“He looked upset as if everything was hopeless,” says Dr Van Park, recalling her father's cultural warning when she was just a girl. "Then he explained to us that he’d been bullied at work just for being Asian. He warned us that whatever we do in life, we must study hard, so that we can be our own bosses.”
Her father’s comment, made years ago over a modest meal at their western Sydney home, was no doubt borne of disappointment about his treatment in Australia. He and his wife, who were Vietnamese and Chinese engineering students at the time, met while on exchange in Japan and decided to migrate to Australia 18 years later to bring up their family. Unfortunately, their degrees were not immediately acknowledged. So, their father worked as a kitchen-hand before returning to university, while their mother eventually gave up her menial work when one of her sons was abused by staff at family day care. Life in Australia was anything but easy.
Regardless, Park and her sister - Victoria Ha - were determined to make it in Australia. They both studied hard and put themselves through university by working at different department store beauty counters.
For Victoria Ha, her father’s warning would resonate once she had graduated from law.
“I was such an idealist and I wanted to fight the injustices of the world,” Ha explains, “I wanted to make a difference in my chosen field.”
Unfortunately, finding a job in a law firm proved difficult.
“I’d heard about the `bamboo ceiling’ but never really believed that it existed,” she says. "I’d already worked as a paralegal and I thought that because I also had good marks, I’d have a good chance of finding a job.”
Months passed but Ha received very few responses to her applications.
"I became so frustrated that I started submitting them with an Anglicised version of my name and over the next few days I received some interviews,” she says.
“I’d heard about the 'bamboo ceiling’ but never really believed that it existed.”
She eventually landed a job but there were difficulties. As a young Asian, she believes that she was seen as an easy target by some of the male lawyers in the firm.
“One man was married with children but called me into his office, pretending that he needed to discuss a case but really he wanted to talk to me about his sexual fantasies involving me,” she asserts.
“On another occasion, ice was 'accidentally’ dropped down my top with remarks about wet T-shirt competitions.”
At the same time it was made clear to her that there was no point in complaining because she would be blacklisted in Sydney among the major law firms.
Ha eventually went to work overseas.
Meanwhile, after completing her medical degree, Dr Van Park was drawn towards the science of anti-ageing.
“I knew from working with women on the cosmetic counters of the department store that I liked helping them to feel better and I wanted to continue to do that. Obstetrics and gynecology were my back-ups if cosmetic medicine didn’t work out.”
As Dr Park started out in the industry, she also experienced some bullying but it was far more subtle than her sister’s and often disguised as being given a helping hand.
“But it was really just about trying to disempower her,” she says.
Deciding that she ultimately needed to work for herself, Dr Park opened her own practice in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and gradually grew her business by word of mouth.
“I knew from working with women on the cosmetic counters of the department store that I liked helping them to feel better and I wanted to continue to do that."
She is now acknowledged as an expert in anti-ageing and frequently lectures around the world, sponsored by pharmaceutical companies including Galderma (one of the manufacturers of Botox).
“I train the trainers in the Asia Pacific region,” she explains. “These trainers will then train the doctors in their region in injectables. But very often I return from these lectures, picking up something new myself.”
She was soon joined by her sister who had returned home from the US, disillusioned from her work as a lawyer and looking for a new direction. The sisters saw a gap in the market in the cosmetic industry and set up a website, Match My Makeup to help those searching for matching foundation colours across different brands.
They were awarded a grant from NSW Trade and Investment for innovation in Science and Technology, which enabled them to roll out this concept to different platforms. Working with her sister just felt right and Ha started training in various beauty therapies to provide their clients with a one-stop shop.
She says that it fulfils her just as much as working in law once did.
“I’m reminded every day why I do what I do,” she explains. “It still amazes me how much a person’s self-esteem could improve simply by having a better complexion, especially when they’ve been suffering from a debilitating skin condition such as acne, pigmentation, rosacea, psoriasis or eczema. I can always tell if a client had a skin condition when they were younger - not by the look of their skin when they present themselves in clinic, but always by their demeanor and how they interact. They are often a little introverted, shy, reserved and lacking in confidence.”
However, Ha still had to persuade her parents that she was on the right path.
“Initially, they were reluctant to support my decision to leave because they felt I would be wasting my years of study and also the money I spent for university. It was also hard to accept because culturally, law is an esteemed profession within the Vietnamese society and with me leaving; it felt almost like they had failed to raise me well. They have since come around because they’ve seen the change in me as a person and how happy this work has made me.”
While they’re working in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Ha and Dr Park believe in giving back to the community.
“Every few months Victoria and I pick a charity where a percentage of our income for that day goes to the charity,” says Dr Park. “Victoria has a passion for MS and Mental Health whereas I like to support underprivileged children. It’s because both of us do not want to forget just how lucky we have been and how fortunate we are to have been brought up in this country.”