Interview #94 — Catherine Huang
by amie mai
Catherine Huang is a creative from Melbourne, moonlighting as a Brand Communications manager. She currently resides in Berlin and produces a personal newsletter called ‘This Side’.
Catherine spoke to Amie about moving to Europe, and emailing her diary into the digital abyss.
You initially studied Biomedicine but switched lanes to Marketing—what motivated this change?
I finished high school when I had just turned seventeen. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be. It’s funny—people are always so surprised to find out that I did a science degree. But it never seemed that weird to me. It was more bizarre to me that I should possibly know what I wanted out of my life before becoming an adult. Even now I am not too sure, is marketing right for me? Will I be doing this forever? I don’t know, and I don’t think so, but it fits for right now.
I had broad interests as a teenager and I had an incredibly difficult time working out what I wanted to study in university. I ended up enrolling in Biomedicine because I thought I wanted to be an optometrist—quickly I realised that wasn’t going to work out. But I was very scared of giving up and flunking out, even though it would have saved me a lot of time and a lot of debt. I didn’t want to fail my parents—and I was afraid that dropping out of a degree would do just that.
So eventually I finished the Biomedicine degree and tried to work out what to do next. There were a lot of missteps to get to where I am now. It was never that marketing was the clear next answer. I did some work in events, hobbled through a Graduate Certificate of Arts, took some time off, and in a weird twist of fate ended up working for Lover, a Sydney label. Somewhere around then, I decided to enrol in a Graduate Certificate of Marketing just to see how it would turn out.
Can you talk about your background in marketing/digital and what drew you to this industry?
I was in that first generation of kids who got to grow up with the internet. I loved the internet. I was the truest version of myself online, and no one could take that from me. I didn't feel like I had to conceal any part of me, or change any part of me to impress anyone. The internet was so vast, that I was always going to find people I had a commonality with and felt understood by. And even though I got older, I never turned my back on the internet.
My love of the internet probably made me realise that I could try and take a digital path with my work. I have always felt comfortable behind a computer. I have always been an incredibly honest person on the internet, and I think that honesty has probably flowed into my work as well. Mystery on the internet is a bit overrated.
As for marketing, I don’t think there was really an a-ha moment for me—it just seems to gel well with the kind of person I am and the things I like to do. I am always trying to present the best version of myself online, and that’s really all I am doing for the brands I worked with as well. And it’s so easy to sell the best version of something when you love the brands you work with so dearly.
Mystery on the internet is a bit overrated.
You’ve worked for some really amazing labels in Melbourne, like Verner, Pageant and Baserange. Can you tell me a little bit about the work you’ve done for them and how you got started in the fashion?
I actually started off by working at Baserange Store, which was a very special experience in itself. Working at Baserange made me realise how important it is to me to have work my work align with my personal beliefs. While I was working there, I had just started studying marketing, and my boss (the super human Karina Utomo) was always very supportive in letting me explore how to best market the store and the brand within the Australian market.
From there, that work bled into Pageant, which Karina was also the Sales Agent for. Initially, I helped with sales, but I eventually asked Kate and Amanda if I could do some marketing things for them instead. They were very receptive to the idea and from there I was able to redesign their website, create newsletters and produce creative content too. It was really special that they were so trusting of their label in me.
When Pageant went on hiatus, I had some spare time on my hands and so I approached Ingrid from Verner to see if she wanted a hand with marketing and sales. We’ve worked together since the start of the first Lisa Waup x Verner collection and it’s been one of my favourite work relationships to date. She is a powerhouse.
Sounds like you had such a full plate! Do you ever experience burnout and how do you work your way through it?
Those eighteen or so months when I was jumping around from brand to brand were definitely a blur. Towards the end of it all, I also took up (what I thought was) my dream job at VAMFF. Once I joined the team, everything just fell apart a bit. I definitely struggled to re-engage with all the creative pursuits I previously loved so dearly. I had to put a lot of it on hold so that I could focus all my energy on the festival. I probably burned a couple of bridges around then as well, which I really regret.
It was a while before I even considered doing anything else creative again, and the next opportunity that cropped us was thanks to my wonderful and supportive friend Steven Harris (Magic Steven). I was able to design and build a website for him, going at a pace that I was comfortable at (very slow indeed). That job (along with my continual work with Ingrid) made me realise I could still stay connected to the creative projects I was involved with in Melbourne.
Now, I’ve learnt to protect myself from burning out by not taking on too much. I am learning to be realistic about what I am capable of and what I enjoy. It’s hard to say no but I am getting better at doing it. I used to hate letting a good opportunity go by—heck, it was mere days before I was about to fly out of Melbourne, and I still put my hand up to style a shoot with Alan Weedon. I was trying to pack up my entire life into boxes so I could flee the country, and yet I put it all on hold so I wouldn’t miss the chance to work with him one more time.
I think especially now, knowing that these projects of mine are on the side of my (mostly) non-creative day job, means I cherish them so much more.
Writing, web design, photography, styling—and you also used to DJ! How important is it to have all these outlets to express yourself? How do they fulfil you in different ways?
So important! And I’m so lucky that I’ve been able to explore all of these and figure out which ones I like and which ones work well for me. Back when I was super extroverted and social in Melbourne, DJing was so much fun and such a wild experience. I got to meet so many powerful, talented human beings and formed incredibly special friendships I wouldn’t have been able to make otherwise.
Now, that I live in my little introverted shell, being able to produce and write This Side, and do things like digital marketing and design websites is a pretty sweet deal. I can just tinker away and mind my own business and still feel very full and satisfied.
Now, I’ve learnt to protect myself from burning out by not taking on too much.
In creating a visual and verbal identity for brands you have so many competing needs to consider, the client and their style, their target audience, not least yourself and your own sensibilities—how do you balance all these voices?
I think I had a pretty easy job initially because I was always the target audience for the brands I represented. Not only that, but for instance, with a brand like Pageant, their vision was so strong and unique that I found it was easy to take on that voice and that identity. It’s probably also a bit obvious, but practice makes perfect as well.
You’ve recently relocated to Germany and have just found a new home; can you tell me a little about this journey? Have your expectations of Berlin lived up to reality?
I was falling out of love with Melbourne recently. I felt very lost and although maybe professionally things were lining up better than they ever had, I had a lot of problems with feeling alive in the city—things started to feel monotonous and I struggled to shake the feeling.
I really wanted to move overseas, and so did my partner, but we had diverging views on where we should go. We settled on Berlin because it was a little more affordable, still provided good opportunities career-wise, and allowed us to explore the rest of Europe with relative ease.
I’d be lying if I said this move has been easy. Every single day challenges me in some way. Do you remember rote-learning? Memory by repetition. That’s what Melbourne became. In Berlin, I am learning something new every day, which has been an absolute ride for me, my brain, and my body. But the rewards far exceed the struggle, and sometimes when I am riding my bike down the street through my favourite neighbourhoods, or I emerge from a new U-Bahn station for the first time, I remember how lucky I am to be able to be able to experience this.
What is your experience of living and working Berlin as an Asian-Australian? How does it compare to your experience as a WOC in Melbourne?
Living and working in Berlin has made me realise that being a WOC in Australia, and Melbourne especially, is a pretty easy-going life. I don’t mean to say that lightly at all. I just mean, if I take the train out to fancy West Berlin, I 100% notice that I’m the only POC for miles. It hit me really hard when I first got to Berlin actually, and it’s maybe one of the reasons I couldn’t stay here forever. I really took for granted the incredible WOC/POC communities in Melbourne that were available to me and I am angry at myself that I did not embrace them more.
And I don’t mean that Berlin is necessarily a xenophobic city, just that the city is still doing a bit of catch-up in regards to immigration. I think (and hope) things will improve with time. For now, I just have to grin and bear the amount of generic Asian restaurants that are out here...
This Side is an email newsletter that documents your day-to-day life and your travels overseas whilst acting as way to share links to different forms of art you’ve been enjoying. How did you come to create This Side? What do you envision for its future iterations?
I started This Side because I wanted a fun way to keep people updated about what I was up to on ‘this side’ of the globe. I’ve never thought of myself as a strong writer, but I wanted to challenge myself and give myself a project that I could really put some effort into.
I really didn’t know how long I’d keep it up, but it seems like people enjoy it, and I do enjoy writing it, so I suppose the show will go on! As it continues I’d ideally like to move away from it being so damn personal, although I think that’s not likely to happen.
I have thought about how This Side will keep going in 2019, as my life fills with more routine and repetition. I have a lot of weird interests and obsessions I wouldn’t mind writing about, or maybe I can write about Berlin more intimately, although I don’t know if that’s necessarily very interesting. And so we end up at personal essays again—but who knows, I think the project succeeds in how fluid I can be with it! It will be interesting to see how it develops and grows as I develop and grow also.
What drew you to the medium of email? How have you found the feedback to This Side?
I wanted This Side to be an email newsletter because I think there is something so exciting about receiving an email that you actually want to read. I wanted to evoke that emotion when one of my emails pops up in someone’s inbox! Another reason I picked email as the format was because I didn’t want to have a blog that eventually became an internet fossil.
Also, emails seemed like an easy way to impose myself on everyone as well—Hello, I’m here, open me! Haha.
I always try to send off each issue of This Side right before I go to bed—when I first started sending them out I had no idea I would have such a warm response to the emails—it was such a shock to wake up and have all these cute messages in my inbox. They are so nice to read, sometimes it will be a reply from someone I haven’t heard from in a while, and that’s always a pleasure.
Best of all, the replies really makes me feel a little less alone.
Unlearning internalised racism is daily reality for many people growing up between two cultural identities and you’ve written about your own process of unlearning on This Side. Can you speak about your relationship to your Chinese identity? How has it changed over time?
I spent a long long time resenting that being Chinese was tied to my identity. I really had a hard time accepting that it was a part of who I am. A lot of my shame was tied directly to my family—here they were, dropping me off at a school with no other POC and they have the nerve to dress me in a neckerchief and feed me bean sprout sandwiches? They were the most tangible part of my identity, and the easiest to distance myself from as well.
When I was twenty-one, I travelled for a few months, and on this trip I made the decision to spend some time in China on my own, without my parents. I went and couch surfed in Shanghai, visited Xi’an with my eldest cousin (who I’d spent almost no time with up until then), and then hung out with the rest of my relatives in Wuhan (my parent’s hometown), Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
This trip was such a turning point for me. I learnt so much about my parents, about my family, about my culture and identity. There was so much for me to process, it was quite overwhelming at first. I discovered just how much my parents and family had sacrificed for me, and once I realised that, there was no turning back. I felt like such a brat when all of this came to light. I really hate the younger version of myself. I am forever indebted to my family.
Now that you live overseas apart from friends and family, how do you build home and community from far away? What are your rituals to make your space feel like yours? How do you like to explore and get to know a city?
Well, I actually just moved apartments in Berlin—we signed an unlimited contract, so this is my forever home in Berlin now (whatever ‘forever’ really is). My kind friend Maxine gifted me some cedar to cleanse the new apartment, which was something I hadn’t done before. But it was very meaningful and really felt like we were beginning a new chapter.
My partner and I live on the top floor on a main street in Kreuzberg, and when we look out our kitchen window we can see the U-Bahn going past. It’s feel foreign but very familiar all the same. My home is my safety. I can do and be whatever I want within these walls, and I love that.
Years ago, I was given a bunch of Japanese glamour magazines by a kind stranger on the internet. I had torn out one of the pages from these books, and this was the one thing I brought with me from Melbourne to decorate whatever new place I should end up in. It actually turns out it is from a photo book called ‘Water Fruit’. I love this shot so much. It just seems really honest and vulnerable.
Since the move, I now live very close to where I work, just a ten-minute walk in fact, so I am trying my best to familiarise myself with this new neighbourhood. I love that I can wander down the street and find something entirely new. It’s a pretty busy neighbourhood, so I am discovering cute little shops and restaurants and bars all the time, without much effort. I feel so lucky to be in this area. And most of all, I am very much looking forward to the summer when the streets will fill out again, and the city comes alive once more. It’s been fascinating watching the city hibernate.
I wanted This Side to be an email newsletter because I think there is something so exciting about receiving an email that you actually want to read.
Do you have any advice for young people interested in getting started in a creative industry?
I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t just asked. It was very scary putting myself out there, and I never felt very legitimate in what I did, but it never hurts to ask. No one is going to frown at you for asking. Ask to help out, ask to create something for someone, ask to collaborate, ask to learn more!
Who are you inspired by?
A couple of women for bucking the trend of always having to being the stereotypical studious type—Alice Gao and Margaret Zhang—what incredible, smart, beautiful women that represent Asian women at their very best within creative industries.
As my work slowly diverges from the fashion industry, I am also super inspired by Nicole He and all the cool things she does on the internet. She is pretty wonderful (and she is really into weightlifting which I just love. Mental and physical power, wow!), and makes me want to lean into my digital interests more. Oh and Yaeji! Damn. Yaeji girl, how! Watching her play at Panorama Bar was one of the best things that happened to me last summer. (Being mistaken for her three times in the club afterwards, was not one of the best things: seriously—I look nothing like her.)
What are you currently listening to?
Well, as mentioned above, Yaeji, but also I recently went to a performance by the Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra in Neukölln that I really enjoyed so I have been listening to their compositions a little bit. Steam Down, this really cool collective from South-East London that a couple of friends and I saw back in October, were just in Berlin as part of their first European tour, which was amazing.
At work, when I need to concentrate and drown out the noise, I plug in my headphones and listen to one of two things (don’t laugh)— either the album A New Day Has Come by Celine Dion, or a mix on Soundcloud, most recently, this one from Move D at Lost Village festival.
What are you currently reading?
I finished reading Pachinko recently which tore my heart to shreds. Since then, I haven’t had much luck finding a book that I have loved as much. After that, I started three or four books, just to put them down again. So now I am reading Crazy Rich Asians, which is satisfying in the same way the ice-cream you weren’t mean to eat is.
How do you practice self-care?
Unfollowing mediocre white people on social media and replacing them with beautiful WOC. It works every time.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
I’m still working it out, to be honest. But on some level, it definitely means being honest to yourself about who you are and who you’ll become.