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77th Street closes down, but founder soldiers on with new aim to spark change

From starting the iconic 77th street to being a champion of social enterprise, our Her World Young Woman Achiever recipient for 2002 Elim Chew is now moving into the world of online video

Ms Chew with the newly released book The Elim Chew Story (Driven By Purpose, Destined For Change), which chronicles her life. The 50-year-old, who hopes to start a chain reaction of change through social media and other initiatives, says: "I have a fundamental wish to impact and change lives. Only when I do something to help is my burden lifted." ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Not too long ago, Elim Chew lost a novel retail and fashion project which was potentially worth $300 million.

It devastated her because she had devoted a few years of her life to the enterprise; she also did not expect to be played out by partners whom she trusted.

"I spent every day thinking about how I could save it. One day, my mother said, 'I'm losing you, I'd rather have you back,'" she says.

It took a Herculean effort but she decided to let go. "I guess I bought back 30 years of my life because if I had taken it on, I would have to work at it for the next 30 years." Was it too exorbitant a price to pay? Ms Chew is unsure. But the decision, she says, has certainly changed her life. It has galvanised her to chart a different course in her life.

The timing is uncanny. Because of high rentals and labour costs, the entrepreneur closed the last of her 77th Street outlets last month. Set up in 1988, the streetwear empire - which made her name and fortune - once boasted 16 shops all over the island as well as a 400,000 sq ft shopping mall in Xidan, Beijing.

"Of course I was sad to let it go. But it's about not fighting what you can't change: rental and manpower. What you can change is what you want to do," says Ms Chew, adding that 77th Street also exited Beijing last year when its 10-year lease was up.

What she has earned from 77th Street is more than enough to have her live out the rest of her life without lifting a finger. But she is not about to spend her days fishing, although it is a new obsession.

"It's the next lap for me," says Ms Chew, who turned 50 a few days ago. There are already several things on her plate. For starters, she and her two elder siblings have gone into the food and beverage business. Within two years, they have set up three restaurants: I'm Kim Korean BBQ and Kokomama cafe, both in The School of the Arts, and GoroGoro Steamboat and Korean Buffet in Orchard Gateway. I'm Kim and GoroGoro both seat more than 200 people, while Kokomama accommodates 70.

There is also a move into disruptive technology with Mr Adrian Ng from app development company Codigo. In September last year, the collaborators launched FastFast, an app which is the courier service equivalent of Uber. A social enterprise champion, she hopes FastFast, which has 1,000 drivers in its stable and another 1,000 on its waiting list, will give the retrenched, the retired and those who cannot make ends meet a chance to earn some extra income. Two months ago, she launched ElimChewTV, her own YouTube channel in which she interviews men and women who are making a positive impact on society through the work they do.

Ms Chew in the store that started it all – her 77th Street outlet on the fourth floor of Far East Plaza – in 1996. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF ELIM CHEW

Through social media and other initiatives, she hopes to start a chain reaction of change, connecting these changemakers with those who can help them, those who will be inspired by them as well as those who will benefit from their efforts. "I want to use social media to create a community of people committed to doing good," says the youngest of three children.

The urge to make a social difference, she says, comes from her parents. Her late father, who ran a dispensary, was a grassroots leader in Tanjong Pagar; her mother, a former singer and hair salon owner, is still heavily involved in charity work, helping underprivileged communities in Tanjong Pinang in Bintan. "A lot of gangsters and ex-prisoners used to go to Dad's office and, because he knew a lot of people, he would connect them and get them jobs as coffee shop assistants and taxi drivers. He also mediated in a lot of fights between gangsters," says Ms Chew, whose father died on her 21st birthday. 

At 16, the former Fairfield Methodist student flew off to London, after her relatives there helped to enrol her in Parliament Hill School. Although her documents were in order, an immigration officer changed her life by saying she had no excuse for studying in a public school and telling her she had three months to look for a fee-paying one. To buy time and to get a one-year study pass, she enrolled in hairdressing school Alan International. She liked it so much that she decided to forget about doing her A levels. One year became three. She took more hairdressing courses and revelled in the punk and post-romantic vibes of London in the 1980s.

Worried that she would become a wild child, her mother turned up one day and unceremoniously dragged the 19-year-old - with follicles dyed in various hues - back to Singapore. At home, she put her skills to good use. After stints in a couple of salons, she set up Elim Emmanuel Hair Beauty and Training Centre in Far East Plaza in 1987.

She started 77th Street a year later. By then, she was firmly plugged into Singapore's fashion and glamour circuit, counting models and celebrities as her clients. "I was partying and getting drunk and throwing up every day. I could drink up to seven tequila shots and put away a few Long Island Teas," she says. "I wanted fame, and to hang out with the who's who. I thought it was the way to get to the top. It was all very surface." 

Things came to a head one morning when she tried to unlatch the door to her home in a drunken stupor. "My mother sat me down and lectured me, 'Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life?'" she recalls. Her mother's words had their intended effect. Ms Chew, who once harboured dreams of becoming a missionary, cleaned up her act, went back to church and paid more attention to her business. In 1994, she sold the salon to concentrate on 77th Street, which had begun to take off in a big way. The shop found a following for its streetwear and punk rock merchandise, usually sourced overseas by elder sister Sulim, whom Ms Chew calls the brains of the business. It helped that they were able to spot trends; they were one of the first to bring in Doc Martens shoes and offer piercings at $6 when others were charging several times more.

Winning the Most Promising Woman Entrepreneur of the Year by the Association of Small And Medium Enterprises in 2001 followed by the Her World Young Woman Achiever and Montblanc Businesswomen Award in 2002 gave Ms Chew a big confidence boost. In 2004, she and her sister decided to break into China with a retail outlet mall concept. It landed them, at least for the first couple of years, in hot water. Not only did their partner take off with their investment, but they also had big problems with the mall management and tenants.

"It was a most trying time. We were in danger of losing everything, even our lives. We were dealing with some unethical people - there was ransom, blackmail," says Ms Chew, adding that they lost "millions". Her sister, who was running the show in China, bore the brunt of it. But they worked really hard and turned it around. In fact, the mall acquired such a hip factor that it was listed in the Insider's Guide to Beijing and the Lonely Planet. "We rented half the mall, and sublet it to almost 400 tenants," says Ms Chew. 

As her business grew, so did her social consciousness and philanthropy. It is, she says, her "burden", a word she uses a lot. "I have a fundamental wish to impact and change lives. Only when I do something to help is my burden lifted," says the bachelorette, who has 12 godchildren.

She has a particularly soft spot for young people and has launched many initiatives to teach the young life skills, hone their entrepreneurial instincts and develop creativity. A former director on the board of *Scape, a hangout for youth, she has launched two editions of My Voice (2004 and 2006) featuring the experiences of young people, written by youth from all walks of life. Proceeds went to various youth development programmes. A Forbes Philanthropy Hero 2010, she helped to found PaTH (Pop and Talent Hub) at VivoCity, a space for individuals from marginalised groups to sell arts and handicrafts, as well as SIP (Social Innovation Park), an incubator for social enterprises.

Ms Chew and her staff at the 77th Street outlet in Bugis Junction taking a wefie with rap star apl.de.ap (middle), who went shopping there in 2014.

She is also well known for giving generously to City Harvest Church, which she has attended for more than 20 years. The church is in the news as six of its leaders were convicted of misappropriating church funds to launch the pop career of founder Kong Hee's wife Ho Yeow Sun. Asked why she has not left the church, she says: "He (Kong Hee) was my pastor and the church has been my family for more than 20 years. What sort of friend or person would I be if I left now? When there's trouble, if I were your friend, I would be there for you and, if you were my friend, I'd want you to be there for me too."

Her refusal to leave, she knows, has invited talk and judgment. "The whole world is judging, you just need to go on the Net. But that's my nature. I don't look at the past, I look at what we can do moving forward. "Yes, I feel that we could have done better in terms of governance and how it is managed. This is something we can do better. In the next lap, we will do better."

The next lap excites Ms Chew, whose life story is chronicled in a book The Elim Chew Story (Driven By Purpose, Destined For Change), released last week by publisher Marshall Cavendish. Her wish, she says, is to lead a purpose-driven life. It explains why she hopes her ElimChewTV project will take off. Unlike the investments in F&B and disruptive technology ventures that come from the family fund, this social media project is funded by fees from her speaking engagements.

After conducting them pro-bono for institutions and corporations for close to two decades, she began charging for her talks a few years ago. The reason? She wants to help kick-start a speaker circuit and culture where local speakers get paid for sharing their experiences. She does an average of three talks a month, charging about $2,000 on average for institutions and between $7,000 and $10,000 for commercial companies. Her TV channel launched in July, she says, allows her to meld several passions including social enterprise and forging change. She has interviewed the likes of principal Margaret Nathen who runs Divinity Kindergarten, which not only teaches but also provides therapy services for kids with special needs.

"I want people to talk about social issues and the solutions and how we can implement them," says Ms Chew, who has invested in a production company called White Square. With her contacts, she hopes to connect investors, mentors and doers. The bubbly woman also wants to spread her change-forging dream to institutions and corporations; in fact, she wants to go global.

"Every country has its issues, its doers and the rich who can fund. I believe everyone can be a changemaker."

For more on this year's winners for Her World Woman of the Year and Young Woman Achiever, head here. Find out more about our past winners at womanoftheyear.herworldplus.com.

A version of this story was originally published in The Sunday Times on September 18, 2016. For more stories like this, head to www.straitstimes.com.

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