Eastern promise...for model Yomiko Chen
When a teenage Yomiko Chen visited Ireland for a holiday, she found the place she wanted to call home. Having spent her childhood between China and Japan, says Sarah Caden, Yomiko believed that Ireland was somewhere she could pursue her modelling and business dreams and make a family for herself. And she was right. She has become one of Ireland's best known models, while keeping her private life assiduously private. On the eve of her marriage to her business partner, Ian Conway, she opens up about her past, family and her future. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Nikki Cummins
It was St Patrick's Day, 10 years ago, when model Yomiko Chen first visited Ireland. Perhaps surprisingly, she wasn't put off.
"Hmm, it was really busy," she says, laughing, acknowledging that this is a nice euphemism for crazy. "It was a strange time, but I really liked it. And I wanted to come back."
At the time, Yomiko was living with her mother in London, where her mother was working. A teenager at the time, Yomiko had spent her childhood living between Japan and China and she was ready, she explains, to find somewhere to call home. And Ireland, this young girl decided, was where she might fit.
"Ireland brought me luck," Yomiko explains. "Every step has been good. It has brought me to the right career, the right boy. Now I know everything I want, and I know what I want my next step to be and I always want to try harder. And Ireland is where all of this has happened for me."
It's Good Friday, probably the day that is the antithesis of St Patrick's Day in Ireland, as Yomiko tells me this. We had limited time to organise the interview, before she goes on holiday the following day, with her fiance, Tullamore man Ian Conway. And, because it's Good Friday, I haven't been able to find anyone to babysit my daughters, while I go to interview Yomiko in more model-appropriate surroundings.
So, Yomiko has suggested that she come to me, and she arrives, all shiny-smooth raven hair, long lashes and longer legs, with goodies from her sushi bento restaurants, Kokoro, for my daughters. She's patient as they turn up their noses at almost everything but the prawns, and good-humoured as they drown the rice in soy sauce, and curious, too, about how a woman manages to work and mother at the same time.
Yomiko had a peripatetic childhood, moving back and forth between her parents, who split up when she was very small. Her mother was Japanese and her father was Chinese and she shuttled between them, which can't have been easy, but it was all she knew.
"It's complicated. For Japanese people, I'm more Chinese; for Chinese people, I'm more Japanese. The cultures don't get on, but I'm on both sides."
She is discreet about the details of her family and private about the emotions, but the fact that she had such determination as a teenager to put down roots somewhere speaks volumes.
So, as Yomiko explains it, she packed her bags in London and moved here, staying with an Irish family who were friends of her mother for the first while. "It was fine," she says, "because my mum was in London, so I'd be close, but the freedom also."
Modelling had always been Yomiko's dream, but it wasn't until she came to Ireland that she pursued it. It was a new country and, truly, a new start. "I wish I was spotted," she laughs, "but, no, I came here and decided to go around and try all the modelling agencies. And I went to Derek [Daniels] at Assets [Model Agency] and they signed me up straight away."
"In the beginning, it was a big learning curve," she says, shaking her head with amused wonder. "Because it wasn't just the work, it was living here, too. It was everything. At my first job, it was so much, all at once. I had never worn high heels before. I had never done catwalk. I didn't know how to walk on a catwalk. I was there, eating a bag of chocolate, with no water with me. I had no English!
"Even my shoe size I didn't know," she exclaims. "We don't say size four or whatever, we say 37. So I didn't know what shoe size I was, and so I said I was 6, and I get these huge shoes. So I have high heels and too big. And I don't know how to catwalk. But I finished. And I didn't fall."
If Yomiko is one thing, it is determined. She likes to be challenged, she likes to rise to a challenge, and she never rests on her laurels. The learning curve of her early modelling career was a pleasure as a result.
"I'm so grateful I got the opportunity to model, that I worked really hard. And I understood, you know, that this is a small industry in a small city, so I had to work a little bit harder," she says, indicating that she very quickly had the measure of the relatively parochial Irish.
"In London, for example, if you make a mistake, it's easier. At each job, you might meet different people and have different clients, so it's OK if you make a mistake. But in Dublin, if you make a mistake, people can talk and it will be bad. So I made sure that they knew I would never be late, I would always do my best, I would never make a bad atmosphere on a job."
Yomiko doesn't think that being one of the few Asian models in Ireland has been an advantage or a disadvantage for her career. "The competition is the same," she says. "Sometimes my look works for me, works for a job, sometimes it doesn't. Clients give me one chance. And I do my best to learn fast so I can keep them."
With no English, however, were Yomiko's early years in Dublin not very lonely?
"No, it was not difficult for me to make friends," she says. "Everyone was so friendly and they all tried to help me and explain things to me, and basically, we are all very happy together. We don't really need a language. Body language is enough." She says she does not have one particular friend, but a lot of really good ones.
"I think my agency is my family," she adds. "I spend more time with those girls than with my family back home. Girls like Sarah Morrissey and Karen Fitzpatrick, I see them every single day sometimes."
Yomiko feels at home and loved in Ireland, and that helped, several years ago, when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. "The first time, we went through it together," explains Yomiko, who says that her mother's illness brought them very close. "And then, the second time, she went back to Tokyo and she gave up totally." Yomiko's mother died two years ago.
"The first year after she died, I didn't tell anyone," Yomiko admits. "But after one year, people would ask, 'How is your mum?' Because they knew she was sick. So, then, I just said that she had passed away and faced that then. For the first year, though, only me and Ian knew."
Yomiko met her now fiance, Ian, on New Year's Eve 2012. She had other Irish boyfriends before him, but this one was serious very fast. Was it love at first sight? "It was for him!"
At that point, Ian already had one branch of Kokoro, which means 'heart' in Japanese. It was a walk-in takeaway sushi bar in Dublin's Liffey Street, which served fresh sushi and hot food such as noodles and Japanese curries. Ian was well-versed in and passionate about Japan and Japanese food and, to some extent, that cemented the bond between him and Yomiko.
"That helps, but it's also good timing," says Yomiko. "We both are ready to settle down, that's the important thing. Relationships are hard, even when you're from same culture or country or even street. You still have to make an effort and you still have misunderstandings."
The fact that Ian was already in business was also a bond between them, as Yomiko has a good business head on her and an ambition to make a life in business beyond and after modelling. "I will try my very best at modelling for as long as I can, but it's not a forever job," she says. "It has always been my dream to start a business."
Yomiko suggested to Ian that they go into the Kokoro business together and open another branch on Dublin's southside. He was keen to do it, and together they walked the streets of Dublin 2, looking for the ideal location, until one came up in chic South William Street. Last year, they opened a bigger Kokoro there, among the hip bars and restaurants and salons. It's going well, and they're opening another branch off Merrion Row very soon.
"It's a fast food," Yomiko says of the Kokoro food, "but still healthy. You can eat quickly and not feel horrible after.
"And for me and Ian," she continues, "it's the perfect business. We have one central kitchen, so the morning is preparing and delivering the food to as many branches as we open, and then, because we are a rush-hour business, after three o'clock is when me and Ian can have a life."
When we met, Yomiko told me that their wedding would take place this coming Thursday in Bray. They will have a party with friends and family.
While Ian's family are in Ireland, none of Yomiko's family can travel from Japan and China for the nuptials. Instead, the newlyweds will go to Asia in the summer, she says, where they will have another wedding and a celebration.
Yomiko's father will meet Ian for the first time when they travel to China. But despite not knowing her future husband, all of her family are very happy that she is happy with Ian and settled down in Ireland. Also, the fact that Ian is not Chinese is not an issue.
"My family is not like that," Yomiko says, and when I ask her if she's considered particularly independent for a Chinese girl, she says: "I think I'm just very independent. Not just for a Chinese girl; for an Irish girl, too."
"It's funny, Ireland is where I've built up my home and all the girls treat me like I'm Irish. People here are more relaxed than in China or Japan. Here, the cultural things, your background, they don't matter so much to people.
"It's going to sound very tacky," says Yomiko, a decade after her first head-spinning visit to Dublin, "but I believe home is where your heart is. So I've built up my home here and my career here, so I don't feel lonely or different. And especially now since I met Ian, this is where I belong, and I will build up our family here.
"Any time soon!" she exclaims with a laugh, and you know that this is the next bit of the plan for this determined young woman.
Susan Hunter, 13 Westbury Mall, Grafton St, D2, tel: (01) 671-1271, or see susanhunter.ie Claire Garvey Designs, 6 Cow’s Lane, Temple Bar, D1, tel: (01) 1 671-7287, or see clairegarvey.com
Photographed by Kip Carroll
Styled by Nikki Cummins, Hair by Joanna Fogarty; make-up by Edel Kirke, both for Brown Sugar, 50 Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967, or see brownsugar.ie
Photographed at The Morrison Hotel, Ormond Quay Lwr, D1. To book your summer barbecue now at the Morrison from €23 per person, tel: (01) 887-2400, or see morrisonhotel.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine