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S’porean entrepreneur who worked in China for 4 years said she had to grow up quickly

She also found the Chinese to be a lot more driven than Singaporeans.

Kayla Wong | August 24, 03:09 pm

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Carmen Low, a Singaporean, was just 16 years old when she visited Shanghai, China.

The trip was with her parents on a package tour, but so awestruck was she with the place that she left with a newfound conviction to return to work in China.

Blown away by China when she first visited

Speaking to Mothership, the council member of the Singapore’s 15th National Youth Council said: “When I first stepped onto Nanjing West Road in Shanghai, I was taken aback by all the bright lights, Shanghai art deco architecture and the magnitude of China.”

“There was a buzz and an energy in the air that I’ve never experienced anywhere else in the world.”

Photo by Andreas Kind on Unsplash

It was right there and then that she set her mind on finding a job in China after she graduated from university.

Life alone away from home

Several years later, when she was 22, Low finally got what she wanted.

She found herself back in Shanghai as a young executive working for Warner Bros.

She remembers having to look for an apartment all by herself.

As she did not have a huge budget, she ended up renting an old walk-up apartment that was very different from what she was used to in Singapore.

Life alone in a foreign land is not always easy.

While she was using Mandarin trying to figure everything out by herself, with no friends to rely on, Low said she questioned her decision at that point in time.

And the fact that many of her peers could not understand what she was going through did not help — they were still studying back in Singapore, or traveling elsewhere in the world.

Friends helped her settle in

Fortunately, she found her place quickly among a group of like-minded people, both expats like herself, and locals.

“I’ve been blessed with great friends who really looked after one another,” she said. “I got over the initial panic I felt and started to enjoy my time in China.”

Low with her friends in Tibet. (Photo courtesy of Low)

Many years later, she was even invited by her Chinese friend to be her maid of honour when she got married.

Photo courtesy of Carmen Low

“These are friendships that can never be replaced as they really took good care of me when I was in a foreign land,” she said.

China is a land full of possibilities

After working in Shanghai for almost four years — she later worked for global communications firm Edelman — Low returned home to Singapore and founded a number of startups together with her business partners.

These startups include Getai Group, a creative arts curation agency, and Afterglow, a farm-to-table restaurant that specialises in raw, vegetarian food.

Low is now in her early 30s.

But Low said she would not have become an entrepreneur if not for her experience in China.

China is a land full of possibilities, she said.

“Working in China allowed me to see that nothing is impossible. It forced me to grow up in a very short amount of time,” she added.

“The country gave me the courage to do things that I never even dared to dream of had I never ventured out of Singapore.”

Low’s parents have been extremely supportive of her decision to live in China, even though she is the only child. Her family has ran a traditional Chinese medicine business for four generations. (Photo courtesy of Low)

Anything is possible if you put in the hard work

And unlike Singapore, where there is “always a certain road map for career progression”, anything can happen in China as long as you “have faith and put in the hard work”, Low said.

“In China, it is not so much about your experience but your capability in getting things done.”

She recounted how a good friend of hers started off working as a personal assistant to a director, but later got promoted to director of a whole department within a few years.

Working in China has also forced Low to mature quickly and take ownership of her work.

This is because projects are always on a bigger scale than what can be experienced in Singapore, she explained.

Her time in China has also helped her become a more “all-rounded person” who does not give in to problems easily, a trait that has honed her business acumen.

She said: “With a country that huge, you need to learn how to lead and serve, and to be assertive yet meek at the same time.”

China is often misunderstood

Having worked in both Singapore and China, Low is well-placed to straddle both worlds, and understand China from a Singaporean perspective.

Asked what she thinks is the biggest misconception of China among Singaporeans these days, Low said most Singaporeans think that China is “still quite backward and is not very modern or clean”.

“China is a very big country, and some cities such as Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai are comparable to Singapore,” she said.

In fact, she finds it more expensive to dine out in Shanghai than in Singapore at times — something that might be hard for some to wrap their heads around.

Chinese are a lot more driven

While Singaporeans have their own sought-after qualities, such as bilingualism, Low found the Chinese to be a lot more driven.

She said: “The Chinese are able to make an opportunity out of anything and I hope to see our younger Singaporeans have that spirit, courage, and the hunger to learn new things and take up new opportunities globally.”

And as more young Chinese become bilingual, Singaporeans might find themselves losing the advantage they had just a decade ago.

This is why Low hopes that young Singaporeans can learn about “hunger” from the Chinese.

“I hope to see our younger Singaporeans have that spirit of courage and the hunger to learn new things, and not be hesitant to take up new opportunities globally.”

As for Singaporeans who hold prejudices towards the country due to a lack of understanding, Low encourages them to head to the country first with an “open mind”, and to take a look for themselves before making their own judgement.

Cultural literacy enables Singaporeans to be a connecting bridge

Low is currently planning to expand some of her businesses into China.

If all goes well, she might find herself back in the country that first captured her imagination all those years ago.

And if anything, her experiences in China have taught her to “never say never”.

Low also revealed that her ability to speak both English and Mandarin, as well as her sensitivities to both western and eastern cultures, have helped her take a chance on China in the first place.

And this is the most valuable asset that Singaporeans have.

“I hope Singaporeans can leverage on our unique position as a bridge and this is something that our Chinese friends value about us as well.”

Historian Wang Gungwu’s take on ‘Chinese identity & loyalty in S’pore’ is worth reading

Top image by Carmen Low

About Kayla Wong

Kayla's dog runs her life.

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