Journey of a Thousand Miles


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Born into poverty in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Ruey Yu overcame near-starvation during the Second World War. Destiny, however, had other plans for him: he was to become an award-winning biochemist, then the co-founder of what would soon become the multi-million-dollar skin care company NeoStrata.

After living through the Second World War and the post-war military dictatorship of General Chiang Kai-Shek, Dr. Yu won a coveted post-graduate scholarship to study chemistry at the University of Ottawa. He subsequently took up a research position at the renowned Skin and Cancer Hospital (Temple University) in Philadelphia, where he collaborated with pre-eminent dermatologist Dr. Eugene Van Scott to develop treatments for serious skin diseases.

In 1972, Dr. Yu and Dr. Van Scott discovered that fruit acids, known as AHAs, could effectively treat the disfiguring skin disease ichthyosis, changing the lives of thousands of people who suffered from this debilitating illness. Their further research into the biochemical properties of AHAs led to the discovery of the anti-wrinkle and anti-aging effects of these natural substances—a discovery that was licensed by skin care companies around the world, sparking the multibillion-dollar cosmeceutical industry.
Issu d’un milieu défavorisé dans un Taiwan sous occupation japonaise, Ruey Yu évite de justesse la famine qui déferle sur son pays pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Le destin attend de lui autre chose : il devait devenir un biochimiste primé, puis le cofondateur de ce qui allait devenir la multinationale américaine spécialisée en soins de la peau, NeoStrata. 

Il survit donc non seulement à la Seconde Guerre mondiale, mais aussi à la dictature militaire qui suit la guerre, sous le règne du général Tchang Kaï-chek, avant d’obtenir une bourse d’études diplômées fort prisée offerte par l’Université d’Ottawa. Plus tard, il obtient un poste de chercheur au prestigieux Skin and Cancer Hospital (Temple University) de Philadelphie, où il collabore avec le dermatologue Eugene Van Scott, au développement de traitements permettant de soigner de graves maladies de la peau. 

En 1972, ils découvrent que les acides a-hydroxylés, ou AHA, combattaient efficacement l’ichtyose, une maladie cutanée, transformant la vie de milliers de personnes atteintes de cette maladie débilitante. Des recherches plus poussées dans les propriétés des AHA leur ont permis de découvrir les propriétés anti-rides et anti-âge de ces substances naturelles – une découverte qui a été brevetée par les entreprises de soins de la peau partout dans le monde, donnant le coup d’envoi à l’industrie cosméceutique, qui rapporte des milliards de dollars.



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Published 14 November 2017
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EAN13 9780776625690
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The University of Ottawa Press gratefully acknowledges the support extended to its publishing
program by the Government of Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts
Council, the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences through the Awards to Scholarly
Publications Program, and the University of Ottawa.
Copy editing: Susan James
Proofreading: Lesley Mann
Typesetting: Édiscript enr.
Cover design: Édiscript enr.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Yu, Ruey J., author
Journey of a thousand miles: an extraordinary life / Dr. Ruey J. Yu with Kate Jaimet.
Issued in print and electronic formats
ISBN 978-0-7766-2567-6 (softcover)
ISBN 978-0-7766-2568-3 (PDF)
ISBN 978-0-7766-2569-0 (EPUB)
ISBN 978-0-7766-2570-6 (Kindle)
1. Yu, Ruey J. 2. Dermatologists—United States—Biography. 3. Pharmacologists—United
States—Biography. 4. Autobiographies. I. Jaimet, Kate, 1969-, author II. Title.
RL46.3.Y9A3 2017 616.50092 C2017-905715-4
Printed in Canada
© University of Ottawa Press, 2017Table of Contents
Foreword, by Eugene J. Van Scott
Prologue: Taiwan, 1946
Chapter 1 Coal Dust and Daydreams
Chapter 2 Bowing to the Emperor
Chapter 3 A “City Monkey” in the Country
Chapter 4 Starvation and Surrender
Chapter 5 Return to Hsinchu
Chapter 6 The Tale of the Poor Scholar
Chapter 7 A Diamond in the Trash
Chapter 8 Pedalling Through Taipei
Chapter 9 Pure Chemistry
Chapter 10 Quemoy
Chapter 11 Snowed Under
Chapter 12 Coming to America
Chapter 13 A Life-Changing Discovery
Chapter 14 Taking a Gamble
Chapter 15 Avon Calling
Chapter 16 A Wrinkle in the Business
Chapter 17 Head to Head with the Pink Lady
Chapter 18 Moving Forward, Giving Back
Chapter 19 New Research Directions
Epilogue: Philosophy and Vision of My Life
Afterword: Ruey Yu as a Child of Taiwan, by Scott SimonA journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
LAO TZUF o r e w o r d
MY CAREER in medical and biological science research has been divided into two distinct
phases: the before-Ruey Yu period and the Ruey Yu period. Throughout both, I sought to
associate with and work with those who would be my teachers in areas of science where I
was less knowledgeable. Since 1968, Ruey has been the scientist/teacher for me.
He has a dogged determination to continually expand the scope of his own knowledge
and capabilities, to become expert in new fields through relentless, intensive study.
Examples are many.
After Temple University failed to obtain a patent for our initial discovery of compounds
to promote skin pigmentation—i.e., esterified derivatives of dihydroxyphenylalanine
(DOPA)—he took it upon himself to write a new patent application that resulted in the
granting to us of a valid patent from the U.S. Patent Office. Thereafter, all our patent
applications were first drafted by Ruey before being sent to a patent attorney.
Later, when the dermatology department where we were conducting our joint research
was abolished, our only alternative was to try to launch a business whose revenues could
help us to continue our research. After our efforts to explore collaborations with
jointventure entities floundered, Ruey took it upon himself to become knowledgeable in
business operation, while continuing to pursue new frontiers in bioscience.
How this singularly talented man came to be, physically and intellectually, is a
challenge to scientific comprehension. Although he grew up severely deprived of
nutrients, his brain developed a spectacular intellectual capacity. Perhaps the horrific
conditions of his early life are what propelled his lifelong commitment to finding
preventatives, cures, and solutions for humankind’s illnesses, imperfections, and needs.
Whatever the factors involved, Ruey is an extraordinary human being. To have had
decades to collaborate so closely with such a complex, talented man has been a reward I
continue to cherish.
Actualities achieved from our working together are essentially two. Primary are the
discoveries of quite a few biochemical determinants of dermatologic form and function;
we were still finding new ones as of the time of this writing in early 2016. The second is
establishing a prestigious company that provides products for preventive and therapeutic
dermatologic care, as well as for healthy skin appearance. The company has
distinguished itself by scientifically testing products against comparator products or
formulations, and by publishing or otherwise publicizing the results for open scrutiny. The
company’s management team over recent years has enthusiastically shared Ruey’s and
my goals.Dr. Eugene Van Scott and Dr. Ruey Yu have enjoyed a long and fruitful scientific collaboration.
Ruey has repeatedly said to me, “We do not need to have good luck.
We do need to have the absence of bad luck.”
Ruey has repeatedly said to me along the way, “We do not need to have good luck.
We do need to have the absence of bad luck.” Luckily, events along the way have turned
out in our favour.
Taiwan, 1946
FATE stepped into my life one tropical spring day in 1946.
I was a fourteen-year-old boy with a passion for math and sciences. I was small for
my age, my growth stunted by hunger and hard labour during the war years. But the
war lay behind me now, and ahead lay a future of knowledge that I hoped to pursue.
I had risen early, as usual, that day for the long walk to the Hsinchu elementary
school—through the soot-choked air of the railway yards near our home, down the
dusty, windswept streets of the city, past rows of houses interspersed with bomb
craters and piles of rubble. In the classroom, the atmosphere was hot and humid,
hinting at the sweltering summer to come. An end-of-school feeling hung in the air—a
buzz of excitement and uncertainty—when the teacher singled out me and three other
boys for a special opportunity.
I glanced at the other three boys. It was easy to imagine becoming a
mechanical engineer. But chemical engineering? The very words
meant nothing to us. “Mechanical engineering, sir,” all four of us
For most of the students in my class, elementary school graduation would mean the
end of formal education. They would leave school and find low-paying jobs in service
industries or manual labour. But the top four students had a chance to continue their
education at the Hsinchu vocational junior high school, the teacher said. And I stood
among those top four students.
“There are only two majors: mechanical engineering and chemical engineering,” the
teacher told us. “Which do you choose?”
I glanced at the other three boys. It was easy to imagine becoming a mechanical
engineer. In dozens of small shops around Hsinchu—the fifth largest city in Taiwan—
we’d seen mechanical engineers at work, building and repairing tools, fixing motorbikes
or broken appliances. But chemical engineering? The very words meant nothing to us.
“Mechanical engineering, sir,” all four of us answered.
“I see we have a problem,” said the teacher.
There were not enough spots for all of us to enter the mechanical stream, he
explained. Two of us must choose chemical engineering. The teacher sent us home to
discuss the matter with our parents.
I laid the problem before my father that evening, in the simple, two-room dwelling
where we lived with my mother, grandmother, and younger brother. The house had a
dirt floor, no indoor plumbing, and a bamboo kitchen table made permanently wobbly
by the resident termites that chewed at its legs.
My father was a good and gentle man, but he had no education and couldn’t read or
write. A railway station janitor, he had spent his entire life scraping by on meagre
wages that often didn’t suffice to put shoes on our feet and rice on our table. To him,
the choice was clear. A certificate in mechanical engineering meant a guaranteed job
and a good income. A certificate in chemical engineering seemed like a path to
nowhere.Ruey Yu’s father, Ah-Shain Wei, worked as a janitor in the Hsinchu railway station.
“Chemical engineering? I’ve never even heard of it. You won’t find a job,” he said.
“No. Tell your teacher you must be a mechanical engineer.”
I opened my mouth and spoke two words. Two words that would set
me on a path to a career, a wife, a family, a new life in a new country,
and to success and honours beyond those I had ever dreamed
Two words that changed my destiny.
Chemical engineering.
But when I brought my answer to my teacher the next day, the three other boys all
had the same response.
“I see we have a problem,” the teacher repeated.
He resolved that we should draw lots to choose our career paths. I drew my slip of
paper out of the bowl and, full of trepidation, looked at the characters written on it.
Chemical engineering.
Tears sprang to my eyes. To have come so close to securing an education that
would lift my family out of poverty—and to have failed. What would I tell my father?
“Please,” I implored. “My father will never forgive me.”“You drew this lot,” the teacher said, not without sympathy. “Tell me, in your heart of
hearts, what would you like to study?”
At that moment, I experienced a mental dissociation that I can’t explain, even to this
day. I knew what I needed to say. I knew what my father expected of me. My brain was
shouting: “mechanical engineering.” I opened my mouth and spoke two words. Two
words that would set me on a path to a career, a wife, a family, a new life in a new
country, and to success and honours beyond those I had ever dreamed possible.
Two words that changed my destiny.
Chemical engineering.1
Coal Dust and Daydreams
MY MEMORIES of early childhood are shrouded in a fog of coal smoke and the din of
freight trains clanging through the railway station behind our home. Amid those hazy
recollections, one scene stands out forever in my mind—a scene that, even today, hits
me with the raw force of childhood emotion.
I was a very young boy, perhaps three or four years old. I was playing in the dirt
yard outside our front door, while my mother occupied herself inside. My father, as
usual, had gone to his job cleaning the grime and coal dust from the railway station.
Like the other families of the railway labourers, we lived in a single-room unit in
long, low row of wooden barracks behind the station. Our unit housed three adults—my
mother, father, and grandmother—along with three children—me, my newborn brother
Juiming, and my half-sister Chi-Ying.
Chi-Ying was a chubby little girl of seven or eight, who often took care of me while
my mother was busy cooking, cleaning, washing, and sewing. But that day, something
was happening to Chi-Ying. Something terribly wrong.
Neighbourhood women gathered around our doorstep, sobbing. The door opened
and Chi-Ying and my grandmother came out. The neighbours pressed around them,
calling “farewell.” Even my mother, the pillar of strength at the core of our family, broke
down in tears. I was bewildered. But no one took time to explain things to a little boy.
The next thing I knew, Chi-Ying was gone. A cloud of smoke and the whistle of a
railway train marked the last traces of her departure.
“Where is Chi-Ying going?” I asked my mother. “When will she be back?”
But Chi-Ying wasn’t coming back. My parents had sold her as a domestic servant to
a rich family in Taipei. I wouldn’t see my half-sister again for another twenty years.
Chi-Ying’s departure followed the common pattern for girls of poor families on our
island. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had an older half-sister who had been sold
when I, the first son, was born. My father’s salary barely sufficed to feed and clothe his
wife and two sons. Daughters were a luxury, an extra mouth to feed. No one questioned
Chi-Ying’s fate. A poor family had to make sacrifices to survive.
That was life in Taiwan in the 1930s.
I was born on March 23, 1932, at a time when Taiwan lay under Japanese occupation,
and much of the world lay in the thrall of the Great Depression. Once part of the
Chinese empire, the island of Taiwan had been ceded to Japan in 1895, in the peace
treaty following the Sino-Japanese War. The majority of the population was descended
from Chinese ancestry, and our Japanese rulers taught us to believe that we belonged
to an inferior race. While Japanese men held almost every position of power in
government and commerce, most Taiwanese remained small farmers and labourers.
To the Japanese, the native Taiwanese were little more than slaves; the Japanese, with
their heavenly Emperor Hirohito, represented the pinnacle of civilization.
My father, Ah-Shain Wei, grew up in the farming village of Fangliao, a two-hour walk
inland and upland from our coastal city. He had come to Hsinchu as a young man,hoping to find fortune and excitement in the big city. He’d begun as a noodle vendor on
the city’s bustling streets, but Ah-Shain was kind-hearted to a fault and had no head for
business. He let customers haggle down his prices until the few pennies he earned in
sales proved insufficient to cover his own expenses. Broke and uneducated, he had
finally taken a menial job as a janitor in the Hsinchu railway station.
My mother, Shian-May Liu, was wedded to my father in a marriage arranged by a
professional matchmaker, a common custom in Taiwan at the time. She too had seen
her early hopes in life disappointed. Her first husband, a mailman by the name of Yu,
had divorced her in favour of a younger mistress. After the divorce, my mother was left
to fend for herself with her two young daughters and her mother-in-law—Yu’s mother,
Lin Kuei—who was no longer welcome in her son’s house after his marriage to his new
young wife.
Father, mother, grandmother, and two elder half-sisters—this was the family I was
born into in the barracks behind the railway station. In the normal course of events, my
name should have been Ruey Wei, after my father, Ah-Shain Wei. But a condition had
come attached to Ah-Shain’s marriage to Shian-May, that their first-born son should be
named “Yu” after Shian-May’s first husband, who had no sons of his own. In deference
to my grandmother—who didn’t want to see her son’s name die out, despite his callous
treatment of her—my father accepted the condition. So, though I never laid eyes on the
faithless mailman who had divorced my mother, I was designated to carry his name.
Ruey Yu I became.
My mother ruled the household with a keen mind, a strong will, and a bamboo rod to
keep disobedient little boys in line. Survival was a struggle, and she was determined to
win that struggle through resourcefulness, discipline, and hard work.
Our room in the barracks served as kitchen, dining room, and bedroom all in one. It
had a dirt floor that flooded with several feet of water when the monsoon rains pelted
the island every year from September to November. In the winter, cold winds from
Siberia shivered through the paneless windows. Our entire family slept together in a
single large bed, and the feeling of being dry and warm in bed after a day of rain is one
of the few physical comforts I remember from my childhood.
Our room in the barracks served as kitchen, dining room, and
bedroom all in one. In the winter, cold winds from Siberia shivered
through the paneless windows.
My mother cooked on a small metal stove, stoked with a fire of charcoal or wood.
We ate rice and vegetables, and once a month we could afford a small portion of
chicken or pork—never enough to satisfy the hunger of a growing boy. We usually ran
out of rice by the last week of every month, and as I lay in our communal bed at night, I
would overhear my parents discussing which neighbour they might ask to lend us rice
until my father’s next payday.
We had no indoor plumbing. Instead, we shared an outhouse with several other
families and drew our drinking water from a communal tap a few blocks away. Tiny
worms would settle to the bottom of the bucket as I carried the water home to my
mother. We would scoop our water from the top and boil it before drinking—even then,
it often caused bouts of stomach ache and diarrhea.
From our barracks, I could see the much finer houses of the Japanese railway
officers. These had separate bedrooms, indoor plumbing, and roofs that didn’t leak inthe rain. As a boy, I daydreamed that one day I would live in such a house; one day, I
would have shoes on my feet and eat my fill at dinner every night.
The railway dominated my childhood, as it dominated the city of Hsinchu. My father
toiled there every day, mopping the floors, cleaning the toilets, emptying the garbage
bins, and serving tea to the Japanese office clerks. Afflicted with asthma, he wheezed
and coughed in the air polluted by coal-burning engines. The passengers who bustled
through didn’t see our poor living quarters behind the station, where barefoot children
played in the dirt, mothers hung out their family’s one spare set of clothes on the
laundry lines, and coal smoke thickened the air, so that our handkerchiefs came away
black when we blew our noses. Instead, passengers saw only the prosperous
commercial façade of the railway: the busy passenger carriages clickety-clacking along
the tracks, and the powerful black freight engines towing their boxcars full of coal, steel,
rice, and sugar—products sent from Taiwan to fuel Japanese industrial development
and expansion. On the siding, rows of parallel tracks eighteen abreast held the freight
cars waiting to be filled, emptied, or transferred to another line.
The railway cut the city in half. To the west lay the business district, with its shops
and restaurants and the vast indoor market building where farmers from the
countryside came to sell their meat, rice, and vegetables. To the east, where we lived,
lay the residential district: the streets lined with one- and two-storey brick houses with
peaked roofs, built in the traditional Chinese style.
Despite our poverty, I have many happy memories of my boyhood before the
Second World War. Full of energy and curiosity, I loved to leave the house and explore
the dirt streets and paths of the city. I would chase after anything: snakes in the grass,
frogs and fish in the river. As I grew older, my friends and I would sneak into the
municipal swimming pool through a hole dug under the fence to avoid the entrance fee.
I walked barefoot, since we couldn’t afford shoes, and the soles of my feet soon
became as tough as leather. I could walk over gravel and broken glass. Only
occasionally, when I stepped on a nail, would the sharp point pierce the skin and draw
Though I had lost both my half-sisters, at a young age I formed a close bond with
my little brother, Juiming. As soon as he was old enough to walk, he trailed around after
me. Like most younger siblings, he worshipped his big brother, and I lorded it over him,
bossing him around mercilessly. Yet from a very early age, I knew it was my duty to
protect and provide for him.
I remember one day toward the end of the month when my father’s salary was
running out and there was little money left to buy rice. Both of us were hungry, but
Juiming, being younger, took it harder. We had been playing some game outside, when
the pangs of hunger overcame him and he began to wail. His crying was so intense that
I grew alarmed and ran to my mother.
“Juiming is starving!” I cried.
Frantically, I stoked a wood fire in our little stove and fanned the flames with a
bamboo fan. My mother wearily measured out a small portion of rice.
“Quickly! Juiming is dying of hunger!” I urged.
“Don’t be silly,” my mother snapped. “People don’t die of hunger, just like that!”
Her words stunned me into silence. How could my own mother be so cold?
Yet in the times ahead, I would learn the truth of her words: my brother and I would
endure years of hunger and suffering, and still, somehow, we would survive.