Mr Tang Guang Bee is a well-known Singaporean architect, who paints, and whose dream when young, has been to be an artist. He feels that the boundary between art and architecture is no longer distinct.


Source: Interviewed by LI Weiwei, NUS, on 2006-05-29

What made you embark on this venture choice?
Actually I was very interested in art when I was a young boy. And art, of course, in most parents' viewpoint, is poor business. So I chose architecture which was the next close to art, not knowing what it was at that time. Eventually this proved to be the right choice. As an architect, I can still paint and do my own things, while as an artist, you can not practise as an architect since you do not possess the technical knowledge. In that sense architecture provides a larger platform for me. Nobody lives in the painting; but in architecture, we build our work and people live there, transforming people's lifestyle. In contrast, if you are not an interesting artist, people can choose to walk away, not looking at your paintings. However, in architecture you can't because it's very physical. The building is there, and it's timeless - maybe for twenty or thirty years, some last over a hundred years, and may be forever. So it's important to be more conscious of the environment as an architect - unlike the artists, who live within themselves. That's why occasionally I still go back to painting, to free myself and connect with the soul throwing all restrictions to the winds.

How does your business work?
The business is normally through contacts, and through people liking your work. We also have to do PR, which helps to sell and promote our company. As architects, however we can neither tout nor advertise our practice. The artists on the other hand can have agents to promote their work. Notwithstanding, good work does not guarantee clients. If you are at the cutting edge, your work is ahead of time, you may not get enough clients as a matter of fact. This is because clients appreciate normal things, which they can understand. Like many artists in the past, their paintings are worth a lot more money - when they are dead. Nevertheless, to me the value is not in the price and money, it's in the arts of work itself. This is the same with architecture. That to me is important. That to me it is enterprise. That to me it is entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship in many people's eyes depends how much money you make, which is not necessary. We take risks too, just as entrepreneurs who take a lot of risks. We risk our spirit, our money, our time. This is a real architect. If you are mainly motivated by money, you'll become a commercial architect. Please understand that I am against money. My belief is that, when there's a work, either you take it, or just give up depending on the quality, but not for the sake of money. Your reputation is built after you have done a series of good works, if there's suddenly one bad work, it will probably destroy your reputation.

Did you have the capital to start the business or did you have to borrow from someone to get started?
Of course we do need some capital to start out. I had two earlier partnerships. However, our architecture goals were very different and we could not continue with the partnerships. So I decided to start my own practice, which was twenty years ago. I have no regret as I can control my own destiny. In comparison, it's very difficult to design in a group. Several persons can design but there is one person who conceives the thing. In any situation, politically or otherwise, there is one stronger person, who says: "Move that way." In architecture, we can divide the work altogether, it is still teamwork. But the main idea just comes from one person. Like Mao Zedong, in the Long March.

Do your parents have their own businesses too? Have they inspired you in one way or another?
No. My parents came from China as immigrants. I was not really inspired in the sense of business. When I started out with my school, my Mother was old, and my Father had passed away. I think nobody can really inspire you, they can guide you, but inspiration has to be self-driven. As Confucius said, if you enjoy what you are doing, you never work a day. That's why good artists don't "work", because they are enjoying it. They seemed to be suffering, but they are happy in their world. That's more important than anything else; it's the quest for spiritual happiness.

What was your childhood dream? When did you decide that you would strike out on your own instead of working for someone else?
To be an artist. In my childhood, artist was about drawing, not design. But now the line between design and arts has blurred. It's the same with architecture, which has become more aesthetic. Time has changed many things. I decided that I would strike out on my own in 1984. That's when I started out with my savings and set up this company.

Why does someone decide to be on their own rather than join an existing company?
If you start on your own, it's like the beginning of a journey on a boat. You can steer the course. You are the coxswain. It is the rudder on the boat which will guide the boat to where you want to go, and it's the coxswain who controls the rudder, that is, the direction. In a boat without this person, you will probably end up going nowhere. Sometimes if you have five people controlling the rudder, the boat might just go around in circle, or go somewhere else. The ship is an enterprise. So you really need to be on your own to be enterprising, to sail the ship, to go out and search. That is sailing with a compass.

Are there at any point in your life that you experienced a significant event (WW2, racial riots of the 1960s, the Economic Crisis of the 80s or 90s, SARS, new competition or shifts in market behaviour and trends) which affected or influenced you and your business that made you change the way you think and do your business?
Of course. It is common that in architectural practice like any other business it is sometimes up and sometimes down. More importantly, I am more concerned if my work is at a standstill. It is time for reinvention, when your works begin to look the same. Then you'll feel very disturbing. You wonder and struggle, and then you start to change again. These to me are midpoint crises, or turning points. I don't believe in a straight line. I think it's like the heart machine, which goes vibrating, with peaks and troughs. Otherwise it's very boring. You should always try to climb a mountain, then another mountain and then another mountain, so your enterprise keeps going. Life has many peaks. There are some significant events, like in Singapore now, when the country goes global. Therefore we can shop the entire world for famous architects, for big names. To me this makes me want to get out, want to try somewhere else, because it makes me feel that they kind of marginalized you. The Chinese saying goes that the indigenous ginger is not hot, so people tend to think that the local architects are not good enough which I totally disagree. We are not new in the game, and the Singapore architects are as good as any in the world. Similar situations are also happening in China as it is globalized. Some Chinese are beginning to counter the trend. What we are looking for is equal playing field in competitions. Furthermore, globalization changes the way we do business. Like this Nokia handphone, it is a foreign brand, designed by a Taiwanese guy, made in China, and given to a Singaporean. The world has become smaller.

What are some of the challenges in starting a business from scratch? (Modify question to what are some of the challenges in maintaining a family business if applicable.)
Getting good guys to work for you; and also how to convince clients, who are very traditional to accept new ideas. Sometimes we have to transform the client, so as to change his perception, and that takes a lot of time. If they're not convinced, we advise them to travel and look at other designs, in this process there will be a trend of changing attitude. And then they come back, half believing in you. And along the way, we still have to hold their hand and guide them, so that finally they are changed and begin to accept new concepts. You can always change a person's perception of you, it all lies in how convincing you are, how much you believe in yourself. And if you believe, you cannot bluff. You cannot bluff and cheat on the paper. You talk to people and you can see the emotion and the vibration. It's a feeling and you connect with people through this. There's a connection and chemistry. That to me is very important, which is the foundation for convincing people.

Who/What motivates you?
To discover. You see if you go into the darkness, when you see the light it is very beautiful. Without darkness, there is no light. It's the darkness that makes you search. I am a night bird and spend a lot of time at night, when I am very fresh and focused. Because at night everyone goes to sleep, everything is quiet, the mind is very concentrated as there's no disturbance, and things that takes one hour for you to do at night might take you eight hours at the daytime yet cannot be done. My discovery motivates me, so that I developed my expansion in Malaysia, China and Dubai where I act as a Consultant. Discovery makes you know where you are, and it makes you want to move on. If you have no discovery, every day is the same. There's not so much meaning then.

Tell me about the first few customers and the first few years of business.
The first few customers were very interesting because they came from the government. They were actually very helpful. At that time, about twenty, thirty years back, the government was very enterprising in the sense that they did not buy foreign names. They believed in their locals, in their nation-building. That was the beginning when it had not globalized yet.

Please tell me some stories of your best day in business or your proudest achievement to date.
Actually every moment is an achievement. I have won all these design awards, and it's winning something you believe in. If you don't believe in this, then it just doesn't make sense. Of course not every piece of work we do is good, but we try to maintain our standard. Every work is a memory. I don't believe in "pianxin", or preference. If you have ten children, it shouldn't be that you love this more, or love that less - every child is your creation. Every piece of work means a lot to me, it's not scale, it's that quality.

Do you recall your worst day in business? Have you ever felt like giving up?
No. Sometimes you lose a job because you fight so hard for it, and you think you are going to win. But you lose the competition and you indeed feel a bit down. But I think sometimes those are even good signs for you: what you lose it today, you will get it back tomorrow. Something will always come back. I believe in the life of vacuum. When there is a vacuum, things will comes in. Like Lao-tzu said, at that point of void lies the utility, if this cup is full of wine, no new wine will come in, so you always need to pour away the water. And then new thing will come in, and new spirit will come in. So if you lose, it's OK. Maybe it's good, and you should lose it because it's not meant for you to get the job. And every time I'm "empty", something comes in. I have never felt like giving up. Seriously I never did. And I even never get a headache in my life. I feel that I am a bit blessed. There must be something up there, who looks after you. I am not religious, and I believe I am very spiritual.

When was the moment you realised the business would work and support you?
After the first business, after I started on my own. Immediately I realised that I can do it. So when you started up, after a period, you knew then you could actually kick off. It's like a head engine, when the engine starts the locomotive train, it moves and you know it can move for a long time. The kickoff is the most important. If you give up, it is likely to be the first few years. Most people give up at the first few years, not after a lifetime, you said, "hey I give up". There's no such thing. If you look at these awards, they will tell you: why should you give up? Because these will make you believe yourself. If you have an empty work, you could bluff yourself. Dreams are OK but not daydreaming though. You must have dreams, without dream there is no reality. That to me is important. One must build one's dreams, to put your visions in reality.

What are some of the things you have had to overcome to succeed?
That is to keep on convincing clients and pushing ideas. I have to overcome a lot of things. Even at this stage, I still have to convince people. They will not see something and believe in it right away, so for a lot of things you need to have human relationship. Unless you have an agent, and the agent will tell clients, "This is a big Chinese firm, very good...And that is very good architects from America." In that case they will believe and it's very easy to buy a brand.

What are some qualities that you feel you possess which differentiate you from someone who works for others?
Actually it's very hard to say that in words. I might be different in the sense that I don't work by routes, or by systematic doing things out. If you follow a guideline, you do this first and then do that...It's like by route - always go back, saying because of this, therefore you get this. But sometimes it should be kind of very intuitive and emotional, which is related to the right side of brain. For example, if you go on a journey and every time you just depend on the compass, you might not get there. It has something to do with intuition. Sometimes you might say, look at the compass, it is not right. Compass points that way but I get this good feeling, you should take this one. If you have a compass, you just follow; and for what other people have done, you just copy, then where is the innovation? Where is the breakthrough? If it's done by others before, I don't want to do it any more, subconsciously. But I will share with the person who has discovered it and enjoy it together. If my friend designs something very good, I would enjoy it and that makes me would like to go beyond him. He doesn't pull me down, I'm happy for him. Instead, he encourages me, I will feel there is one more mountain to climb. You shouldn't be envious and jealous of your friends' success. He's your friend, his success will make you succeed even further, if you take it positively. Otherwise it becomes negative. If other people become famous and you say "I give up, I cannot fight him". This doesn't make sense. Why not go with him? He will push you. For instance, today I might be good, and my friend would stand on my shoulder and go further. After that, I'll stand on his shoulder. So eventually we become very tall people. Our body don't grow but it's the eyes that go higher and higher, and see beyond the horizon.

To succeed in business, what qualities are essential? What are some of the "secrets" in making a successful business?
I won't use the word "secrets". I will call it motivation. Self-motivated, and a very strong belief. You should believe in yourself. You are different from others, and actually no two persons are the same. If you look at the DNA, there are millions of people however their DNA sequences are never the same. But to some extent, we are trying to be the same; we are finding the easy way out. If somebody works in sale, and the product is in big demand, people tend to follow. But I believe I will do my own kind of thing.

Who or what inspires you?
I am inspired by my Father in the way of enterprise. My father came from China without money. But then he built a mini empire in Malaysia growing rubber, doing a lot of rubber plantation, because rubber was very important at that time. He developed it from nothing to something, and that to me is inspiration. Besides, many artists inspire me a lot. Quite initially it was Picasso but after that I don't quite like his work, although I indeed still appreciate his spirit. I am also greatly inspired by Chinese calligraphy, which embodies traditional idea and new ones. It is quite natural, as it is my ethnic root.

Have you ever thought of expanding the business in some way or in multiple locations? How and where?
What we are doing in China and Malaysia is a kind of expansion of a place. To me it's not in terms of scale, but in term of opportunity expansion and new territory expansion. My friend has a firm in China, which is quite big. We do a lot of work, from Peking, to Shanghai, to Zhuhai, also to Changchun. I am associating with the firm in China purely for major planning, to look at new territory, to experience a new way of life. Like THE ENTERPRISE in the TV serial STAR TREK, I am aiming to search for a new horizon and chart unknown territory in China and beyond.

What aspects of expansion would you like to see for your enterprise?
My enterprise sees expansion in charting new courses and reinventing myself. To be original is very difficult. But I will still try to be fresh. It is after you have done the work, you look at it and say "Oh my god! I have never known I could do things that". That will be very good feelings for an architect. But if people look at it and say it looks like the building next door, it is definitely not something I am seeking for. Always try to go beyond yourself, in which if you also go beyond others, you will get a bonus.

In your opinion, how would you define entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurs are people who take risks; people who take risks in something they firmly believe in. And entrepreneurship is not just about making money. You risk your time, you savings, your effort and at the end you'll find new things.

To what extent does one's educational level help or hinder entrepreneurialship?
Nothing actually. Some businessmen down here have not much education and in China, there are some very rich men, who even don't have a school certificate. We are fortunate, we have received high-level education, but still it does not guarantee you will become as rich and entertaining as those people.

As we try to select the final 41 entrepreneurs, what qualities would you think a person should have to inspire others?
I think to inspire others, you must be noble. You must believe in yourself, and do it not at the expense of another person. Don't do it the way in which you would cut off others' chance but the way which allows everyone to have equal opportunity. If you are meant to have it, you will get it.

What are some of your own values in doing business and what do you like to pass down to others, particularly the younger generation?
In business, you must be honest to yourself, and honest to you clients. Your duty is also to sell satisfactory products to the end users, so make sure your product is of highest quality. That will influence the customers and they will in turn, influence others. Here I'm talking from the perspective of an architect. We look at the picture as in how good your work really is. To me that is important. Like the Oscars, if the movie is good, then it is something that can't be denied, and it doesn't depend on how much money you have invested in it. In addition, you must be honest in your approach. Spend prime time on your project that you have undertaken. If you cannot do it, don't accept the project in the first place.

What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?
My suggestion is to try it out. I will suggest people test the depth of the water first, to see whether it is meant to do. You cannot jump in blindly, but to jump while knowing what you may or may not get. That is the meaning of enterprise. The risk lies in that you might not get it after all. Therefore, it is important that you look at yourself first and ask whether you are comfortable with it? Do you have the confidence to do it? That means you must believe in yourself too. If you do not feel good, then that's it, it's not meant for you, but if you really want to do it, you jump and you cannot be half-hearted. Enterprising people do not believe in "Everything has a safety valve", they will go all the way down full-hearted, and determined. At the end of the day, as the Hokkien Song said, among the ingredients for success, 30 percent is god driven, and 70 percent is hard work. If you don't have the 70 percent hard work, you'll never be able to make it. If you are hard-working, without the 30 percent you still cannot make it. You need both to succeed.