We often hear the stories of our immigrant families moving with the little money they had in their pockets. For sisters Chau Lui and Trang Wong, they experienced this reality when they moved to Canada with their family in search of a better life. When their family immigrated to Canada from Vietnam, Chau and Trang watched their parents work two to three jobs at a time to provide for their family.
“I know a lot of people say our families came over here with literally all the money they had in their pocket, whether it was $50 or $100 and really that is the truth,” recalls Chau.
Speaking no English, their parents worked different jobs until they were given the opportunity to train as goldsmiths and later opened their own small jewelry store in the city of St. Albert, Alberta called St. Albert Goldsmith. Now, Chau and Trang are co-owners of this business that has expanded into what we know as Paris Jewellers with the duo growing it from that one small store in St. Albert to 23 stores across Canada.
Below, Chau speaks to The RepresentASIAN Project about growing up with little, learning the value of hard work from her parents and the diversity she hopes her daughters will see in the world as they grow up.
On growing up with little and moving to Canada
I came to Canada when I was two and a half years old and my sister was six months old. My parents immigrated from Vietnam in search of a better life and more opportunities for our family because Canada is such an amazing country. I know a lot of people say our families came over here with literally all the money they had in their pocket whether it was $50 or $100 and really that is the truth. What we saw when we were growing up was their work ethic. They worked really hard and didn’t know how to speak English so they were going to ESL classes [while] working two or three jobs at the same time. They did any job and they were so grateful for any job. I think one of their first jobs was being janitors at the CN Tower and they did it with pride and they did it with pleasure.
We saw [their] work ethic and got to understand really quickly that nothing in life worth having is going to come easily or is going to be free, and that we would have to work for it.
That was a really important lesson that we grew up [with]. Not just hearing about it, but we grew up seeing [it] firsthand, so we’ve taken that sentiment and that belief into what we do now at our company.
On shaping their careers
[While our] parents were going to ESL classes and doing their jobs, they had the opportunity to train as goldsmiths at another jewelry store that is now a competitor. A couple years [later], we had the opportunity to open one small 400-square foot store in Saint Albert, Alberta. That was where we lived at the time, so the store wasn’t fancy. [Our parents] were not speaking full English at the time so they had a Vietnamese-English dictionary that they bought and they translated [what] customers [said] when customers would come in.
[What] fascinated me about jewelry was not the actual pieces itself, but what it represented to a customer when they came in [to look] for a gift to celebrate a moment, and the look on the customer’s face when they would find that perfect piece. It was just something that I became so enamoured with, how jewelry would make someone feel or [how] you could celebrate a moment with a piece that would make the moment last forever.
[After high school], we had close to 10 stores and I started working at the head office.
I didn’t want a title. I didn’t want anything to be given to me so I said, “I’m going to work through every single department and learn every facet of this business before I get a role or a title.”
I did that for two years—everything from reception to shipping to services to special orders to customer care. I did it all because I wanted to have a full knowledge of our business. [I] was at the company for seven to eight years, [taking on] on more responsibilities and started running the company.
On diversity in the industry
I think that we’ve seen a lot of positive growth. You didn’t see as much 10 years ago, but now we’re seeing more cultures and more diversity. I still think we have a long way to go, but every time we do see female, Asian business owners/founders making it happen, I just get inspired and feel so proud of that. [I] can pull personally from the struggles that we went through as a family, trying to create a life and a business in Canada. It wasn’t easy and it doesn’t come without sacrifice and hard work, so it makes me so proud when I hear these success stories.
On being a female founder in the industry
It has been ebbs and flows. I truly feel right now is such a great time for women; our opinions are being heard, our voices are being heard. [It was sometimes] a struggle, having meetings and getting the right connections because we were female [and having] to hustle a little bit harder. Right now, [our] company is over 90 per cent women. I have two daughters and my sister has three kids with two of them daughters, [so] we want to create a business world and environment where female voices are heard and are respected and there’s substance to it. I do feel like we’ve come a long way in the past 10 years.
“Every time we do see female, Asian business owners/founders making it happen, I just get inspired and feel so proud of that…I want to hear so many more success stories of Asian owners and founders. I want to see more collaboration and more support for one another.”
On the importance of Asian representation and its influence on her parenting
Now more than ever, my husband and I have reflected on how we want our children to see the world. Sometimes [we] just assume because we are Asian and because we live in this household that they know. What we’ve learned this year is more communication; speaking and sharing with them more and allowing them to understand what’s happening in the world. As parents we try to shelter them and we try to take on that burden.
[This quote] always sticks with me: “Be curious, not furious.” I think that when someone says or does something that we feel is not aligned or not right, our first tendency is at first to get reactive or get mad. So before I get upset, I ask the questions: tell me why you feel this way, tell me why you did that, help me understand why….and sometimes you can get to an understanding. Sometimes it is miscommunication or lack of understanding or education and you can find a better way to form an understanding with somebody. I think that’s a huge lesson for me as I’ve gotten more experience. I try to ask more questions before I jump to any conclusions. I would want someone to do the same for me too.
I want to see so much more diversity. I want to hear so many more success stories of Asian owners and founders. I want to see more collaboration and more support for one another. One of my favourite sayings is “A candle loses nothing when lighting another candle” and I think that is so true. If we can light up the person to our left and to our right and they can do the same, our community shines so much brighter.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.