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The Chosen Ones: An Interview with Bee Chang

The writer and beauty guru on auditioning for ‘Miss Saigon,’ Asian scent culture, and her favorite Israeli kid show

Periel Aschenbrand
October 27, 2017
Courtesy Bee Chang
Courtesy Bee Chang
Courtesy Bee Chang
Courtesy Bee Chang

According to her, attorney slash beauty writer slash beauty guru Bee Chang may have seemed like she was destined to follow the traditional path for a Chinese immigrant kid with Chinese immigrant parents—but she didn’t. The road was interrupted first by an Israeli husband (and mother-in-law), then by two daughters who speak Hebrew. Now Bee Shapiro, she has a fragrance and bodycare line (to die for) called Ellis Brooklyn, a column in The New York Times, and a new book out, Skin Deep, in which she interviews celebrities on their beauty rituals.

I caught up with her on a Wednesday at Sundays in Brooklyn.

Periel Aschenbrand: You just got back from Israel?

Bee Shapiro: I did.

PA: First time?

BS: No, second, but the first time was so long ago, it was before kids. Six, seven years ago.

PA: Where did you grow up?

BS: Seattle. And then I moved to DC for three years and I was a very good Asian immigrant and went to law school.

PA: You weren’t born in Seattle.

BS: Noooo, I was born in Taiwan and I came here when I was three and a half.

PA: Wow.

BS: I was definitely walking that path, you know, doctor, lawyer. It’s very similar to Jewish culture.

PA: Yeah. So your parents were older when they came? Traditional Chinese values?

BS: I thought they were traditional but actually they were pretty lax. Their strategy was not to force it too much. They allowed me to play sports and I was into electric dance music and I think especially looking back they weren’t as traditional as I thought they were.

PA: Did they think you were insane for marrying an Israeli guy?

BS: Well, what’s insane is that at some point during this immigration process, my mom became very Christian. She was not Christian in Taiwan, nobody in our family was Christian, but when she came here, I think that was a way for her to find community—there was an amazing Chinese American Church. So we went to Sunday School, every Sunday.

PA: Whoa.

BS: The funny part is that when she found out Ronen was Jewish, she was like, “this all makes sense, this is fabulous,” because, you know, in the bible the Jews are the chosen people.

PA: I feel like I should sound an alarm any time anyone says Chosen Ones while I’m interviewing them for this column. But that’s awesome. Has she been to Israel?

BS: No but she would love to.

PA: This actually isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation about the Chinese and Jews. The cultures are very intertwined. We’ve decided this is definitely a thing.

BS: Yes. The same merchant sort of culture of setting up businesses everywhere, that’s similar too.

PA: The food.

BS: The constant talking about food. The obsession with food. I would say Jewish culture is warmer than Chinese culture. Much more of, like, an outpouring of love and affection.

PA: Demonstrative. Especially in Israel.

BS: Very!

PA: That must be so interesting for your girls.

BS: Well, my girls both understand Hebrew, so they probably understand more than I do. They sing Hebrew songs. My husband has been really good about that. There’s a really good kids show in Hebrew called Luli, it’s so cute. I wish there was a Chinese show like that.

PA: I know Luli very well. He’s adorable. But let’s switch gears here a little. You’ve been very, very busy.

BS: Yes. I need sleep. And tequila.

PA: So you went to law school and then you became a beauty guru?

BS: I don’t think law was ever for me. My first year I thought I was going to quit and my counselor talked me to into staying. Then I went to Brazil to work in a law firm and I loved Brazil but I was bored to tears.

PA: Why Brazil?

BS: I wanted to do something international and Brazil does all these deals with China so it was to their benefit to have a Chinese person there.

PA: So you were like their token Chinese girl?

BS: Well, the funny part about that is that I can’t read any documents in Chinese. My Chinese is like child’s level.

PA: So you were just for show?

BS: Totally. I don’t read Portuguese either.

PA: Unreal.

BS: By the time I was three years in, I decided I may as well finish. And I got an offer from a law firm in New York and I always wanted to move here so I took the offer but I only lasted eight months. I woke up one day and just quit.

PA: Where were you living?

BS: In this old loft in TriBeCa that I found on Craigslist as a sublet. It was amazing.

PA: And when was this?

BS: Eleven years ago. And here’s where I feel like my parents are unorthodox, because when I told them, they were like, “okay, but are you sure?” and I was like, “well, I already did it,” and they said, “okay, well, whatever makes you happy.” That’s not traditional Chinese parenting. To their credit.

PA: To their credit. Did you know you wanted to go into beauty and be a writer?

BS: Definitely not beauty. I made a list of three jobs I thought I could be amazing. Actress, which was so far flung, I have no idea where I came up with that. Writer, which made sense, because I was in law and I know words and I love magazines. And fine artist. And while I did study that in undergrad, I quickly realized I wasn’t good enough and I also wasn’t willing to starve for it.

PA: So you decided to become a writer!?

BS: I did, but it was also what you were willing to starve for.

PA: Fair enough.

BS: And then for actress, I went on some auditions just blindly and I couldn’t stand it. It was humiliating. One of the funnier castings I went on was for Miss Saigon, because there aren’t that many for Asian women.

PA: I was going to say…

BS: Very few parts. And Miss Saigon was fierce competition for anyone who looked remotely Asian.

PA: Did you do the audition?

BS: I did!

PA: That’s insanity.

BS: It was interesting.

PA: So that was a no. And painting as a no. And you started writing.

BS: Yes. And it was the birth of the blog. And I started writing about the crossover about fashion and art. And kept pitching ideas. I was blind pitching everybody. And then I started writing for T.

PA: So art and fashion.

BS: Right. No beauty yet. And then the T editor went to W. And I got lucky because the beauty columnist left and they were like do you want this? And that’s how I came to beauty. It’s all luck in some ways.

PA: I hear that a lot.

BS: You have these grand plans and you realize that you can plan, but things change. And I love beauty, by the way. I love it even more than fashion.

PA: It’s still quite a leap to go from being a beauty writer to creating this incredible line. It’s really beautiful and delicious and well done.

BS: Thank you.

PA: When did you start?

BS: When I was pregnant with my first daughter. I wanted more ownership over what I did. And more creative control.

PA: Right. And you just figured it out.

BS: Yes. I’m lucky I grew up in the United States because in Asia, they don’t really have a scent culture.

PA: That’s so interesting. Chinese women don’t wear perfume?

BS: They do today, but it’s not this historic love of complex scents and perfume as artistry. It’s more like, “Do you smell good?” Many people in Taiwan don’t even wear deodorant.

PA: Really? Do we want to go there?

BS: Yes! I learned this because my husband sent me an article—apparently 70 percent of East Asians have this gene where they don’t smell, because they don’t produce the amino acid that breaks down to body odor so they don’t have to cover anything up.

PA: Well, on that note. What’s your favorite drink?

BS: Champagne. Really good champagne.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

BS: In an ideal world, poached.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

BS: I don’t drink coffee.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

BS: Rosh Hashanah.

PA: You’ve been fully integrated into the fold, it sounds like.

BS: I feel like if I were better, we would definitely do Sukkot.

PA: You’re on the right track. Do you Purim for the kids?

BS: Yes! I make hamantaschen.

PA: Did you convert?

BS: I did convert. I’m not sure it took…

PA: Haha. It sounds like it took! But you did not have a Bat Mitzvah, I presume.

BS: I could still!

PA: You could! What shampoo do you use?

BS: If money were no object I would do Leonor Greyl. If it were, I think Klorane I think it’s really good. The date line.

PA: Noted. Gefilte fish or lox?

BS: Lox! Gefilte fish… what is that!?

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

BS: Some sort of lip balm, money, I always have some sort of lip color with me, my phone and my subway card.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

BS: I have so many good ones.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.