Leong Charlie: From Struggling Student To Finding Her Niche As A Nightlife Concept Planner

"All I want is cuddles but all I get is struggles"

By Camillia Dass

June 19 2018

Featured Image: Leong Charlie

Imagine working from 9pm to 6am and then having to go straight to school for a 10am class till about 4pm and then going to work and having the cycle repeat itself. Sounds impossible but for Leong Charlie, 23, this was a reality she faced on most weekdays as she struggled to earn enough money to pay her school fees.

Now, Charlie is a bubbly 23-year-old with a wealth of experience behind her and a bright future ahead.

STYLEGUIDE was given the opportunity to sit down with Charlie from WAN Bar + Kitchen and Nightclub, a place that she helped start and get off the ground.

Photo Credit: Leong Charlie

In the quiet lull of the empty club, just hours before it would be filled with party-goers, Charlie is a dominating presence. Despite being surrounded by men all older and bigger then her, she holds command and effortlessly communicates with them, seeming more a friend than anything.

Charlie was only 18 when she first entered the nightlife scene. She started out as a waitress and then moved on to various jobs in the club. She said candidly: "I started out as a bottle server then moved on to being a waitress, bar maid, and then door girl." Charlie started doing this to earn enough money to pull her through her education at LASALLE College of the Arts where she was doing a degree in Arts Management.

She said: “Finance was an issue and I had to work hard to afford my dream school. Junior College was a lot cheaper so I had to up my game.”

After taking a gap year to earn enough money, Charlie started her education at LASALLE. However, her dream school was not everything she imagined it would be as she found it incredibly hard to get on the same level as her peers.

“I’m very open-minded especially with jokes and I had been working for some time so I found it quite hard to integrate with my peers. A lot of them had different priorities and levels of maturity and it used to frustrate me.”

She spoke soberly of how important her time was to her considering that she had to have everything planned in order to properly balance her work and school life.

“Quite often we would have group projects and we would agree to meet at a specific time but then they would be really late because they were doing other things or just having fun. They didn't understand that I didn't have the luxury of wasting time that way.”

Things finally came to a head when Charlie had to write and submit her thesis. “I did my thesis in a very weird way. I took the first two months to interview everyone and get my research and then I just left my thesis alone for the rest of the year. Finally, with only three months left, one of my professors stepped in and forced me to get started. He pushed me to submit something to him every two weeks.”

Charlie claims that this was what kept her moving forward with her thesis. However, the stress of balancing her work, school and personal life got to be too much and one day, while getting supper, she fainted.

“When I got better, I looked at my life and realised I needed to sort myself out.”

This revelation led Charlie to start attempting to get fit by going to the gym and ended in her flying to East Java to solo climb an active volcano, Mt. Ijen, which was a six hour upward hike.

Photo Credit: Leong Charlie

“At the top of the mountain, the guide told me, ‘It’s not the volcano you have conquered but yourself’ and that was so powerful to me,” she said as she stretched out her arm to show us a tattoo she had gotten of the volcano to remind her of what she was capable of.

Charlie, who once spent some time being homeless and living in her office’s spare room, returned to Singapore with renewed strength and was determined to conquer her thesis.

She camped out at a Starbucks in Orchard for three days where she rushed out her entire thesis.

“It could have been a lot better but I was proud of the work I managed to do.”

It was while she was in LASALLE that she started working at the club, Bang Bang. She was doing an unpaid internship and had an arrangement which let her work around her school schedule.

“While I was there, I organised a candy land party. There was a balloon drop, gingerbread men and stilt walkers. To this day, it was one of the most memorable parties I organised and it was then that I realised that I could do well in nightlife marketing.”

Photo Credit: Leong Charlie

After three years with Bang Bang, Charlie felt that it was finally time to learn more.

She joined Yolk Concepts when she was 21 and worked with two of her directors who very quickly became like family to her.

“We did many parties together and they started to trust me a lot. But we did have a tough time because we were always at the mercy of other venues.”

It was shortly after this that the directors decided to open WAN Bar + Kitchen and Nightclub.

“The transition phase was exhausting. I was working really closely with my directors and I handled a lot of the paperwork. To be honest, I became more like a personal assistant in that period.”

Charlie also was heavily involved in settling staff problems during this time. Many a time, she would have to step in and take feedback from her staff in order to help operations run smoother and so that the staff were comfortable.

“I think it is my past experience working in all their roles that really helps me to hear their concerns and understand them better. So when they come to me to say that the steps are too high and its difficult to manage, I can relate because I know it can be really tough when you’re wearing a short skirt and carrying drinks and having to manage a high step. So I try to solve it.”

Photo Credit: Leong Charlie

She added that her job required her to be able to do everything and that she did not really have a fixed role. This is quite a feat especially considering that she admits to having to learn everything from scratch because she came in with zero knowledge.

“I had to shift my thinking. I now had to think for the company and not just for myself. It was very important for me to have a strong network and to be able to make sure the company didn't make unnecessary losses.”

However, despite her wealth of experience, Charlie is not exempt from the prejudices in the industry. She talked about how as a young woman in the industry, many people assume they can bully her and try to take advantage.

“People come to me aggressively or with the idea that I don’t know much so they can push me to get lower prices but that isn’t true. I have a budget to work within and I keep to it and fight for the company.”

When asked what kept her motivated, Charlie said that it was all about being disciplined. It was about recognising what was most important to you and always making an effort to move further.

Photo Credit: Leong Charlie

“To be honest, I’m actually really bad with alcohol. During tastings with a master mixologist to create new concoctions, I have to stop halfway and I usually ended up only tasting the final product.”

She laughed as she added that her personal favourite is tequila shots. 

When asked what advice she would give to her younger self, Charlie chuckled and said she would tell herself to not work so hard and to enjoy the freedom of being young while she still could.