Tell me a little about yourself
I was born and raised in Singapore then we moved to LA for about 6 years. Then I moved here. I got involved with my first hackathon when I was a junior in high school, and I fell in love with being able to make things. I’ve been doing theater for the past 8 years as well. I absolutely love communities. I love building communities. I love maintaining communities. I feel like communities are where you finally feel like you have a pseudo-family that’s there to support you and bounce ideas back and forth.
What are some of the communities you’ve been a part of?
I used to direct the hackathon at UC Berkeley. We also built an online community from 100 hackathon people to about 30,000 now. You can definitely manage the culture of a physical community so much better. You can really filter who comes in and what kind of interactions happen in person. Whereas online communities grow so fast, that if you don’t have a proper code of conduct, there are too many trolls, and trolls decrease the value and the quality of the group. My favorite in-person community is this group in San Francisco called One Salon. It’s actually a global organization, a non-profit. Someone who’s been before has to bring you. Everyone who goes there is really open minded. That’s my favorite group because everyone is able to show the other side of themselves.
What do you think makes that kind of community possible?
It’s the people in the community. And everyone recognizing that there’s some kind of filter in who you’re allowed to bring in. Like: Are they open minded enough to not make fun of other people if they express something that’s weird or vulnerable? Are they people who won’t gossip about specific individuals after they open up?
Are there other examples of communities that have a similar value to you?
Last summer, my friend held this thing called Wine Wednesday for our friends. Every Wednesday the venue changed. Sometimes it would be a huge dance party at a warehouse and sometimes it could be a 10-person chill thing at a friend’s apartment. The goal was just to let you meet up with people in your circle, and strengthen that more with conversations that flow. There’s a free yoga meditation thing every Tuesday night at Gray’s Cathedral, that was amazing. There are other talks and sessions I wanna explore too.
I haven’t been hugely exposed to like, neighborhood communities but that’s something I want more of, but I feel like that’s particularly hard in San Francisco, because of all the apartments and high-rises. If you’re living in SOMA, you go into your room and that’s it. There’s no reason for you to go knocking on someone else’s door unless there’s a noise complaint or something.
What do you think gets in the way of community-building in San Francisco?
There’s this thing called The San Francisco Maybe, which basically means “No.” [laughter] Because there’s so many options. I feel like people already have so many things on their calendar that they don’t feel prompted to make something that they don’t concretely know what value they’ll get out of it yet. And I think it takes a really open-minded person to go to the neighbors’ and deliver a cute letter that says “Hey, come by” and it’s also the fact that you don’t exactly know the kind of person that you’re [asking], so it’s a little dangerous in that way. I think that’s why there’s [an app] called Next Door, for neighbors who are safe people. And once you know they’re safe, invite them over to dinner. Why not?
Have you ever had the experience of living somewhere where you knew your neighbors?
When I was in Singapore. We lived in these high-rise apartments and that’s how everyone lived. It’s rare for someone to own a house, and weird to own a house. The high-rise was probably like 16 floors, and each floor had a specific design. I lived at one end, and the neighbor is literally two steps away; when you open the door, you can see into their apartment. My neighbor was this little kid that played the piano, and the neighbor down from there was two boys who rode their bikes all the time, and downstairs was this auntie who asked me to go into her house everyday to eat her snacks and feed the fish. So [in that situation] if you didn’t talk to them, it would be weird. And everyone had two doors: one gated so you can still see inside, and one wooden door. The wooden door is always open, so you can always say hi. There was also a courtyard downstairs. I used to play badminton with my grandpa and my friends would join. And there’s a playground right across from there.
How does that compare to your life in San Francisco?
Oh my god, it’s so different. It’s a lot more independent. But I think it comes down to… if you go to all these apartments [in San Francisco], there’s only one door, and that door is just a wooden flat thing where privacy is #1. I think in more Asian countries, it’s all about keeping your door open. Their neighborhood community is a lot stronger there. Kids play with each other there.
Another huge [issue] I think is that San Francisco doesn’t really have a lot of kids running around. Unless you go to Chinatown. One Sunday I went there to get food and I felt like I was transported to Singapore again, it felt like a different city. And there’s so many grandmas and generations of people that you see. Their playground had elders doing tai chi and other gatherings of people, older folks. I haven’t seen that anywhere else in San Francisco. It brought me back so much.
Do you think you lose anything from not having an intergenerational group of people around you?
Oh yeah. One of my life goals is to teach empathy on a global level, with VR. Two ways that people can be mature are: if they’ve traveled a lot and experienced other cultures, or if they’ve struggled and had to overcome some adversity so they know how much life can suck. Those are the only two things I thought of, but you bring up a good point...talking to elders. A lot of them have been through a lot. And if you have the willingness to talk to them, you also understand how big life is.