Side Hustle: Chop Suey Club
Side Hustle is a series investigating the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes lifestyle of what makes creative entrepreneurs successful: hard f*cking work.
I have spent too many three-in-the-morning’s deep sea diving into the Instagram profiles of successful, glamorous individuals I would have otherwise never known existed. Who are these people? How did they get here? Why do I suddenly have an urge to be a pink-haired, painting prodigy, sunbathing in Tahiti with an emo rapper boyfriend? While the digital era often celebrates and highlights one end of the creative process, becoming anything takes a lot of $omething.
The ‘side hustle’ is this generation’s survival strategy. Each individual manifests their side hustle differently, but the bottom line remains the same: grinding to make the ‘main’ passion possible. Taking the risk to create and execute your own vision requires courage, but also income. Even with hundreds of thousands of followers, likes, views, or retweets, you are the person paying your bills EOD.
As New York City cultivates the hub for experimental entrepreneurship, the glorification of success is seemingly one-sided. In order to uncover the mystical aura of what it takes to *make it,* we sat down with one of the Lower East Side’s independent business owners: Ruoyi Jiang of Chop Suey Club.
Jiang has consistently rebelled against traditional parameters. Because her abstract and profound perspective began in middle school, she rejected the conventional Chinese pathway and ultimately opened Chop Suey Club.
Although the brand has grown and operated successfully for over five years, Jiang continues to sacrifice sleep, time, money, and love to fulfill her vision. She’s lived to tell all. Check out which side hustles that fueled (and funded) her come-up below.
What was your first job?
I had two jobs! One was at OBRA Architects, an architecture firm, where I was doing everything except the actual architecture part. During the weekends, I worked for this photo collector as another part-time job. He was the most prominent photo collector of the 20th century and I was his collection manager. Later on, I quit the firm and worked for the photo collector full time… I initially had both jobs because I was “exploring,” but I needed the money!
I’ve worked many, many, many jobs. I had side side hustles apart from these hustles. I was even flipping stores for DKNY as an overnight visual merchandiser…it paid really well, but it was 8 to 10 hours a night. And then, I would go to my “real work” the next day. It was horrible, but THAT was really good money.
At what point did you realize you couldn’t commit to following the path of a traditional, typical 9-5?
I dropped out of the Chinese school system at grade 9. I thought hold on a second…We had to take this national exam to compete with one another to get into high school in order to go to a really good college. So, your life is pretty much determined in middle school. And the truth is? You don’t get an education from college that you can actually apply to life.
At the time I thought, I might as well just pursue a professional skill. So… I decided to play professional golf! I started training as a teen pro and that was the first time I went to the states. But, I realized I missed my academic studies and I felt my brain was undirected.
That’s when I first realized I didn’t want to do a 9 to 5 job. I tried 9 to 5 jobs like the architecture firm, more like 9 to 11, but yeah that lifestyle sucks… That’s also why I didn’t want to continue working there anymore.
When did you move to the states?
I came straight to New York in 2009 for college because I got into NYU. I moved over and stayed.
How did you get your idea for Chop Suey? And how did you take the chance and go for it?
When I was working at these two jobs, the architecture firm and with the photo collector, I was working with a lot of design and art. The architecture firm had projects in China while the photo collector had work from contemporary Chinese photographers I had never seen or heard of before. That sparked my interest in looking at more modern Chinese work and it was really hard to find– it was almost non-existent.
We have 1.3 billion people how is it possible that we don’t have contemporary designers that are accessible to people? If I said contemporary Chinese design, no one really knew what that meant. We needed some sort of visual representation and I thought forming a collective would be a good way of approaching that first. I had a gallery approach to it, but I very much wanted it to be a retail store.
There is something about money transaction that is a gesture and symbol of acceptance to me. I wanted it to be accessible and share it with more people as opposed to selling artworks– because only a few people can actually own those things.
What were the first sacrifices you made when you started Chop Suey?
I knew if I had a brick and mortar existence– I couldn’t stop. I knew it was a lifestyle commitment. Nothing was really scary until I had to make a decision whether to take the whole lease of my current location or leave and find another space. I just started my business and I wasn’t sure if I could…I had about 5 months to make it work or I would go bankrupt.
My first literal sacrifice was not turning on the heat in January while doing renovations because commercial electricity is far more expensive than residential. My fingers would be so frozen I couldn’t type on the laptop!
So when did you quit your jobs that you had and fully commit to Chop Suey?
Probably in 2015. I knew I should’ve stayed working for a little bit longer while preparing for my business, but I just couldn’t wait anymore. I knew if I wanted to do something real I needed to commit to it 100 percent. I would be too tired to do anything else after I would come home from work. Almost like being an artist while having a full time job — and very few of them actually successfully do this.
Current sacrifices to keep Chop Suey going?
I did my first tarot card reading two, maybe three years ago at one of my first events here — and someone else invited a tarot card reader. My question for her was where will I be in five years? She said from the cards, it looks like I’m going to be fairly successful. One of these cards was, Nine of Pentacles, which means money! But, she then asked if I wanted to see what the Ten of Pentacles looked like. She drew the card and showed how the man has a family around him. She explained, in these five years you’re not going to have any fruitful relationships. It’s not like I believed that right away or anything, but there is some level to truth.
Growing my business has interfered with having a relationship. You just don’t have time. Probably, you’re stressed out more often than not. Whoever is in the relationship with you will either have to be incredibly understanding or caring — or they’re going to get tired out as well.
How did you maintain your confidence when you were facing obstacles? How did you not give up?
I think it’s from experience. I learned oftentimes insurmountable obstacles are usually, when you look back, actually nothing at all. Whatever obstacle you think is too big, it’s either manageable or there are other ways to overcome. Even if you completely fail, just do it again or do it better. Mostly, it’s learning from your experience — whether it’s a successful experience or a failure. Start doing what works and stop doing what hurts!
Archival photos courtesy of Chop Suey Club
Art Director: Gabriella Plotkin
Designer: Lauren Gorsky
Photographer: Ash Bean
Stay tuned for Milk for more Side Hustles