Harvest Queen: Every day is bountiful for tireless PR maven and sports mentor Esther Ma

By Joseff Musa
Jan 02, 2024

Esther Ma makes her entrance at one of her favourite Chinese restaurants so quickly and quietly that few realise she has arrived until she is tucked away in our makeshift dressing room. Rocking black from head to toe, she appears almost to the minute of our agreed call time – a rare feat for personalities of her stature.

“I was just built like this; discipline has always been with me, especially with time,” she says. “I always make sure that every minute of the day is used to good purpose.” Flashing a brilliant smile as she hangs up her clothes and lays out her accessories and makeup, she adds: “I do my cardio religiously first thing in the morning – I guess this is what makes me feel young, energetic and alive.”

Esther Ma is best known as the PR genius behind Prestique, an agency she created almost 30 years ago that has represented, practically from A to Z, the world’s leading names. In fact, she wrote a book on the subject – one of five she has penned – called, simply, The A to Z of PR. She also co-founded Harvest Sky in 2016 with her husband, Harvey Lee and good friend Christina Gaw. The sports management company takes care of 30 of Hong Kong’s best athletes, including Olympians and Asian Games medallists, in a venture that leverages her long-held passion for branding and mentoring.

With all her strengths reflected in an impressive resume of professional projects that distinguishes her colourful career in PR and marketing, one can’t help but wonder what, if anything, is Ma’s weakness? “My daughters. I definitely give in to my daughters,” she answers sincerely. “On one hand I do things to inspire them; on the other hand I let them manipulate me.” She and Lee have two teenage daughters who are both attending boarding school in the U.S.

Then, switching almost instantly to laughter, she says: “I don’t know. Is it wishful thinking that I still hope they will take over my business by the time I retire? I really hope so. But see, as a parent, our job is to support them whatever their dreams may be. So I won’t pressure them to become my corporate successors. I want them to pursue their real passions.”

Middle Riddle

As the only girl and middle child in a traditional Chinese family, Esther had to be self-sufficient to become the woman she is today. Born in Hong Kong and raised in a Christian household by parents who were doctors, she quickly learned to negotiate a very rigid living environment.

“At home, it was all about having proper etiquette. After dinner, I would go straight to my room to do more studying. I know this is weird to hear now, but back in the day, only my two brothers had tutors. I didn’t. I excelled academically on my own,” she confesses.

“Whereas at school, it was a totally different story. I always found school to be an escapade, like the fun haven that I escaped to. Sometimes I can be very mischievous – it’s kind of like a therapeutic outlet for me.”

It is a Ma signature to deliver telling insights in a self-deprecating package. But press a little and she states plainly what her legacy will be. “Confidence and self-belief,” she says. “Even during my formative years, I made my own decisions without consulting my busy parents. Is it a middle-child thing? Maybe. But I guess it all worked out in the end for me.” She laughs: “Even when I applied to boarding schools and universities, I only told my parents that I got in because I needed their financial assistance. I never discussed my school list with them”.

Her Cup of Tea

Creativity is the very essence of her being and it extends to using a teacup to hold a mirror she needs while doing her own makeup. Multitasking as ever, she recounts her success story in the world of PR. Initially, she worked at an investment bank in New York after gaining an economics degree from the University of California, Berkeley. However, the long hours and number-crunching didn’t inspire her to continue along this path.

“I worked 16 hours every day. So one day I just said I had enough of this. I took the subway to Columbia Business School and talked to the admissions director. I told her I really wanted to switch careers and I didn’t think finance was my cup of tea. And given that I’m such a personable girl, I really wanted to get into something more related to human connections and interpersonal relations.”

She took an MBA in management and marketing at Columbia and then she got herself a summer internship with Procter & Gamble. Winning them over, she was offered a permanent position in Hong Kong and was assigned to lead a Japanese beauty brand called SK-II. That was when P&G bought over Max Factor and the brand was renamed SK-II.

“That job required a lot of PR skills,” she recalls. “I was so excited to write press releases and come up with gimmicky, creative ideas for the campaign. I had to train the team and I really loved it. I was very proud to be called ‘the woman behind SK-II’ and ended up receiving the Regional SK-II Brand-Building Award from Procter & Gamble.”

Additionally, she co-chaired the Women’s Committee at the Columbia Business School and built a fundraiser for the Pan-Asian confererence room at the new campus.

Spin to Win

As Ma’s career evolved, so did her interests. As she is a self-taught interior designer and cook, she designed her own ‘Harvest Menu’ – a play on the couple’s first names, Harvey and Esther – and is an avid golfer, a singer and an art lover among many other hobbies. She spins the lazy Susan on the table as a means to explain how she finds the time for the multiple accomplishments and diversions in life. Mimicking selecting dim-sum delicacies from the turntable, she elaborates on the rewards of doing so much.

“Balance and time management! You have to find your balance and prioritise. This is explained in my book Harvest of the 7 Human Vines,” she says. “Similar to having different dishes, you just have to keep on spinning it all the time to make room (and time) for each one. Family, career, hobbies, spiritual, personal – all of it. Have a little bit of everything. With this kind of purposeful mentality, none of my dishes will ever be empty.”

Although she constantly replenishes the bowl of life, she is still hungry for more. “For me, it’s that inner drive to live a fulfilling and purpose-driven life,” she adds.

Asked which rule she would secretly love to break, she draws a final metaphor of life and sports. “I think every golfer should be given two free mulligans on every hole. You can play another tee shot, because sometimes, you know, people should be given a second chance, so they don’t repeat the same mistake,” she explains.

It would be easy to assume a confidence like Ma’s is innate, but that would be a disservice to the maternal side of her character that has matured over the years. It enters the scene as soon as the interview ends: “Should I get some food for all of us? The dim sum here is fantastic. Let’s eat together; I’m starving!”

Interview & Art Direction: Joseff Musa; Photographer: Jack Law; Videographer: Jack Fontanilla; Venue: The Summit; Brands: Shiatzy Chen, Versace & Chloe; Cover: Black shirt and black skirt by Versace, Purple fur edge coat by Shiatzy Chen