NOV 23, 2016

Chinese-Born YuanYuan Tan Became the Most Recognized Asian Ballerina in the World Because of Five Cents

privy profile   |   By Bonnie He


Occupation: Prima Ballerina

Based in: San Francisco

Last Education: Saint Mary's College


A game of heads or tails changed YuanYuan Tan’s life forever.

At the age of 11, YuanYuan was scouted and invited to audition for Shanghai Dance School. Her father, an engineer, wanted YuanYuan to either follow in his footsteps or become a doctor, so he didn’t think she should go. Her mother, however, had dreamed of becoming a dancer herself when she was younger, so she secretly took her daughter to the audition.

YuanYuan passed all three rounds, and she was given the opportunity of a lifetime: to begin her dance career, starting as a professional ballet student at the Shanghai Dance School.

Faced with this life-changing decision, her parents felt it was too stressful to ask an 11-year-old to decide for herself. So they left the decision literally up in the air - by flipping a 5-cent coin.

It landed on heads.

Today, YuanYuan Tan is the world’s most recognized Asian ballerina, as the principal dancer of San Francisco Ballet, the first professional ballet company in the United States.

And though fate decided her starting route, she has worked hard tirelessly to get this far. At 15, she won the opportunity to represent China in international dance competitions. Her first competition was in Helsinki, Finland. At age 16, she competed in Paris, France and in Nagoya, Japan, earning her two gold medals and one silver medal, in addition to the Nijinsky Award.

San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director, Helgi Tomasson saw YuanYuan in Paris, and invited her to joined San Francisco Ballet in 1995 as a soloist. Less than two years later, in 1997, YuanYuan was promoted to Principal Dancer, the first Asian dancer to achieve that position at San Francisco Ballet.

She still proudly holds that title, and has recently returned to her roots, as San Francisco Ballet has begun to tour in China. She was named the Rosewood curator for Rosewood Beijing, the first China property for Rosewood Hotels & Resorts. While in Beijing, YuanYuan likes visiting the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, Panjiayuan Antique Market and the 798 Art District.

We at Privy think she’s the person to watch. But that’s just our two cents.




You’ve recently became a Rosewood Curator as the Beijing Advisor. What would be your insider’s tip for the top 5 restaurants in Beijing?


I love peking duck. In Beijing, there’s good Peking duck at Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant.

And at the Rosewood Beijing’s restaurant, the Country Kitchen, they have all these authentic Chinese dishes, including Peking duck, and a lot of local seasonal dishes, and all kinds of Peking handmade, handcut noodles. Very good beef noodles. It’s very good and they make it fresh, daily.

One of my favorite things is Peking yogurt. I love Peking yogurt! I remember having it when I visited Beijing when I was little. I stayed with my auntie for 6 months. It was always in a white glass jar. They also make that yogurt at the Country Kitchen. It’s very interesting!

I always call my auntie to make leek pancakes for me. She handrolls all the dough and she stuffs them with leek with all this shrimp in it. It’s my aunt's speciality. She’s like 80 years old! That, you can’t find in the store. It’s my special treat - no one else can have it!

I also like hot pot, and there’s a hot pot place in Rosewood, called RED BOWL. They brew their own beer.

If you have a chance, also go to MEI bar at the Rosewood Beijing. they have great live music and great cocktails. They have a great view where you can see CCTV tower.




You were the youngest principal dancer and the first Chinese principal in the history of San Francisco Ballet. You’re hailed as the most famous ballerina out of Mainland China. What impact do you think you’ve had over the last 20 years?


I think it is a big mark for a Chinese American to be in art world, and in a very unique way. “Oh, YuanYuan is in classical ballet, and she is Chinese! She made big impact in the arts, because ballet originated in Europe, and most likely they always danced in high society.” And I’m one of the Chinese that made it that far, and made a huge impact on this art form.

So I’m very grateful that I got this opportunity, and I’m very happy that something in me - that’s Chinese - works very hard, is dedicated, and is always trying my best. It’s in my virtue to try my best, in my blood as Chinese. And that’s what made me who I am in this difficult art form.

But it’s what you have to do: dedicate your life to it. I say I’m a loner. You have to be a loner to make it to this point. I see this a lot - it’s interesting.

You don’t ask for it, you don’t think about it, but you just do it, and that’s just the way I am. I’m still single. I do my work.




You are originally from Shanghai. What are some of your other favorite destinations to travel to?


I’ve been to Iceland three times for performances. It’s really interesting. But the first time I was there, I lost sleep because of the daylight - 22 hours of daylight that first time I was there. The reason we we went there because the San Francisco Ballet director, Helgi Tomasson, is from Iceland.

They have a very good Blue Lagoon. It’s a hot spring from a volcano. It’s a unique place to do hot springs. I suggest to any readers who go to Iceland that you can’t miss the Blue Lagoon.

They also have phenomenal fish. Pretty much in any restaurant, if you order fish, you can’t go wrong. That’s the furthest place I been to.

I been to Greece, and it’s quite nice. I, of course, love Paris. I won my gold medal there when I was 16. I have very found memories of that place.

Another place I liked was Prague. I went before they became the Czech Republic. That was way back in 1998, and I was the first Asian ballerina to dance in their 200-year old opera house. My English wasn’t great at that time, so I barely said anything. Just smiled and danced.

I perform and smile a lot. I‘ve been to a lot of interesting places just for performances.

There are a lot of places I want to go: Chiang Mai, Thailand. I want to go to the Silk Road, and explore more in China. Another place I want to explore is Turkey. I haven’t been to Australia and New Zealand, yet.  Lots of places I haven’t been, yet!



What else do you want our Privy readers to know about you?


I am very grateful that I have gone so far. I did not plan or dream about being the most recognized Asian female ballerina on the world stage. I really am grateful and I want to thank my parents who supported me all these years, to take in who I am. And to have all my friends supporting me is another plus for my art form. They are really big fans, and people are really there for me in hard times. Friends can come and go and the ones that remain, I am thankful to, for being there all these years, supporting me for who I am. The way I shape myself, YuanYuan, is with the people around me, and the things that happen with them, good or bad. I am grateful.




What do you like about Privy and the promise it offers?


Privy Magazine is quite unique. When I saw the website, I felt it was very vibrant. I feel very proud an Asian doing so great in a foreign country. I’m happy to see other Asians are interested in that, too. Also very happy to see the younger generation of Asians doing so well.

I was happy to participate in the San Francisco Chase mooncake and tea Tasting event. I hope there are more of those events, so all of us Asians can cherish each other and get to know each other better. I hope to meet more people outside of the ballet world. Do let me know about more events! I want to expand my wings. And in the near future, I want to do more things between China and the U.S.




Onto the Fun Stuff!


My last meal on Earth would be:

My mom’s “vegetarian goose.” It’s layered tofu skin. It taste that would be the skin of a goose.

Or any of my mom’s home cooking. My mom is a fantastic and gourmet cook. I think she should be on a cooking show. All these years she took care of me, making all these nutritious dishes for me so I could dance better. She doesn’t put a lot of oil in dishes, low sugar, always uses the most fresh ingredients. And there’s always a touch of her secret ingredients. She never repeats the same thing. She should have a TV show!

Actually, I learned from her, and I can cook too, very well. I want your readers to know!

Home away from home:
Shanghai is home away from home. I was a teenager when I left my hometown. Shanghai is my roots. I was born and raised there. Certain things you can never let go of. If I could choose, this city is where I would be living in.

Dream vacation:
Maybe the South of France, to get lost. Or Tuscany to get lost. I don’t really have a sense of direction and I get lost often! Then I panic. But in a vacation setting, if I get lost, I will be relaxed.

Essential wardrobe item:
It’s an accessory, like jewelry. As ballerina, I love shoes! I love high heels, but my feet hurt all the time. I collect them and look at them all the time, like Carrie from “Sex and the City.” I love them and admire them. They are beautiful works of art. They make my feet hurt, but I love to have them.

Essential gadget:
I have to have my phone. For communicating with people people, video, email, video of ballet clips, everything. The phone is the gadget I have to have. Also for GPS! Because I get lost easily, haha.

Last great book I read:
“Dream of the Red Chamber” - Chinese book. I tried to read it in both the Chinese version and the English version. It’s very hard. It’s one of the most famous books in Chinese history. I’m still working on it, because it’s very long and complicated, but I absolutely love it.

Photo Credits: Burberry, Erik Tomasson for San Francisco Ballet, Rosewood Hotels, Xian Sun for Marie Claire China



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