A big success in any language

Kathleen Brooks
OF all the things you might expect to see in a language-teaching classroom, a piano is perhaps not high on the list. But that’s one of the most noticeable objects in Yalan Chuang’s office in King’s Cross, where she teaches businesspeople Chinese. “It is a very musical language, some words are spoken like a soprano and other like an alto,” she explains. Then idea came about from her first office, in what used to be Holy Trinity Church in South Kensington, where she inherited a grand piano. It has since become a vital part of her method.

Chuang founded Chinese Original, a specialist Chinese language, translation and cultural learning service for the financial and legal sectors, in 2007. She was born in the Taiwanese port town of Kaohsiung (“it reminds me of Brighton”) to parents who did not speak any English, yet she speaks English, Mandarin and French fluently. The idea for Chinese Original came when Chuang worked in the communications department for a luxury brands group in Hong Kong in 1997. There she saw first-hand the cultural differences between Western and Chinese ways of doing things: “In China people are more interested in the leadership of a company. They want to see who are the managers before the financial detail. Likewise, deals are struck over the dinner table and not in an office.”

In 2005 she headed to Europe after winning a scholarship to study a masters degree in finance at Sciences Po in Paris, becoming the University’s first Taiwanese graduate. She remained in Paris and worked for an M&A firm. During this time she noticed the lack of Chinese translation services for the business community: “The Chinese company sent reams of material, either in Chinese or in a very poor translation, which held up the whole M&A process,” she says.

Chuang set up Chinese Original with £5,000, a mixture of her own savings with investments from friends. It was a hit and for the first 18 months she did without marketing or a website: “I received a lot of recommendations from friends and alumni from Sciences Po.”

Is there extra pressure for female entrepreneurs? Chuang doesn’t think so, but it depends where you are: “Taiwan is a conservative culture, so people often ask me how I have managed to start my own business,” she says. “As a woman, I don’t feel like I get treated any differently. I feel I might be if I was in China, though.”

Chinese Original eventually launched its website in September last year to help the business to expand. It has grown to 10 employees and recently opened an office in Shanghai to service ex-pats working in China’s famous business district.

Chinese is not an easy language, and learning is a long-term commitment. “For example,” says Chuang, “there are three ways to say, ‘I can’.” So far, it is not a phrase that has caused her much trouble.

Age: 34

Studied: BA Linguistics, Fu-Jen Catholic University, Taipei, Taiwan.
MA, finance, Sciences Po, Paris.

Lives: London

Favourite City: “I like London, it’s very cosmopolitan and I like the open-minded business people. But I love Paris; it enriched my spirituality and creativity.”

Car: “I don’t drive, I walk everywhere.

Hobbies: Playing piano and dancing.

Reading: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby.