"People say the bond between a mother and daughter should be similar to that of best friends. I don’t believe in that. A child needs a parent, a role model, and it’s important to set healthy boundaries. The mother-daughter relationship should rest on the pillars of love, trust and — as the child grows older — mutual respect,” professes Datuk Anne Eu, chairman of Eu Yan Sang Malaysia and a board member of Berjaya Corp Bhd (BCorp), when we meet at the penthouse of Berjaya Times Square Hotel, Kuala Lumpur.
Seated within earshot, filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu nods in agreement. “My mother and I are very different people but, despite that, she has always had my back. Unlike some who gush ‘my mum is my best friend’, ours is not a lovey-dovey relationship because we are polar opposites,” she says, sharing a running joke in the family about how the two constantly butted heads because mum was born in the Year of the Goat following the Chinese calendar and she is an Ox through and through.
Anne is the lady boss of Eu Yan Sang; she took over the reins of the leading traditional Chinese medicine health and wellness company after her husband Joseph William Yee Eu, passed away in 2007. The exemplary corporate leader and avid humanitarian was inducted into the all-women board of BCorp as its independent non-executive director in 2021.
A healthy and powerful mother-daughter relationship always allows for closeness and togetherness while giving each other the independence and space. “I acknowledge my daughter Amanda as an individual. We recognise and respect the boundaries between us and we have made very reasonable commitments to each other,” Anne says sagely.
“Amanda is my contact person for ‘in case of emergency’,” she laughs, explaining that Amanda is the only one of her four children who is based in Malaysia. The rest are married and have settled down in Australia, London and Singapore. She is blessed with eight grandchildren, and all of them got together recently for the first time after the lockdowns of Covid-19 to celebrate her birthday in Kuala Lumpur, in what she says is “my happiest one week and the best gift I could ever ask for”.
“[Amanda is] closest to me right now. I will always be there for her, to give advice or lend an ear when she needs someone. I know she will do the same for me.” And she certainly did during the pandemic, when Anne was hospitalised because of a medical issue. This daughter was the only person who could be with her while she received the necessary treatment.
“I always say Amanda is a rebel with a cause. She stands up for what she believes in.” She is also considerate, mum says. When her father was still alive, Amanda told him she wanted to be a doctor — specifically a veterinarian.
“I know she has loved the arts and films since her early teens and she [wanted to be a doctor] only to please her father. But when my husband passed away, she told me she would like to further her studies in graphic design at Central Saint Martins [at the University of the Arts London]. She was already doing a number of short movies then and, naturally, went on to do her master’s at London Film School.”
While other Asian parents would have flipped, Anne was calm and encouraged Amanda to pursue her heart’s desire. “As long as she’s happy doing whatever she’s passionate about, that’s most important. I will support her all the way.”
Amanda has been busy, and understandably so. She is the first Malaysian female filmmaker invited to the Cannes Film Festival 2023 (May 16 to 27) as her feature film Tiger Stripes has been selected for a showing during the critics’ week and is in the running for the Camera d’Or prize. The excitement among Malaysians is palpable.
“It’s a tad overwhelming but I am, of course, very happy. My producers and I have been working on this project for many years. It’s kind of a big, emotional release as well and an honour to see the film launched on such a prestigious platform. We couldn’t have imagined anything better,” Amanda says of the surreal experience of having her work on the world stage. She cannot wait for everyone to see it.
Tiger Stripes is about a 12-year-old girl who goes through puberty and the bodily changes terrify her so much that she starts fearing her body and who she has become. “Essentially, it is a story about a young girl who tries to embrace the very thing she fears and learns to empower herself to become a proud, strong young woman.” The Malay horror film stars newcomer Zafreen Zairizal and veteran actors Shaheizy Sam and Fatimah Abu Bakar, among others.
“I’m inspired by the stories around us. Honestly, moving back to Malaysia some 10 years ago was when I really found my voice and identity as a Malaysian woman. I felt compelled to make these films and to champion stories about girls and young women,” she muses.
The first film she made upon her return from London was Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu, which was shortlisted for best short film, feature category, at the Venice Film Festival in 2017. “I invited my mum to come with me and I just loved sharing the important moment in my career with her. She is always the first person I call when I enter festivals and, both times, she did not know what it meant,” she intoned with a chuckle.
Amanda, who loves the whole process of moviemaking and the challenges that come with it, thrives on the adrenaline rush. “The hours are long and sleep is short. During the pandemic, when we could finally shoot, crew members were going into quarantine one after another. Sometimes, certain decisions have to be made on the spot and instinctively. Somehow, that’s the reason I love working in production. There’s nothing like having an entire team support your vision,” she says.
Besides filmmaking, Amanda also played the drums in a band. “She has completed her Grade 8 in piano. Shall we take your photo here?” Anne chimes in, pointing at the petit grand in a corner of the room. Amanda protests, calling it “cheesy”, and the scene feels like a throwback to the times when teenage angst was the order of the day.
Leaving the nest
There are many warm memories that colour their lives, but the one that will always hold a special place in Anne’s heart is that of Amanda starting school at the all-girls Wycombe Abbey in the UK at the age of 11.
“Imagine being sent to boarding school at such a young age and your parents are thousands of miles away. But my youngest child is astounding! The day I left her at school, she didn’t cry. She just said, ‘Goodbye, mum. Don’t worry about me; I will be okay’. I was the one flooding the airport with my tears,” she remembers sentimentally.
“My favourite memories are of visits during her semester breaks. In Malaysia, we are blessed with easy access to drivers and household help. In the UK, it was just me and Amanda at our apartment.” This is where mother and daughter bonded, during the walks to the supermarket to shop for necessities and while cooking up a storm in the kitchen and picking up after each other.
“This was a really wonderful, quality bonding time for us. I always relive those beautiful memories because that time she was just an innocent young thing,” Anne says as her eyes mist over. The saying: “Treasure your children while they are still young; they grow up fast” certainly rings true.
Amanda speaks of her mother with equal fondness, remembering how lovely it was every time mum came to London. “I remember begging her to let me skip school and she actually called up the house master and informed her that I was unwell. I can still vividly recall how happy that made me feel and I knew she would always have my back.”
She also admits to being rebellious throughout her teenage years. “I am definitely a rule-breaker and I march to the beat of my own drum. It must have been really hard for mum and I can only see it now that I’m older. I have always expressed myself very differently and, perhaps, that’s what led me into art and film.”
Anne says her days growing up were so different from those of her children. “I was born into a middle-income family. My father worked as a theatre manager for Shaw Brothers and I got to watch a lot of movies for free when there were empty seats in the hall.” From a young age, Anne was taught that money was not everything and most important of all was family.
“My earliest memory as a child, because my parents were Buddhists, is going to a temple in Jalan Sultan just before Chinese New Year. There would be a row of beggars leading up to the courtyard. My mum would give me small change and teach me to drop it in their begging bowls, which were the cigarette cans you used to get those days. I still remember the clink of the coin hitting each can.”
She was not born rich, but the little extra they had, they shared with the underprivileged. “That’s why it resonates with me to always do good; it is the second most important life lesson I learnt from my parents, after family unity. After I married into the Eu family and, later, when my husband passed away, I just carried on the company’s legacy of ‘Caring for Mankind’.”
At the end of the day, Anne wants her daughter to see her not just as someone who made money the best way she knew how but also as someone who thinks about the underprivileged. “There are so many unfortunate people around us and we must give back to society with whatever we have,” says the founder of Roti 1Malaysia, an NGO on a mission to deliver breads from five-star hotels and bakeries to orphanages and old folks’ homes. She spends her time at orphanages and considers children a cause closest to her heart.
Anne is also chair of the registered trustees of the Joseph William Yee Eu Foundation and director of the world board of Olave Baden-Powell Society UK. She is an active member of the board of trustees of the Tunku Azizah Fertility Foundation and the board of Cancer Research Malaysia.
Anne is no stranger to advocating women entrepreneurship. It is no surprise, then, that BCorp founder Tan Sri Vincent Tan tapped into her experience. “And that’s why I am here. I need to shout this from the rooftops: It’s so amazing to be in a listed company where the whole board consists of women. I believe in empowering women but I also tell the men, ‘Let’s walk together to build towards our goals’.”
Anne is clearly on top of the world. “It feels awesome because everywhere I go, people ask me about it. That is Tan’s vision, to put women on a pedestal and give us a chance to lead. He is really a man ahead of his time. I have the greatest respect for him,” she enthuses. Her role is to provide guidance to the board and have strategic plans to steer the corporation forward.
Inspiring each other
Anne has had an illustrious life, with so many achievements to her name. Amanda says: “I was so proud of her after my father’s passing, when we were all going through such intense grief and were at a loss. To see her pick herself up and lead Eu Yan Sang in Malaysia as the chairman was so inspiring. She is very independent and never asks for any support, but I hope she knows that we have her back.”
Just observing how Anne conducts her business and her charities is enough to make an impact on Amanda. “You can really see how strong, confident and powerful she is as a woman, mother, grandmother, lady boss and philanthropist. It has made me who I am today.”
Anne admits she does not know how she did it. It could have been her experience as Sime Darby Bhd’s investment manager before she quit to focus on her family. Perhaps it was some other forces at work. “I was lucky to have had a mentor in Dr Richard Eu, Sr when I came into the family business. He taught me to stand tall and not let fear get in the way of my goals,” she says.
Richard was responsible for turning the business around: from a sunset industry in the 1980s to a market leader in traditional Chinese medicine-based consumer healthcare products and services. He revolutionised the company and its approaches with modern technology and a rebranding.
“Just look at her now; she has turned into a beautiful butterfly,” Anne says of Amanda. “She is very hardworking and focused. I have seen her at work. Well, not with my own eyes, but I have dispatched my driver to check on her when she’s shooting in the jungles.” With a mischievous twinkle in her eye, Anne tells of how her “spy” would send pictures of Amanda at work and, while conditions may not have been comfortable, there was always a smile on her daughter’s face. “So, I know in my heart of hearts, despite all the comfort I can provide her with, she’s happy working in films and always gives her all. I am very proud of her, more so after someone explained to me what it means to have your movie shown at Cannes. She’s only 37, and there are still many more years for her to attain great heights.”
This article first appeared on May 8, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.