Ex-SIA girl gets $550k over failed luxury bag business, but ...
At 30, she is saddled with a debt of $400,000 to her clients and $700,000 to her investors, all because of a failed business venture.
And this is on top of the $100,000 she used from her savings to appease angry customers who demanded refunds.
Miss Serene Zhao blames her "bad financial situation" on her former business partner, Madam Joan Chua, 31, with whom she entered into a luxury handbag business last year.
Madam Chua, who said she could secure the bags from an overseas source, failed to deliver the goods after her source became uncontactable.
Miss Zhao then sued Madam Chua in the High Court, seeking $1.3 million in damages.
After about a year of pre-trial conferences, Madam Chua agreed to pay her $550,000 in a settlement in September.
Miss Zhao said she has yet to receive a single cent.
"She tried to defend herself, which made me feel she's innocent, but till today I have received nothing from her," the former Singapore Airlines stewardess told The New Paper yesterday.
"She should at least fulfil one of her many promises."
In June, TNP reported on Miss Zhao's problems with her customers, who had accused her of cheating them.
Miss Zhao said she first met Madam Chua early last year on designer bag online forum Deluxemall, where she sold her a wallet.
They kept in contact and Madam Chua broached the idea of a branded bag business as she had a contact who could help her secure merchandise.
Miss Zhao said: "I was intending to go into concierge services (helping people buy goods from overseas) when she approached me. So I thought, why not?"
In June last year, they started the business, which dealt mostly with Hermes Birkin and Kelly bags.
Records from the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority show that Miss Zhao registered her company, Yuniquely, in that period.
She started confronting Madam Chua about possible bag delays in August, two months after the orders were placed.
"Joan would gave me various reasons, like how the bag manufacturer went on a holiday or that it was due to overwhelming orders (for Hermes bags) around the world.
"She would tell me the expected arrival date of the delayed bags, which I would convey to my clients. But the bags never turned up.
"My customers got so angry because I kept making empty promises," Miss Zhao said.
She refunded deposits for 10 bags worth about $100,000. Other customers who did not receive refunds hounded her with endless calls and messages.
She said she became depressed.
"No one could help me because I was the only one facing it. I couldn't even ask people to trust me."
Late last month, after her settlement with Madam Chua, Miss Zhao began blogging about their dispute. She said it was her way to remember the hard lesson learnt.
Other than posting pictures of Madam Chua, she also put up masked pictures of her children and relatives, which upset Madam Chua. (See report on facing page.)
"I know that the kids are innocent, but she sent me all those photos through Whatsapp when things went wrong. She said they were there to support her, that she had her family with her and she's not out to cheat," she said.
Miss Zhao said she posted the pictures of Madam Chua's family as she wanted to reach out to them to uncover the truth, but did not know how else to do it.
She said Madam Chua's sister-in-law contacted her, but "her approach wasn't nice". She is now in talks with Madam Chua's brother-in-law through a mutual friend.
The past year has been hard, but Miss Zhao also sees a silver lining - the group of friends who stood by her and trusted her.
She has been taking up branding projects with small and medium enterprises and is in talks with an investor to publish an e-book.
She is also thankful to her boyfriend of two years for going through the tough times with her.
"I am grateful that he is with me till today and I am proud to have him protecting me like a warrior," she said.
She tried to defend herself, which made me feel she's innocent, but till today I have received nothing from her.
- Miss Serene Zhao
'If I wanted to run, would I still be here?'
UPSET: Madam Joan Chua (above), who was unable to fulfil the bag orders placed by Miss Serene Zhao as her supplier suddenly went missing. She found fliers warning her to pay up. - TNP PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
She quit her job as a cosmetics salesgirl to sell luxury bags online.
By just sending e-mails and text messages from home, Madam Joan Chua found that she could make $6,000 a month. Her previous sales job paid her only half that amount and required her to stand for hours selling beauty products.
But barely three months into her home-based business, her supplier from Europe, whom she has never met and knows only as Thomas, became uncontactable.
He failed to deliver about 20 bags to her and stopped replying to her e-mails. Calls and text messages to his mobile phone went unanswered.
Madam Chua said: "You could say I'm gullible, but I don't have a sense of danger. In this line, it's based on trust."
That misplaced trust was the beginning of a downward spiral that saw Madam Chua being sued in the High Court by her business partner, Miss Serene Zhao, in October last year.
In a settlement in September this year, she agreed to pay Miss Zhao $550,000.
But while she tried to gather the money to pay her, Madam Chua claimed that Miss Zhao started stirring up trouble at her flat in Punggol, where she lives with her husband and two children.
FLIERS ON DOOR
Twice last month, she found fliers with a photo of her and her son stuck on her main door and the lift landing, which she suspected was Miss Zhao's doing.
Miss Zhao has denied this and said that it could be the work of an angry customer.
Madam Chua has filed a magistrate's complaint and the former business partners must go for mediation next month.
She was also upset by photos of her family appearing on Miss Zhao's blog earlier this month.
"It's too extreme. This is really uncalled for. I'm not saying I'm innocent, but this is not the way to go about doing things.
"I'm standing up (for myself) because my family is being implicated," said Madam Chua.
"I understand the pain that Serene is going through, but I'm a victim myself. I'm not living any better than she is.
"She knows where I live and where to look for me. If I had wanted to run, would I still be here?"
She said that she agreed last month to pay Miss Zhao $500, then $1,000 the next month through the debt collector, but held off making the payment after Miss Zhao's blog entries.
She said that she has since been trying to reach Miss Zhao's debt collector to pay up, but to no avail.
She is going for job interviews and hopes to start working as soon as possible.
"I will try to save up $2,000 monthly. By March or April, I should be able to gather $8,000 by scrimping and saving," Madam Chua said.
I understand the pain that Serene is going through, but I'm a victim myself. I'm not living any better than she is. She knows where I live and where to look for me.
- Madam Joan Chua