Persiaran Cooke (or Cooke’s Drive) in the Green road area was named after her late irish father Patrick Enright Cooke, the former head of Immigration based in Kuching.
This interview was supposed to be a straightforward one. A casual meetup at a pre-arranged venue – in this case, at GLASS Tartines& Tipples in Kuala Lumpur – a chat with the interviewee, a quick photo session, and we’ll go our separate ways. Not exactly expecting a wine and food tasting evening with good company to conclude the day. But when the interviewee is Kathy Lam, the unexpected is possible. Indeed, pleasantly unexpected, much like how life has turned out for this vivacious lady from Kuching.
Born Kathleen Yvonne Cooke, her maiden name would ring a bell to those in Kuching. Persiaran Cooke (or Cooke’s Drive) in the Green Road area was named after her late Irish father Patrick Enright Cooke, the former head of immigration based in Kuching. Along with mother Violet, three brothers and two sisters, they used to live in the area with a football field in front of the house.
“I was a tomboy. My fondest memory was playing football with my siblings,” she said reminiscing the freedom and fun she had on the muddy field, especially when it rained.
Times were simpler then, a stark contrast to her life in adulthood. She moved to Kuala Lumpur 43 years ago, after marrying David Lam, an army officer, at 21. Today, mention her name and it is synonymously linked to her role as country manager of Louis Vuitton (LV) Malaysia.
In the past thirteen years, she has led the luxury brand’s expansion in the country with the first global store in Starhill Gallery followed by two stores in Suria KLCC and The Gardens. Being ‘The Bag Lady’ at LV was no easy task. She believes in leading by example, and does not shy away from getting her hands dirty to get the job done. “My management style is solution-oriented. Having the will to lead is also important. No task is beneath me. I think if you’re willing to learn and be accountable, people will follow you.”
It came as a surprise to many when she announced her plans to step down late last year, especially after so much success she has built for the brand. Yet, as an icon in the local luxury retail industry, she remains sought after for expert opinion.
“I’ve been very blessed,” said Kathy. A career in luxury retail was not something she intended or imagined to do. The path just led her there. “I was given many opportunities. When I’m given a job, I do it well.”
Her first job was a ground stewardess with Malaysia Singapore Airlines. After moving to Kuala Lumpur, she was offered a job in a hotel and that eventually led her to Equatorial Hotel where she became the first female front office manager in Malaysia. But she didn’t view the job as something long term. She was also a mother then and spending quality time raising her only daughter Sharon was a priority. With that in mind, Kathy went on to join a very small advertising firm for a fraction of the salary. From there, other offers came and led her to an impressive career with LV Malaysia.
She strongly believes that women should be independent, more so to be financially independent. “Women cannot compare to men. We are very capable. There’s nothing we can’t do.”
Having said that, she quickly added that she is not a feminist. She also believes in maintaining a balance with her role as a wife and mother taking care of her family. Her husband is still the man of the house.
Independence was a trait she learned as a child. Her father passed on when she was eight years old, and her mother when she was seventeen. Kathy had to grow up fast and understood what hardship meant at a young age.
She recalled a time when her mother had entrusted her with RM50 (in those days, this was a big amount) to pay for their radio instalment. Instead of running the errand, Kathy took a detour to play football and lost the money. This saddened her mother deeply, and it taught Kathy the value of how different and difficult times were.
Now, Kathy beamed with pride as she looks on at her daughter, a successful photographer and co-owner of GLASS, buzzing around the restaurant that evening. “We have to dream and dream big. It’s important to have a goal in life,” she said. For someone who entered the workforce with only a Senior Cambridge certificate, she is a believer that hard work, common sense, passion and determination can get anyone very far in life. She is proof it can be done.
It’s been months since her “rewirement” from LV Malaysia, her take on retirement. “I don’t miss the fast paced life, but I need to fill my days and do things I want at my own pace.”
At 64, she is definitely not one of those ladies who lunch and do nothing. She is currently acting as consultant to several companies including L Capital Asia, and handles the marketing for GLASS. Growing up with a strong Catholic background (and where she attended church daily), it was natural for her to be actively involved with church activities, and regularly attends worship services at Calvary Church. Recently, she also volunteered to teach English to children from Myanmar.
“God has blessed me with a charitable heart, and it was time for me to give back,” she said. As a firm advocate for education, she has funded a scholarship with her own money for young girls in Cambodia, and worked with international organisation Room to Read to build classrooms in a village. As for plans to spread her philanthropic work in Sarawak, she is open to it if the right opportunity arises.
“My management style is solution-oriented. Having the will to lead is also important. No task is beneath me. I think if you’re willing to learn and be accountable, people will follow you.”
Though none of her siblings currently reside in Kuching, Kathy still flies back to visit friends there. In recent years she has reconnected with her ex-classmates from St. Teresa like Rose Lau and Jennifer Chan. A visit also gives her a reason to replenish her supply of spices and condiments for Sarawak Laksa, a dish she occasionally cooks for guests in Kuala Lumpur.
Often, people see Kathy in a more lavish and elegant setting, sporting her big sunglasses, even indoors – a signature style she apparently developed as a teen (there are photos to prove it). Others who’d known her professionally may find her aggressive to deal with, but this doesn’t bother her at all. It’s a job.
Kathy keeps her personal and professional life separate. Her husband and her closest circle of friends do not come from the luxury world and she is fine with it. In fact, this keeps her very happy and grounded. Few would know her down to earth demeanour, and that the highlight of her week is indulging in another form of marketing: her Saturday visits to the wet market.
She immediately lights up as she talks about her wet market adventures. She savours the moment each time, spending two leisurely hours with her marketing, talking to the sellers and trying out kuihs along the way. “I just love the sound and smell of markets. The energy is different.”
Andrea Tan is a Kuching-born writer based in Kuala Lumpur. She writes content for clients by day, and works on her illustrations by night.