The offspring of the rich and famous don’t tend to have the best reputations. But not Sham Yuet, who’s more your girl-next-door, studying hard and spending time with family. In our cover story this March, she opens up about life in the limelight, her supportive parents, career aspirations and doing what she does best — being her cheerful self.
In the public eye, Sham has lived a pretty glamorous, if slightly sheltered life. The eldest daughter of one of Hong Kong’s most well-known and powerful couples – Chingmy Yau, ’90s screen siren and the most sought-after actress of the decade, and fashion mogul Sham Kar-Wai – the 19-year-old is the spitting image of her mother and stepping out on her own. She made her grand entrance at the 2019 Le Bal Les Débutantes, the annual, by-invitation-only event in Paris that launches 20 of the world’s most promising and prestigious young women into high society. Earlier that year she walked her first runway show in London, wearing Bapy for Izzue under I.T. Group. It’s little wonder that all eyes are on Sham.
Sham is good-natured and endearing, and though she appears reserved at first and is a self-proclaimed introvert, she’s quick to warm up, opening up beatifically about her struggles and her career aspirations with an amiable smile. And despite her famous parents, the glamorous parties she’s attended and the runways she’s walked, when she arrives she tells me – chuckling a little sheepishly – that she’s nervous about the interview.
“Walking the runway was nerve-wracking, to be honest,” she says of the experience. “We only got one practice and I’ve never done this before. I’ll tell you a funny story. The first time I did the practice I was walking sideways. I wasn’t walking in a straight line. So, the lady was like, ‘OK, I’ll give you a tip. Just look at the ceiling. There’s a straight line on the ceiling.’ So, when I did the walk the second time – the official time – that’s what I did.
“If you look at the pictures, I’m like this,” she says, with her eyes rolled up and her lips ajar. “People were saying, ‘Oh my God, I love your expression. You look so blank.’ To be honest, I was just so focussed on following the line.”
The Le Bal experience, on the other hand, was a lot of fun. “I was so happy to meet different girls from all over the world. I made a lot of new friends and we actually still keep in touch, which I think is amazing. I wore haute couture for the first time and the dress was beautiful,” she says.
“At the ball, we helped charities and raised money for the Seleni Institute, which focuses on supporting the mental health of teenage mothers, and Enfants d’Asie, which promotes education for girls in Southeast Asia,” she recalls. “I thought it was super important because obviously we’re these 20 girls and we’re all there to help, like girls helping other girls.”
The debutante ball was also where she met a young woman who’s now one of her closest friends, Princess Carolina di Borbone, heiress to the house of Bourbon- Two Sicilies. Both of them have younger sisters, and the pair immediately clicked, exchanging school stories. Princess Carolina and her sister were both home- schooled, and Sham, though educated more traditionally, had a school life that was beyond normal.
Paparazzi dogged most of her high-school years so Sham grew up pretty much in the limelight, whether she asked for it or not. “I’d dread the end of school,” she tells me. “Because back in grade school, there’d be paparazzi waiting outside. These random men with big cameras, just waiting for me. That was really annoying. I hated it, like, I just wanted to be a regular kid.”
Her parents got her a bodyguard, but it didn’t help. “That just made me stand out. I had to tell them, ‘You need to stand a bit further away from me, pretend you don’t know me.’ I was bullied a little, to be very honest. The first two years of middle school, I definitely felt that I was different. I had two friends whom I was really close to, and I just stuck with them. But other people would be a bit nasty and say bad things about my family. I actually ended up moving schools.”
Sham is now in her second year of college in Canada, studying Japanese and psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She came back last year when her grandfather fell sick and has been stuck in Hong Kong ever since because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was perhaps a blessing in disguise for Sham, who found online learning to be much more in her comfort zone. “I’m actually quite introverted, but I know some friends really miss the college experience and want to go back,” she says.
“But going to college was actually really scary for me,” she confides. “I’m introverted, so it was hard to make friends, and I didn’t know that people knew me, even there. So it made it harder to make friends. Canada has a huge Asian population, but I didn’t expect people to know me there. So when they did, it made things pretty awkward.”
It was like high school all over again. “There were rumours spreading,” she says. “Or people coming up to me asking to be best friends and then asking me questions about my family. That always made me uncomfortable.”
For Sham is fiercely protective of her family, as they’ve been to her. Her sister is her best friend, and her mother is her best teacher. Busy as both her parents are, her father would always be home for dinner. During our cover shoot with Sham, her mother paid her a surprise visit at the studio, stepping in to make adjustments to her daughter’s hair and make-up every now and then.
“My priority has always been my family,” says Sham, “it always comes first. After my grandpa passed away last year in 2020, I had more of a sense of time, that it’s really special. So now, my priority is spending that time with my family. Before that, I’d say I was a family person, but now, because I realise that time with them is limited, it’s more about spending time with them. I spend more time with my grandma, for example. Or my sister. I know in the future she might have to go back to boarding school in England, so I’m really treasuring this time I’m spending with her.”
Her sisters, Sham Yat and Sham Sing, are 15 and nine respectively. “My youngest sister is really into gaming right now,” Sham says with a little shake of her head. “But my other sister, she’s even more interested in fashion than I am. I think she might be planning to study that. That’s her forte and I’m so impressed by her. She’s so young and she already has so many ideas.
“We raid each other’s closets all the time. It’s like a sister thing,” she continues. “I like styling stuff. I don’t know if I’m good enough to become a designer, but I like putting things together and seeing how everything looks. My sister and I, we talk about fashion all the time. Like, ‘Does this go with this?’ or, ‘What if we add a dash of pink to that?’ I really enjoy doing that with my sister.”
“I don’t know if I’m good enough to become a designer, but I like putting things together and seeing how everything looks. My sister and I, we talk about fashion all the time”Sham Yuet
Sham won’t say if she’ll become a stylist in the future, though, preferring to keep her options open. She likes fashion, but also has an insatiable curiosity for learning, languages especially. She’s fluent in Korean and is studying Japanese in college. She’s also taking psychology, saying that she wants to find out how the human brain works.
“I picked psychology, because I wanted to learn more about the human brain,” she explains. “I remember this study about babies. They used a good puppet and a bad puppet to act out some scenarios and afterwards they gave the two puppets to the babies to see which one they’d pick, and they picked the good one. So when people have this big debate about whether people are born evil or whether good people turn evil, this experiment showed that people are inherently good. That was interesting for me and it made me want to help children more, because children are our future,” she says.
Sham is not just saying this – she currently sponsors a child in Zambia and hopes to meet him one day. “He writes to me, asking, ‘How are you? How’s the Covid situation? We’re completely fine.’ And he’s really sweet, he says, ‘Thank you for being part of my family.’
“My mom taught me to always give back,” she tells me. “We’ve been taken to a lot of places in the world and I got to see a lot of different things. I’m very grateful for everything that I have and I love giving back. I hope to do more of that when I’m able to myself.”
When she was younger, though, one of her biggest aspirations was to become a performer in Korea. “When I was 13, I was really in love with K-pop – Girls’ Generation, EXO, I was their biggest fan ever. I wanted to go to Korea to learn singing and dancing,” she says. “But then my parents taught me to prioritise education. They said, ‘At least get to university first so you can create different paths for yourself.’ If I’d gone to Korea at 13, then becoming a singer or a dancer would have been the only path that I could take. But if I prioritise education, then I can slowly figure out what I want to do.”
She took her parents’ advice to heart. She hasn’t exactly figured out what she wanted to do with her life yet, but at 19 the possibilities are endless. “I really like singing and dancing, so that’s still a possible career path. And fashion as well – I really like styling my own clothes. I also hope to help children and I like volunteer work. So maybe I want to do something along all those lines,” she muses.
“To be honest, the best career advice I’ve been given is that I’m not just my career, because as a perfectionist, I like to do everything, like I try my best at all times,” she says. “And so, the best advice was actually that my career doesn’t define me. I have other identities as well. I’m a daughter, I’m a granddaughter, I’m a sister and a friend. I’m a student and I’m a learner. I’ve been kind of stressed out about what I should do, but the best advice is just to do you. And remember the other parts of yourself and not to limit yourself.”
For now, there’s no rush to define Sham as anything other than that she is wholly herself, young, carefree, and happy. Her parents have brought her up to embrace herself and try new things and that’s exactly what Sham is setting out to do. She still has some years left in university and that’s what she plans to focus on.
“I really like this quote from Audrey Hepburn,” says Sham, reaffirming the philosophy she lives by. “She’s one of my idols and inspirations. She loved children and she was a style icon, so I really look up to her. She said, ‘Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I’m possible.’
“Oh, and there’s another one: ‘Let your smile change the world, don’t let the world change your smile.’ That’s a good one too.”
Art direction / Sepfry Ng
Photography / Karl Lam
Stylist / Daniel Cheung
Make-up / San Chan
Hair / Winky Wong @ The Attic
All outfits / Ralph Lauren
Jewellery / Fred