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Something old, something new: Kara Arissa Tan of Zhen on modernising the field of bird’s nest

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Meet the champions of reinvention who are putting traditional trades and skills in a new light.

Often when Kara Arissa Tan tells her peers that she sells bird’s nest for a living, they respond with, “Oh… can you make money doing that?”. The 28-year-old is working to change the perception that bird’s nest is only for the older generation or special occasions with her brand and e-commerce empire, Zhen. Having grown up in a family that has been in the bird’s nest supply and manufacturing business for over 30 years, Kara was always interested and involved in the entire process. As a child, she enjoyed the hands-on aspects of the trade like handpicking the nests and cleaning them. From the age of 15, she started taking over the liaising with clients over email and helping to develop the business, which she still does.

However, rather than just working for the family business, Kara decided to venture out on her own last year. “My family business only supplies the raw products to multinational corporations (MNCs) and we don’t get a say in how the final product is manufactured,” explains Kara. “I personally believe bird’s nest is very pristine and nothing should be added to it. That is what I’m trying to do with Zhen; I want people to enjoy bird’s nest the way I always have.”

Eat well, be well

Packaged in chic clear glass jars with modern, minimal labelling, Zhen’s bird’s nest products are free from stabilisers, preservatives and artificial flavourings or colourings. They are also made locally with 100 per cent natural ingredients at Kara’s 13,000 sq ft factory in Senoko. Currently, there are eight flavours available including more unique ones like Chamomile, Jasmine and Lavender, which are made with floral botanicals sourced from certified Australian and New Zealand growers and suppliers ensured to be ethical and sustainable.

Her insistence on creating a conscious product is part of her personal ethos and the brand philosophy of Zhen to incorporate wellness into daily life. Wellness became a priority for Kara after she was diagnosed with depression at 22 years old, while pursuing her China and Globalisation master’s degree abroad in King’s College London. “I was going through a really tough period,” recalls Kara. She started seeing a psychiatrist weekly who encouraged her to talk about her feelings as well as go out and do more activities with friends like hiking. “This helped me a lot and made me realise that it’s really not about how you look but how you feel. I looked fine although I was not. Things like whether you’re eating right and exercising right play a part in mental wellness too.”

To help others in their physical, mental and spiritual wellness journeys, she aims to build Zhen into a holistic one-stop-shop for all things wellness. Bird’s nest is said to have several health benefits, some of which Kara has lab-tested her product for, such as tissue regeneration and cell growth to help with healing and recovery, boosting immunity and nourishing the respiratory system. Kara herself had suffered from asthma since she was an infant but says that she was cleared of it when she was eight years old because her parents fed her bird’s nest regularly. “I don’t want bird’s nest to become a long-lost Chinese medicine,” she says. “I would like to educate consumers on the benefits and medicinal properties of bird’s nest, which we share on our blog and back up with scientific research.”

Nothing but the best

Translated from Mandarin, Zhen (珍) means “precious treasure”, and represents a value the brand was founded on – that every part of life holds value and should be cherished. “To me, everything is a gift,” says Kara, who hopes to pass on this same mindful principle to all that come across Zhen by creating products with care, consciously and consistently.

Kara has more products in the pipeline, such as herbal teas, beauty products and collagen jelly strips with bird’s nest – the first of its kind worldwide. She also hopes to offer apparel, which, similar to her food products, will also be ethically and sustainably produced. To encourage physical wellness, she is working with fitness professionals to release free workout videos on Zhen’s social media.

Despite having many ideas in the works, Kara is not in any rush to roll out these new products. “I want to take the time to ensure every step of the process is sustainable and done the right way,” she says. “I don’t want to get caught up and forget why I started this in the first place. The goal is to be physically, mentally and spiritually healthy and happy in order to be the best version of yourself, but also to give back to the environment and not hurt it.”

(Main and featured image: Photography: Joel Low | Art Direction: Audrey Chan | Hair: Christvian Wu | Makeup: Sophia Chia/Makeup Works | Photography Assistance: Alfie Pan; all other images: Zhen)

This story was published in the April 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.

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