A charismatic woman, a mother of one and successful entrepreneur, has a lot to say about pain, hopes and dreams. Winnie Tango never gives up.
Photographs: Raimonda Kulikauskiene / Winnie Tango
Text: Martina Popadakova
Three years ago, Winnie and her family decided to leave their home in Hong Kong and make a fresh start in Denmark. This now successful entrepreneur and loving single mother did not have a typical "falling in love with Denmark" beginning. Here, Winnie talks about love, a failed marriage, work and the constant positive attitude that helped her to get through challenging times.
Winnie was born in what was then British Hong Kong. Growing up back in the 1980s Hong Kong was already very international, and Winnie says this influenced her a lot. "I could never just sit alone in front of the computer; I always had a passion for working with people." She worked in various sectors; financial, airline and tourism industry to being self-employed before she came to Denmark. Her dedication and discipline to learn and master new skills quickly came from her background. She describes her childhood: "Back in Hong Kong, we have a joke about every mother being a 'Tiger Mum', which means that parents teach their children to behave in a certain way. When I was in school, my mom would always push me to be the first one, for example, to get the best grades. Naturally, I was under a lot of pressure, I always felt I have to be on top." She considered it very normal coming from this kind of background until she moved to Denmark and realised that parents focus primarily on the happiness of their children here. She offered this insight: The children in Denmark are encouraged to be playful and be themselves, whereas, in Hong Kong, I had to do homework every day from an early age." Winnie, mother to a 7-year-old girl, wants to give her daughter the best environment and believes that Denmark has a different way of looking at education, it provides various opportunities.
Love, struggles and a new start in Denmark
Winnie met her Danish partner who had a child from a previous relationship back in Hong Kong in 2006. They would visit Denmark from time to time and lived in Beijing for over a year, where Winnie opened her own café and beauty centre. When Winnie was ready to settle down and start a new family, it was the natural choice. The couple returned back to Hong Kong and got married in 2011. Two years later, Winnie became pregnant, and when their daughter was born, she stopped working to focus on her new-born. At the time, her husband was juggling a stressful job, long working hours, and was unable to spend time with his new family – that's when the cracks in the relationship started to appear. Winnie explains the reason behind their decision to move to Denmark: "We both tried to save our family and marriage, and when he was offered a position in Billund, we had to make a decision. It felt like the right decision. We hoped that moving to Denmark would give us a more stable ground and a promising 'work-life balance' environment."
Disappointment, threat, escape and support from the Danish community
Winnie and her family moved to Denmark in the summer of 2017. Coming from a multicultural big city to sleepy Billund was a bit of a shock. "Moving to the home of LEGO, I imagined the city was close to the size of Copenhagen, which I had visited before. I remember arriving at Billund airport, and my impression was 'Did we arrive already? Is this Billund airport?' It was amusing because it took us barely five minutes to find the exit." Winnie quickly realised that she needed to adapt to a slow-paced and quiet town with not so many opportunities. "This new way of living was not such a big problem for me, because I prioritised my family and I hoped that this was the right environment to create a happier life."
With an already grown-up stepson and four-year-old daughter, Winnie was ready and excited to get back to work. "I could not just sit at home, I wanted to do something. But I, unfortunately, was not supported on this front, he was convinced that I needed to learn the language first to find a job." It is not in Winnie's nature to focus on a problem, but preferably on the solution instead, and at that time she believed that "If I cannot get a job without speaking Danish, then I will create something of my own." Her focus on getting back to the job market was postponed for another couple of months. The expectations of a more balanced life turned out to be more limiting and unhealthier. "I was not supported to find a job or socialise to extend my network. My husband's circumstances had changed too, with less working hours, less pressure and more free time, instead of spending time with our family, the cracks started to resurface again." Winnie was stuck in a dysfunctional marriage until the point where she started to fear for her and her daughter's safety.
It was the December evening before Christmas Eve that the situation escalated - threats of losing her daughter and freedom. "I had to either accept the reality that I'm in his country or if I try to change things, I might lose my daughter." She made a hard decision that night, fearing that Christmas would turn into disaster; "I packed our things, booked the only Airbnb nearby and left with my daughter early in the morning. I felt relieved that we were safe and free, but the biggest questions started worrying me 'will I lose my daughter? Can I find a place to live? How can I survive without work? How I can stay in Denmark?' We were still a married couple, and my visa was depending on it."
With an uncertain future but safe environment, Winnie would soon figure the way out. It was thanks to generous help and guidance of the Danish Airbnb owner, who felt something was not right. "For the owner, it was very suspicious to have a mom and daughter staying for the night on Christmas." When Winnie asked for an available apartment to rent, a Danish family offered her a place to stay during Christmas, until she would find a new place to start over. During that time, she needed to make a decision about whether they will stay in Denmark or return back to Hong Kong. "I missed my home, I wanted to go back to Hong Kong, but at this moment, I had to consider the bigger picture. For me, it would be easy to go back to my country, where I speak the language and could start my own business again. But at the same time, I wanted the best for my daughter, and she already had a gap in her Hong Kong education, so I decided the best would be to continue living here in Denmark."
"I missed my home, I wanted to go back to Hong Kong, but at this moment, I had to consider the bigger picture."
Taking back independence, a new beginning and launching a business
When Winnie decided to move things forward at the beginning of 2018, she did not expect it would take so long. "I heard that divorce in Denmark is straightforward, but in the end, it was a long process due to issues with visas and custody. It took one year to figure everything out." In the meantime, she had a natural desire to do something. "I could not sit and wait, I started an education, searched many work websites, attended courses in the business centre. I wanted to understand the rules and build a base for creating my own business." Winnie utilised her previous experiences; a passion for connecting people and a love for food, by launching her own catering service.
She catered two successful events at the beginning of her court cases, but she felt satisfied that she was doing something meaningful for Danish and international people in Billund. "I catered an event for the Connect Group of internationals under the umbrella of Billund Kommune, followed by the Swimming Cup Organization Event for 30 people." Winnie gained confidence in pursuing her business dream and bringing it to another level.
Before she really believed in her ability to achieve something, she encountered one more challenge. On the recommendation of her Danish connection, she agreed to visit one of many 'Crisis Centres' for Violence and Family to get support, safe ground and guidance. It turned out to be a very painful experience for her. "When I arrived there, I saw a woman around my age holding a girl on one side and a trolley on the other. I will never forget the eyes of the little girl who was around the same age as my daughter. The way she looked and walked; you could feel the sadness in every move. From that day, I kept this picture in my head, but I promised myself at that moment I didn't want my daughter to come across in the same way to other people. I needed to take care of myself and my daughter." She decided to not join the Crisis Centre and move forward on her own. "This was a powerful moment when I made clear what I wanted and what I didn't want – I was not a victim."
With a new direction, Winnie continued expanding her business idea. "When I suggested my business idea to the business centre, it was taken off the table, and I was instead advised again to learn Danish first before starting a business." Winnie wanted to work again and could not imagine spending the next 2 years just learning a language, instead, she decided how to go about it another way. "I should not focus on what is impossible, but I should focus on what is possible." Winnie was advised by many to give up on her dreams, but after what seemed like a very long year, things started to change. At the beginning of 2019, her divorce was finalised, she received her visa and most importantly, full custody of her child. This official independence set her on the plan to realise her dreams.
Combining her previous experiences in finance and tourism, she created a new opportunity to start a rental business in the home of LEGO, rich in tourists. "I invested in real estate, cooperated with investors, expanded and thus secured a safe base for my daughter and me. I had no choice, I had to make it happen, I risked it all."
"I really hope that one day I can do more work related to children from families in crisis."
When her business and life stabilised, she started thinking about her next steps. Last winter, Winnie was invited to cater a Christmas event for a group of LEGO employees. "It was a significant moment for me because one year ago, there were people that helped me when I needed, and this time, I wanted to give something back." She turned it into a charity event and donated profits to the S.O.S Børnebyernes Organisation. The current corona crisis impacted every sphere of life and also Winnie's business. "All businesses felt it, of course, mine too, but overall, I am pleased it has survived the crisis, and I can continue and expand."
One of Winnie biggest steps has been to relocate to Copenhagen. It was with a heavy heart that Winnie decided to leave her 'lille by' of Billund, the progressive city that has held her and her daughter close to its heart. However, this is not goodbye as she visits often due to her business interests in Billund - so she will still have a foot in Jutland. The main move to Copenhagen is not only to expand her creative side of her business but for her daughter's enrollment in the very popular International School of Hellerup - both are looking forward to the new adventure. While handling her business remotely, it is no surprise, Winnie is full of new ideas. "I really hope that one day I can do more work related to children from families in crisis. Also, to raise awareness for the Crisis Centres here in Denmark, where so many women seek a safe space. Unfortunately, many of them do not have enough resources to get back on their feet and start over, as I could and did. Thus, many stay dependent on this kind of support. There is a lot to reconsider the way these families are being helped, many times held back instead of moving forward."
After a challenging and tough 3 years of living in Denmark, Winnie feels that she is moving in the right direction. Through her experiences, we can all feel inspired by Winnie's positive attitude, as she described it: "Focus on what is possible, navigate the way to achieve it. Learn at the same time during the navigation of the process." Her story is inspiring and challenging, but she has always kept a smile on her face.
Winnie shares 3 tips for our international readers on how to feel more at home and stay positive:
#1 I realised that the easiest way to connect with Danes is to talk about food and the
weather. Once you make some friends, you can openly talk about any topics, from
politics to personal things.
#2 To make new friends you should join social, cultural, and sports events. This is the
hardest part because you really need to get out there.
#3 After some time away from home, you really start missing your local food. Instead of
craving the food I can't buy here, I buy a food similar to the original and recreate my
traditional food as a new one. You would be surprised how many times it tastes much
better than before. Experiment!