Tsai Yen-ping (蔡燕萍) is a feminist who does not advocate more power, freedom or equal social status for Taiwanese women.
Rather, the legendary skincare queen has inspired a legion of young women to boost their self-esteem and financial independence in a culture that for millennia has preferred sons.
Her Natural Beauty (NB) cosmetics and skincare empire, which she began building in the early 1970s, has helped improve the lives of tens of thousands of girls and young women who had been deprived of a chance of higher education as Taiwan was changing from a rural to a modern economy.
Her network of beauty schools and spas across Taiwan and China, based on products she has developed through self-study of biochemistry and skin care needs, provide education and employment for thousands of women.
Last year, according to a company spokesperson, NB's revenues totaled NT$1.6 billion, 62 percent from China and 37 percent from Taiwan.
A true pioneer of the beauty industry in Taiwan, Tsai was the first beautician here to dispense advice, through newspaper columns and appearances on radio and television, on skincare and make-up techniques at a time when ignorance of cosmetics was widespread, most products were imported and were considered a luxury.
There was no one in Taiwan in those days from whom she could learn, Tsai said in a recent interview, describing herself as having been "a victim of the inappropriate use of makeup due to my ignorance in the right ways to take care of my face."
So she set about studying everything she could, having materials translated from English and Japanese, traveling to beauty schools in the US, Britain and Japan to learn all she could about skin care.
"To help other women avoid what I went through was one incentive prompting me to enter the beauty business," said Tsai.
The line she came up with to promote her products — "To be natural is beautiful" — has entered the local lexicon. And NB skincare products, which boast of all-natural ingredients developed with advanced biotechnology to specifically suit Asian skin, are the leading local brand in Taiwan.
NB's product line of around 1,100 items has also become one of the best-selling brands in China.
A walking advertisement for her own products, Tsai wears little makeup and says she does not believe in plastic surgery.
"My life tells how a young girl from a poor family without high education has strived to survive and thrive against all odds," Tsai said.
"The lesson here is, there is no need to mourn or feel shameful for being poor. Poverty instead could serve as a catalyst, driving you forward, and setbacks make you stronger."
Tsai was born in central Changhua county in 1947, the year her father's trading business collapsed amid economic and political turmoil.
She and her six siblings helped their mother make straw hats, chicken-feather dusters and other items at home to support the family. Tsai still remembers the days they scavenged for grain and sweet potatoes left in the fields during harvests.
In 1972, after moving to Taipei, Tsai launched her cosmetics business with her husband, who died a few years later while on a business trip to Malaysia.
"When I was young, most families were poor and most girls were deprived of the opportunity to have an education. They were always the second-class members of their homes, even after they married. My business offered them a chance to work with dignity, without jeopardizing their family lives, in a respected profession," she said.
The NB beauty salon franchise mushroomed over the next quarter of a century with some 1,500 outlets across the island at its peak, served by thousands of beauticians trained by Tsai, some in coordination with Tamkang University in Taipei.
In 1989, Tsai remarried and her husband became senior manager of the NB international group, which now also runs a listed biotechnology company in Hong Kong.
As the NB facial franchise and product sales began to slow in Taiwan in the early 1990s amid regional economic troubles and as more health-conscious women shifted to plush spas and massage parlors, Tsai modified her business strategies and diversified her investments.
"I encouraged the facial salons to merge or upgrade into spas, and I also accelerated research and development in NB products to serve a more demanding clientele."
In 1992, she also started investing in China, where, she says, "the cultural background, social structure and market conditions were just like Taiwan when I first started my career."
Now Tsai runs a chain of more than 2,000 deluxe spas employing tens of thousands of young women across China.
"I have to cope with market trends and changing consumer behavior," she said of her evolving business strategy.
"Besides, in today's more affluent society, fewer young women are now willing to work at facial salons as they consider the job boring."
At NB headquarters in Shanghai, Tsai continues her role in product development and promotion, and coordination of education programs while her husband takes care of administration and operations with the help of her son and daughter from her first marriage.
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