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That Girl: Jing Zhang & Charlotte Hwang of The9thMuse

This week’s That Girl comes with a special twist… it’s two for the price of one! We’re chatting with the dynamic duo behind Sassy’s fave accessories boutique The9thMuse – super stylish co-founders and friends, Jing Zhang and Charlotte Hwang. It’s The9thMuse’s one-year anniversary party on 25 May (doesn’t time fly… make sure you sign up to their mailing list so you don’t miss out on an invite) so what better time for us to get the lowdown on the BFFs who started it all?!

We chat with Charlotte and Jing about how they divide up work responsibilities (and any drama along the way!), what makes The9thMuse different from other boutiques in town, how their personal styles differ, and find out why Jing’s ‘like an ant’ and Charlotte loves her bathroom so much!

Fill us in on your backgrounds and where you grew up. How did you end up in HK?
Jing: I was born and raised in Guangzhou, China. I went to a public boarding school there before going to Catalina in Monterey, California, for the 11th grade. I studied for two years at Catalina before heading to Boston for uni. Afterwards, I worked in New York for a bit before moving back to China in 2009. My family is still in China, and I don’t currently live in HK; I just come to HK a lot!

Charlotte: My family emigrated to Hong Kong from Taipei and Chiu Chow before I was born, and I remained here until high school, when I went to boarding school in California. That’s where Jing and I met. After seven years in America and almost a year in France, I finally found my way back to Hong Kong and am not planning on leaving anytime soon!

Where did you meet and how did you become friends?
J: We met at Catalina and were roommates for a while. Char and I found that we were both people who could see the funny and the absurd in normal or random things, so I think that bonded us early on. We have always had a very comfortable relationship, which does not require a lot of time spent together but that is trusting and supportive. Also, making tea eggs secretly with soy sauce in a water boiler in the dorm room together pretty much guarantees a friend for life, I think!

C: We realised we had a lot in common, such as living in pyjamas for as long as possible. She used to play the piano, and I the flute… so Asian, I know! We worked on the same wavelength for a great semester when we were roommates. Not much about her agitates me to any boiling point, so I guess that’s a sign of promise!

Describe each other in five words.
J about Charlotte: Kind, down-to-earth, perceptive, funny, foodie.

C about Jing: Considerate, lively, business-minded, homey, one-of-a-kind.

Where do you live? How have you made your homes your own?
J: I always say I am a “hopper” and I hop mainly between Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Foshan because of my work. I just moved out of my HK apartment and stay at hotels when I come into town so for now, my HK home is The9thMuse shop because it’s where I go to straight after getting morning coffee! Right now, I’m putting the finishing touches on my Guangzhou apartment. My boyfriend Jon and I designed the interior together, and I would say the style is comfortable and functional, with a mix of vintage, reclaimed and modern elements. My Foshan house is naturally homey because of the home-cooked food and that fact that my Mom and pups live there.

C: I live with my family not far from Happy Valley. As I was away for a while in America, I wanted to come back and be with my closest friends and family. Moving back wasn’t a smooth transition, because HK is such a fast-paced city and I was used to being on my own while abroad; however, after meeting some loving and unforgettable people and learning that you can enjoy city life and embrace the hustle and bustle, I now love it more and more. My immediate family live in HK so I don’t want to be anywhere else at this stage. We’re a close-knit pack and I hope it stays this way until one of us has kids, then things may shift around a bit.

How would you describe your personal style? How are your styles different from one another?
J: I like things that are well made, and unique and thoughtful in subtle ways. I think both Char and I value comfort a lot, but she prefers more simple and straightforward designs, whereas I have more a tendency to fall for the slightly crazy!

C: I dress to impress myself and always make sure there’s something I am happy to have on, otherwise it’s just bland and sleepy. Even if it’s just eyeliner, I always try and jumpstart my day with a little kicker. As for special occasions, I tend to go way out of my comfort zone just because it’s meant to be out of respect for others (as my dad puts it!). Jing always dresses comfortably but can pull off a lot more than I can, so she enjoys being more eclectic.

Where do you shop in Hong Kong? Any secret finds or up and coming designers you can let us in on?
J: I actually don’t do a lot of fashion shopping in Hong Kong, as I shop online a lot – Gargyle, CREATURES OF COMFORT, Honey in the Rough, Pixie Market and OAK NYC are some of my favourite stores. These days, I am especially into Australian brands and designers. Dresses from alice McCALL are absolutely beautiful and pared has a really thoughtful sunglasses collection that we just got into the store. I’m very excited about exploring more brands like pared; they are so brave with their use of colours and patterns. It’s very refreshing and inspiring.

C: If I didn’t keep my “sensible cap” firmly planted on my head, I’d just be buying all the time from The9thMuse! I already do, so I’m controlling myself as much as I can. I don’t buy much else except clothing online, and travel finds here and there. Etsy has many inspiring pieces, and of course Sham Shui Po is a shopping avenue for DIY fanatics; I have yet to venture there to make friendship bracelets, so for now I’ll stick to receiving gifts from friends and Pinterest, which I rely on to feed my mix and match fetish and learn about other online stores.

What are your favourite restaurants and bars in Hong Kong?
J: I don’t really have favourite places but I do have favourite drinks and dishes from different places: the jalapeno cocktail from Brickhouse, the Moonshine cocktail from Blue Butcher, oysters from Sheraton Oyster & Wine Bar, fried chicken from Green Waffle Diner, fried chicken rice from Yardbird, and fried wonton from the congee shop on Lyndhurst Terrace. Cocktails and fried food are two very important elements of my life!

C: I enjoy being at Three Monkeys, I want to give Ronin another try and sit this time (they take reservations!), and I like to not eat once in a while and just drink Be-Juiced juices. Brickhouse has great corn, and I can always visit Socialito late at night for munchy cravings. The chocolate balls at Mana! are my favourite guilty pleasure, followed by a wheatgrass shot if I want to counter my bad self. As for bars, I like Chocolate’s laidback and fun setting, and I can’t wait to visit Il Milione as their mixologist Giancarlo Mancino is supposed to be fantastic at what he does. I enjoy Quinary’s tasty beverages, and La Cabane for their biodynamic wines. I shall stop here!

What’s your favourite place in HK?
J: One of my favourites is Lane Crawford’s Home & Lifestyle store in Pacific Place – it’s my interior therapy. I like to go back whenever I want to feel motivated because it is always so well curated. Another one is Po Hing Fong. It’s a beautiful and dynamic street; my old apartment was there and I will always miss that neighbourhood.

C: I’d say my bathroom! That’s where I usually hang out with my dog the most, as she likes to pry and be her own lovely daughterly self. I get to play music, light candles, and unwind from a long day out. It’s where I am 100% relaxed and the outer world disappears. Was that too much information?

What were you both doing before The9thMuse and what inspired you to start the store? What makes The9thMuse different from other boutiques in town?
J: I am still doing what I was doing before, which is running my family business with my mom. We have a solid wood furniture and guitar factory in Gaoming, Foshan.

We decided to start an accessories boutique because we found it hard to find authentic and affordable jewellery and bags in Hong Kong. There seems to be a gap between big brand items and poorly made knockoffs. I think one of The9thMuse’s unique qualities is that it is approachable for people from all fashion spectrums. We have a collection that is interesting, eclectic and caters to customers like ourselves, who might not be the most high fashion minded people, but are after original and quality designs.

C: I was in the wine industry, and I also took some diamond courses that helped catapult me into the world of jewellery. I loved the world of gemstones and finished accessories.

The9thMuse is special because it is a home away from home, except we won’t force you to sit and have coffee like aunties do! We’re always open, the friend that you haven’t seen in forever but is there when you need a go-to; when you have to find a gift, or you’ve had a long week and you want to treat yourself to something sentimental and worthy of you!

How do you pick the brands you stock? Do you ever have any arguments over what you choose?
J: We are constantly on the lookout for interesting brands from blogs and magazines. We never really argue over what to choose; we sometimes have differences, but we’re pretty good at knowing when to compromise and when to put our foot down and say, “I want that in!” In terms of chasing designers, we have come quite a long way. We started out approaching designers with a Gmail account – quite shocking that we got any replies or yeses at all! Even as we’ve become more established, it has not been smooth sailing as many up-and-coming independent designers tend to want to sell in bigger stores; we’ve had rejections even after they’ve agreed to take our orders. It definitely keeps us grounded and level headed.

For one of our current brands, I had to be a bit of a stalker and call the designer’s mobile to leave voicemails as our emails got no response – simply because we really believed that it would be a great brand to bring into our shop and into Hong Kong. Fortunately, our stubbornness has definitely paid off!

C: Jing is very savvy and straightforward with what she likes. But since we’re both women, we’ll like something one day and decide another that it’s ‘out’! What comes to the store is a result of our developed sense of a greater appreciation for retail space, and what we feel would be valuable on our shelves and well received by lots people, not just Jing and me.

How do you divide up responsibilities in running the business?
J: Our geography puts a natural line in the sand for us when it comes to this. I am more in charge of the backend operations and the crunching of numbers, and Char is more in charge of day-to-day operations. But there are a lot of things we make a rule to do together, such as buying, photo shoots for the website, sales training for staff, marketing strategy, and so on.

C: I’m in the store for the most part – making sure the floor is run smoothly and looks fresh when customers come in. I think our responsibilities naturally fell into place as our collaboration progressed, as we learnt more about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and what we like to do (and what we don’t!). As partners, there are definitely incidents when we might feel like the other person is in our “space” but we always work it out because we have a deep trust of each other’s intentions. So far, all of our difficult conversations have only made our partnership stronger. We rotate our role of being either “bad cop” or “good cop” based on what role the other person is playing – we’re very conscious we need to be the mirror for each other, even when we agree. In a nutshell, I do what I have to do for our retail baby!

What are the best and worst things about running a business with your best friend? Do you ever get sick of each other?!
J: I would say that although I would not want to partner with anyone else on this adventure, I don’t recommend doing business with a friend unless you can be completely honest with each other (the good, bad and ugly) without damaging your friendship. I think Char and I have been blessed to have the kind of trust that can withstand the harsh exchanges, complaints and tantrums that naturally arise when running a business with somebody. And we have been lucky in being able to maintain a friendship outside of this working relationship… But yes, time apart from each other is also important!

C: All the time! We have rebuttals and discuss for days, the battlefield gets heated, and finally cools down. It’s like a Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie for business partners! I guess it’s preparing us both for marriage; I hope marriage is this easy, because I always get my way (kidding).

Tell us one thing about the other that we wouldn’t know!
J: Char is an amazing dog trainer! Her dog Lexie does things that I could only dream of for my dogs.

C: Jing can carry some really heavy baggage and still find humour in travelling long tiresome distances, and narrate what she saw with passion. She’s like an ant!

Charlotte – you’re also Operations Director for Foodlink, can you tell us more about the charity and your involvement in that?
C: Foodlink is now saving 4,410 KG of food weekly and serving 7,540 meals. I’m planning an event for 1 June 2013, so stay tuned! Follow us on Instagram and Twitter to learn more.

Jing, you’re also still involved in your family business – how do you balance those jobs with doing The9thMuse?
J: I am constantly searching for the perfect balance. Not sleeping as much as I should is, sadly, essential at this point in order to keep up with the workload. But I love both of my businesses, so that always helps with the tough times and long nights.

What’s next for The9thMuse?
J: We’re having a belated one-year anniversary party at the end of May, and then The9thMuse Designed Leather Goods Line and Jewellery Line launches are coming up this summer.

C: I’m also very excited about launching our The9thMuse designs! Our 1-year anniversary will be quite fun-filled and a good time for us to thank everyone that has supported us and pushed us to do more, faster!

What’s the best advice you have been given and why?
C: I always see it as a good sign when the second I wake up, I feel that the day’s going to be productive and I’m excited about getting things done.  I’ve always abided by this to stay in check. “Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion,” by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is one of my new favourite quotes too.

J: My parents always said to me, “Be kind, do what you love and work hard.” I always go back to that when I am at crossroads. And ever since I saw it on a friend’s necklace, “Live the life you have imagined” has always stuck with me.

All photos in the That Girl article above were taken by the hugely talented Sabrina Sikora of Sabrina Sikora Photography – get in touch with her at sabrinasikora@gmail.com.

Check out the rest of our That Girls here!

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