ring by Mouwad; and Admiral Legend 38 timepiece in steel by Corum

Not victims, but artisans

On why she decided to move away from the fashion retail scene to dabble in homeware with Mei’s Own, she replies: “On the side of the beneficiaries, teaching them how to sew just took too long. We were also wasting a lot of material. Over the years, I’ve learnt a lot about sustainability and waste reduction as I thought about how to prolong the life of the item that I was producing. With that, I thought it would be a good idea to transition to lifestyle products and homeware, and create them utilising the cultural skills in Asia and the Philippines.

“This year, I’m looking forward to training and working with woodcarvers, weavers and ceramic producers. These are all crafts native to the Philippines; I thought Mei’s Own could be a platform to bridge the communities and also remove the labels of ‘struggling’ craftsmen or ‘victims of sex trafficking’ in Asia to simply make everyone an artisan. It’s a bit more empowering that way.”

Eu, who last month completed her three-year Bachelor’s Degree course in Fashion Media and Industries at Lasalle College of the Arts, says she has been polishing her pottery skills at a kiln in Singapore, and plans to pass her knowledge down to beneficiaries of Mei’s Own once she moves to Manila. In the near term, she may also introduce a mentorship system for Singapore-based volunteers to help equip beneficiaries with important life skills and knowledge such as how to write a résumé or what to wear to a job interview.

“I don’t need the money [from those who wish to help my cause]. I need people to spend time with these girls, even if it’s just a monthly Skype call, to offer these girls help or provide advice. I don’t want people to think of them as victims. I try not to use that word. These are young women with a lot of potential, and I want people to see them for that. So, if they are recognised on their own merit and talent [instead of their financial background or past], I think that would really change things for them.”