The Great Room’s Yian Huang and Jaelle Ang on writing their own rules for success

The story of Yian Huang and Jaelle Ang has the makings of a Hollywood romantic comedy. Two ostensibly different people are thrown together, alchemy occurs, and they emerge hand in hand to happily ever after.

The year was 2010 and Bangkok was roiling in Red Shirt protests. A Japanese journalist had been shot, violence was escalating and the city was forced into a lockdown. Huang, a photojournalist who was in the city to document the riots, was taking shelter in Ang’s downtown condominium, shocked at the chaos and lawlessness. Ang had moved from Singapore months earlier to spearhead the waterfront development of Bangkok’s Capella Hotel, Four Seasons Hotel and Four Seasons Private Residences. They’d met during her farewell party in September 2009, but she did not have a good impression. “This hotshot conflict photographer, who had just come back from New York, sauntered in with models and left 20 minutes later.”

But, being trapped in an apartment with him, not knowing when the crisis would end and rationing the food that they had managed to grab from the supermarket, opened her eyes to his better qualities.

Huang, who had covered war zones in his career, knew what to do. The food needed to be cooked in advance, for example, because the electricity might be cut so there was no point in keeping frozen items. “He had all these steps and procedures – if the police come to drag us out, if one person gets shot, this is what to do. He positioned himself as the hero,” recalls Ang, 38. “I am as Singaporean as they come; these things are not second nature to me.”

“Yes, it worked!” Huang, 45, chimes in, punching the air. “I didn’t even think of it as a tactic.” He popped the question after the Bangkok riots. “We always say we dated for less than a month,” says Ang. “It’s so embarrassing that it was barely one to two weeks.”

She adds: “Fundamentally, we have a lot of things in common. We’re very curious and nerdy (they play backgammon before bed five nights a week). We want to travel the world. We are both eternal Peter Pans – that we can be grown-ups and remain childlike at the same time. We want to feel like we can have it all.”

But, by whose definition of “having it all”, though?

 

SELF-DISCOVERY

They have gone on to found co-working space The Great Room (TGR) and have four children under the age of seven.

On the surface, Huang met the stereotypical Asian ideal of success. The Raffles Institution alumnus did well enough to score a place in pre-medicine – his parents were doctors – but found out that he was more interested in the equipment than patient care. “So, I ‘downgraded’ to studying computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, business at Wharton and got double degree.”

“I was the Asian poster boy, very correct in everything I did. I guess I got disillusioned. Each stage of my trajectory didn’t give me what I thought I was looking for.”

 

He arrived at photography through experimentation and failure: not getting into postgraduate studies at Harvard and Stanford universities after having worked at management consultancy Bain & Company for three years. Not having the required stamina to train to be a competitive sailor at the age of 27. Through photography, he finally found what he was searching for: a way to connect with people. “I’m an introvert. It was the tool that allowed me to interact with others in a manner that really spoke to me.”

He would hone his craft as a photojournalist at the Associated Press. Two years later, he left for Columbia University to get master’s degrees in journalism and international a airs, for a better grasp of his subjects. Now he runs the Instagram account for TGR, for which he’s chief financial officer. “It’s just taking portraits of the community. I love this process of sitting with someone, even if it’s a short five minutes, and spending that quiet time together.”

While Huang was figuring out his calling, Ang was being schooled in life lessons at Hwa Chong Institution Boarding School, as her parents were working in China. She recalls being the only Singaporeans there, and integrating with people of different nationalities, which is “not common for Singaporeans at such an early age”. From the Asean scholars, she learnt grit and, from the rest of the motley crew, she gleaned ingenuity.

“The scholars were so focused and even memorised the English dictionary because it’s not their first language. I tried and died at F,” the Raffles Girls’ School alumnus says with a chuckle. “That ridiculous work ethic – I remember it to this day. They believed that grades were everything but, apart from guarding what was important, everything else was negotiable. You learn to focus on the outcome and still negotiate your way to sort of have it all.”

“Then there were the other students who were not scholars, but were very precocious and street smart. They had this resilience and resourcefulness, like how to get out of the hostel when we weren’t supposed to. Of course, I was Debbie Downer. But you’d imagine that I changed over time and figured ways to, for example, skip supervised homework time by going for swim training. No rules were unbroken and there were so many ways to play it. That really shaped my thinking,” says Ang, who later studied at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture and Imperial College.

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WORLDLY INSIGHT

We’re ensconced in a private lounge at TGR’s Ngee Ann City location – its third in Singapore – which opened its doors six months ago. Perched on the 22nd storey, the 15,000 sq ft space is bathed in natural light. Which is perfect because Huang is about to take his own measurements using a random piece of string he’s found and a plastic ruler.


“LIFE IS TOO SHORT, LET’S NOT WASTE TIME OVER SUCH TRIVIALITY.”

HUANG, WHO MADE DO WITH A RULER AND STRING TO GET HIS MEASUREMENTS


He doesn’t know his clothing sizes and we’ve been chasing for them, in order to arrange his wardrobe for this photo shoot, so he’s decided to measure himself on the spot. “Life is too short, let’s not waste time over such triviality,” he says, wrapping the cord around his neck. He soon realises the string is slightly elastic, but is determined to make it work.

It is this spontaneity that continues to drive the couple in their pursuit of living life to its fullest. Take their honeymoon to Uganda and Ethiopia. The only planning they did was booking return plane tickets and the first night’s accommodation in Uganda. “Travelling allows us to be curious, to wander and to not plan,” says Ang.

On the flight there, they befriended a private military contractor who was going home to Uganda from Iraq, and took up his invitation to visit his family in various parts of the country – his sister prepared Christmas lunch that included suspicious-looking innards; his mother was a pastor to 14 Aids orphans; his father’s second wife headed a fundamentalist Muslim school; and his father was living with his third wife. To give back to the community, they bought goats and hens to set up a breakfast programme for an orphanage. “You might say we haven’t seen Uganda, or what’s in the tour book. But we see it as having experienced the complete cross- section of its society,” Huang says.

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Or that time when they ditched plans to visit Kashmir, while in transit in Delhi, to attend Kumbh Mela, the Hindu pilgrimage where millions gather to bathe in a sacred river. “We were frantically looking for accommodation. I remember brushing my teeth by the river when Yian ran up to me, with two choices: US$600 (S$830) for two nights at a one-star motel, or the home for the destitute. We opted for the former,” Ang recalls.

“We plan our travels via a 2×2 matrix. It’s a scale of how much effort it takes to get there and, perceived versus actual risk. So obviously you want to go to places that make you seem so gung-ho, but are actually very safe,” says Huang with a chortle.

 

A LIFETIME’S WORK

Compared to their impromptu travels, everything about TGR has been meticulously planned. While local co-working spaces have traditionally been utilitarian and used by budget-conscious clients, TGR has upped the ante with plush yet functional interiors designed by hospitality specialists – One George Street and Centennial Tower were by Distillery Studio, while Ngee Ann City was by Michael Fiebrich Design. Lighting experts, whose portfolio includes Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and Aman Resorts, were roped in to achieve optimal ambient lighting for TGR.

More significantly, TGR is a culmination of their own experiences – Ang’s background in hospitality and design, Huang’s interest in human connections, and their way of creating opportunities for meaningful interactions. “I guess it’s somewhat a reflection of us,” says Ang. “It’s for those who are curious, ambitious and want to live larger than life, like us. There’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of play, but there’s a way to have it all.”

“We saw the opportunity to bring together the bits of life that inspire us, whether it’s design, other people or their stories. We recognise that the definition of work is changing faster than ever and, therefore, it’s free for everyone to define. It’s exciting to take a shot at it, learn and push boundaries.”

While some avoid mixing work with pleasure, Huang and Ang attest to the high level of trust – the third co-founder is Huang’s sister – that has become the foundation of the business. Ang says: “No matter how different our decisions and opinions are, it’s guided by the same true north in terms of values.”

TGR’s success and rapid expansion are testament to this synergy. Last year, it raised over $5 million from Capitaland’s corporate venture fund C31 Ventures, venture capital firm iGlobe Partners and the family office of Goldbell Group. That figure will have swelled to over $40 million by the end of this year.

A month after opening in Ngee Ann City in June, TGR launched its first overseas outpost in Bangkok’s Gaysorn Tower. A second space is due in the city’s Sindhorn Tower next year.

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Congratulations, they insist, are not in order yet. “You know, it’s what we’ve come to refer to as the swan,” Huang says. “It looks nice on the surface, but underneath we’re furiously peddling.” Their next destinations are Hong Kong and Shanghai.

 

#LIFEGOALS2050

Yet TGR almost didn’t come to fruition. Ang admits that, for a long time, she couldn’t wrap her head around having four children – the two youngest are twin boys – because she hadn’t become the entrepreneur she wanted to be and the idea of TGR was brewing. But, while some people view marriage and having kids as a series of larger and deeper compromises in life, she chose to shift her mindset.

Balance is a fallacy, says Ang, and the sooner you realise it, the better position you put yourself in. “(Ex Citigroup CFO) Sallie Krawcheck told me that when I was working there as an analyst. Choose the rubber balls you can afford to drop, and the glass balls you can’t afford to break.”

“Having a big family is more important to Yian than it is to me, in this path of self-actualisation. I see myself spending a lot of time in my career and building something. Usually, that would seem like a zero sum game. And we each want to be our own Peter Pan and have our own adventures. We choose to see it as ‘how can we make this work?’ rather than ‘that will not work’.”

By the time they celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in 2050, Huang hopes that they would have fulfilled their potential and personal growth both as individuals and as a couple. “How do we each get what we want, while supporting the other in this journey? I have plans broken down into 10 years, five years, one year, and right down to the next day. Once you have clarity of your goal, you know where you’re going. Then you do whatever it takes to get there.”

 

BACK TO BASICS

WHILE MANY PARENTS ARE RUSHING TO ENROL THEIR CHILDREN IN COMPUTER PROGRAMMING AND CODING CLASSES, HUANG AND ANG ARE RESISTING THE TREND.

They have chosen a low-tech life where gadgets are not welcomed. Heck, they don’t even own a TV in their Emerald Hill shophouse where they’ve lived for the last four years. “We’re more caught up in developing the soft skills and intangibles like resilience, resourcefulness, empathy, being able to work, connect and communicate with people, curiosity and independent learning,” says Ang, who sits on the board of Playeum, a non-profit that advocates play and creativity.

To reinforce such a lifestyle and not cave in to convenience, it’s not surprising that even the parents themselves need grit. “You need an entire team. Using tech to babysit is the easy way out,” Huang says. So here’s what they do instead:

1 AT HOME

“We read, do lots of art and craft, and pretend play,” says Ang. “Right now, they’re into Roald Dahl so we do audio books and they love acting out stuff.”

2 OUTDOORS

This is Huang’s domain. Besides going for walks around the Emerald Hill neighbourhood twice a day – they’ve become pally with the neighbours and their pets – he gets the kids to touch everything and anything – from millipedes to snails. Their favourite activities include dancing in the rain and walking barefoot on grass. “Kids don’t get that in the city, right?”

3 ON PLANES

The parents are armed with toys and books to entertain the children. “We also walk up and down the aisles, and talk to people,” says Huang.

4 WITH GRANDPARENTS

“My kids cook a lot with my mum, like making xiao long bao, tang yuan and rice dumplings,” Ang says. “They do a lot of puzzles with his family.”

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This article is originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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