From Miss Canada to global property queen

November 14, 2015 08:02
Andrea Eng, the first runner-up in the Miss Canada pageant in 1978, later represented the country as Miss Canada at Miss Universe in Mexico. She made her fortune as a property broker. Photos: Paul Joseph, Robert Kwong

“Many people believe a beauty pageant is all about ‘beauty’, but I think intelligence carries more weight than beauty,” said Andrea Eng (伍慧芬), Canada’s first Chinese representative at a global pageant, Miss Universe in 1978.

Never an admirer of her own charm or glamor, Eng says the journey that took her there was a mere accident.

She was in her early 20s then but never got carried away.

Instead, she soon dedicated herself to a career in the real estate business, and became an adviser to several Asian tycoons, specializing in investments overseas.

Born and raised in Vancouver, Eng is renowned in real estate circles for her pioneering role in bringing the East and the West together through her vision and connections.

In the wake of Asia’s rise, many global enterprises nowadays hope to attract Asian investments.

As early as 30 years ago, Eng was already identifying investments overseas for Asian investors.

During the 1980s and early '90s, she brokered investment projects worth C$3 billion a year in Vancouver for Hong Kong investors.

The New York Times once described her as the “first woman to broker commercial real estate to Asians in North America”.

“I believe every person is born with a gift,” Eng said.

"You just have to find your gift as quickly as possible.

"Business is my gift – I’m able to see opportunities differently from anyone else."

'You need luck'

Still, Eng admitted, "you need luck in life", and her pageant journey is a good illustration.

A shy girl since childhood, she had never thought about taking part in a beauty contest.

But her mother encouraged her to enter the Miss Vancouver Chinatown pageant in 1977.

Eng initially faced opposition from her father, who believed that women should stick to their family duties as homemakers, although his own wife was a partner with him in the family's real estate brokerage.

Though his attitude softened later, Eng’s father didn't bother to watch the final of the contest.

“I was not a preferred winner,” Eng said with a smile.

"I wasn’t the most beautiful candidate.

“My dad didn’t even buy a ticket, probably because he thought I wouldn’t do too well.”

In the press reports from that time, Eng won plaudits from the judges and audiences with her Chinese modern dance performance, as well as her wit and eloquence.

“To win a beauty pageant not only requires beauty but also intelligence and knowledge,” Eng said.

Eng went on to become the first runner-up at the 1978 Miss Canada contest.

She stepped in to represent the country in the Miss Universe pageant in Mexico when Miss Canada Catherine Swing got married and was disqualified.

Reflecting on her pageant experiences, Eng said she not only expanded her personal network but also was forced to overcome her shyness.

However, her passion never strayed far from real estate.

The family business but not the family firm

"My family ran a real estate business. As early as five years of age, I went to open houses with my father," Eng recalled.

"Real estate is part of my blood.” 

After the beauty contests, Eng’s parents wanted her to go into the family business, but she insisted on challenging herself in the marketplace and joined Colliers International Property Consultants Inc. instead.

The business of selling Vancouver real estate then was dominated by men, Eng recalled, and it was hard for a woman to break into it, let alone a Chinese.

At Colliers, she was assigned to the office in the residential suburb of West Vancouver, instead of the busier and more lucrative downtown Vancouver office.

Nevertheless, within her first three months, she managed to sell a shopping center and two warehouses and became one of the firm's top brokers.

One day, she decided to stop by Colliers’ downtown office on her way home and asked to meet the department head.

Eng made a request to transfer downtown and wouldn't take no for an answer.

She said: "I am such a persistent person."

Eng became the first female broker ever to work in the downtown office.

She recalled being given only a desk and a phone at the beginning and that no other broker wanted to work with her.

Eng admitted having moments of self-doubt during her first few days, but still managed to sell some high-end property within a week.

Her monthly turnover soon reached C$20 million.

All told, Eng sold 57 apartment buildings in Vancouver's West End, accounting for 70 percent of the sales in the area.

As she established her own brand in the real estate sector, more and more brokers reached out to work with her. 

Why Asian tycoons trust her

Eng noticed that most brokers weren’t interested in serving clients from Asia.

Her background as a Chinese-Canadian gave her a big advantage with such clients.

As one of the third generation of Chinese immigrants, Eng studied in Chinese schools during her childhood.

Majoring in urban land economics at the University of British Columbia, she also took courses in Asian Studies.

But while many people thought Eng’s Chinese appearance and ability to speak some Cantonese were what won her the trust of Asian tycoons, she said her way of thinking and working were the foundation of that trust.

“I was born and raised in Canada. I got well along with westerners," she said.

"And yet, the way I think is closer to that of Asians.

"While I evaluate the risk and returns of projects prudently, my strategy and style fit in perfectly with those of Chinese people.”

Today, Eng still researches and analyzes market trends systematically.

Taking advantage of the time difference between Vancouver, where she lives, and Hong Kong, she makes sure her clients receive useful information in a timely manner.

Finding gold in the desert

Eng has gone on to run her own business as an independent global investment broker advising Asian tycoons.

The scope of projects she has worked on has gone beyond real estate and the Canadian market.

She was even involved in the setting up of, an internet portal that grew into Tom Group Ltd. (02383.HK), an online media business that is part of CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd. (00001.HK).

As Eng put it: “I travel around the world and identify ideas that fit my clients. My work is like finding gold in the desert.”

Despite all her success in the business world, money in itself has never been her source of happiness.

Eng, a yoga practitioner and gardening enthusiast, said she enjoys the surprises life brings to her.

“I don't have a bucket list," she said.

"I find interesting people fascinating.

"I want to surround myself with them.”

This article appeared in Chinese in the Hong Kong Economic Journal's Lifestyle Journal magazine on Nov. 13.

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Andrea Eng says she was taught by her father to pronounce 'heart and effort (心機)' in Cantonese, which later becomes her motto. Photo: Paul Joseph
Andrea was second president of Kappa Kappa Gamma, a collegiate sorority, at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. She says, 'I was always my father's little girl in his mind.' Photos: Paul Joseph

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