The Jay Kim Show #74: Ash Chan (Transcript)
We have a unique guest on the show today by the name of Ash Chan. Ash is a Los Angeles-based artist, restaurateur, and entrepreneur. Ash has a very unique background. His family is originally from Hong Kong, and they are one of the largest real estate developers here. But instead of following into his family’s traditional business line, Ash decided to work on creative projects in real estate. His latest project is a rare large-scale creative space and innovation lab called The Container Yard. The Container Yard used to be an old Japanese mochi factory, a large warehouse space. Ash has now transformed this into a unique creative space which directly contributes to the local economy in Los Angeles. Let’s get right on to the show.
Jay: Hey, Ash. How’s it going, man? Welcome to the show.
Ash: Thank you for having me.
Jay: We appreciate having you on. You have a slightly different background and unique, so I’m very happy to have you. We usually have just straight-up hard-core entrepreneurs and investors, that sort of thing on this show. It’s always good to have a little bit of a variety, if you will. Maybe you could give us a little bit of a quick background and introduction of yourself.
Ash: I definitely feel like I’m a little bit of an alternative item in comparison. Born and raised in Boston. Then, moved to Taiwan and Shanghai when I was in high school. Then, ended up in California after a bunch of years. Just done a bunch of really random things that were, I think, really experimental for some of our family business. Opening restaurants was a real estate experiment. Through a lot of experimentation, we’ve done a lot of really interesting and creative things that didn’t always make money but were really interesting exercises in creative business.
Jay: I feel like the Holy Grail of being an artist or doing things creative is where you can actually monetize off of it. I feel like that’s like a graph, a spectrum so to speak, where the more creative you get, or you get pulled in that direction, potentially, the less lucrative it could be. But then the few people that do crack it, like musicians, actors, and this sort of thing, they tend to do extremely well.
Growing up, though, was your family pretty supportive of—I mean, what was your childhood like? Was it a very traditional, sort of Asian family?
Ash: Somewhat. I changed a lot of schools. I just came back from Boston. I think it was one of the first times I talked to my parents about parenting me and how they made some of their decisions.
Ash: I went to an all-boys’ school first to fifth grade. I went to another prep school, sixth grade, and then seventh to ninth, another one. All these different—definitely amongst the more Yankee upper-crust Bostonians. I was definitely one of the only Asian kids in the mix. But, I really appreciate the opportunities and being put in that situation because I think that definitely at least helped with some of this aspirational standard. All these kids’ parents were doctors and lawyers.
Jay: I mean the things that basically society and especially like being Asian and first generation… My parents were first-generation immigrants into the US and they had an idea that if you get the most stable job it’s the best thing for you because they struggled when they first came here. I’m sure it’s quite similar. But, at the same time coming from a large real estate family background, was it expected that you would join the family business and just go down that route? Was there resistance there when you decided that maybe that wasn’t exactly—
Ash: I think my father was also somewhat of an anomaly to the family business. He was a Ph.D., and so he was pursuing more academic things initially. I think for me, my father never put any pressure on me or any expectation. Obviously, we were growing up in America. My cousins were growing up in Hong Kong, so there wasn’t necessarily that pressure of going back to Asia or any of that.
I think on the family side, I think my father was also a representation of a certain sense of freedom and trust in my father’s endeavors in finding some other creative business or outlets for the family business in America. Yeah, I think there was never any pressure from my father, at all. But I think very much like his situation, he extended that to me as the same.
Jay: That’s pretty cool. What did you end up studying in school and this sort of thing that led you to where you are?
Ash: General junk. I did UCLA. I took five years. I was just hanging out. Just having a good time. I did international development studies and a business administration minor. It was a major that really didn’t have that many requirements. So, I could pick my way through. Then, a few years later I ended up going to grad school in the UK and doing a masters in real estate development. Obviously, the schooling was a lot more meaningful when I had an interest in it as opposed to not knowing where the education was leading.
Jay: Okay. So, tell us a little bit about your first venture, entrepreneurial venture, if you will.
Ash: When I was a little kid, I bought Girbaud jeans in Kowloon. I brought them back to America and I sold it. It was actually— I bought all those seconds on Wanchai. That was the first. That was one of the first businesses.
Honestly, the first business was really restaurants. That was the first business that my family gave me the reigns to embark on something completely different and undertake something completely foreign to the family. We definitely learned some lessons through the restaurants. Yeah, that was the first one.
Jay: Well, that’s one of the hardest businesses. Was it in Boston that you opened your first restaurant?
Ash: No, it was in Costa Mesa was the first one, which I partnered with a buddy of mine, Leonard. That one went well. It was piggybacking off the overflow of the original
Founder’s restaurant, which wasn’t too far away. But, again, it had a high Asian population. It was shabu-shabu. We replicated it in a couple of other cities, and it was really tough business to replicate if you didn’t have a heavy Asian population. We learned our lesson very quickly. We had to shut down the other two restaurants.
Jay: I see. Then, from there, what was the next step in your entrepreneurial journey?
Ash: Honestly, the restaurant was definitely a failure point. We started doing pop-ups. We were like, What if we were to do something that was more conceptual and didn’t have the encumbrance of the large footprint or the real estate cost? So, we built a liquid nitrogen ice cream container, a 20-foot shipping container that we had fabricated and designed and turned into a liquid-nitrogen ice cream shop that we plopped onto Harvard University’s Science Center campus courtyard. Again, lessons learned. We had a lot of fun. That was another— Yeah. So many ideas.
Jay: It’s so interesting to me because—These ideas, though. How did you conceive these ideas?
Ash: A lot of them were really like response to some of the weaknesses that we saw. The restaurant was high-cost of development. It was big real estate, long leases; just high risk. So, we wanted to do something food-related that we might be able to plug into some of my father’s properties. His company was buying properties in Boston and we were thinking, “Wow. What if we could create some micro concepts that might be able to shoehorn themselves into real estate pieces, even that were maybe partially in development that might be able to service temporarily.
The container thing was a big thing that—I don’t know, just was something I got enamored with and wanted to do everything with shipping containers. That was the first shipping container endeavor that we undertook.
Jay: That’s pretty cool. Actually, shipping containers—I read an article recently about people in Silicon Valley now living in shipping containers because their real estate prices are so high.
Ash: Yeah. It’s interesting that one of the biggest problems initially with shipping containers was that a lot of neighborhoods didn’t allow them because they didn’t classify them as housing or as structures. There wasn’t appreciable value. It was still looked at as raw land as opposed to a built-out housing structure.
A lot of things have changed. I think there’s a time and a place. We’ve done a lot of concepts with containers. I think ultimately a hybrid of container and traditional building is really where there’s a balance between the two.
Jay: Right. So, with the real estate background and now you’ve, obviously—it seems like there’s always been some sort of artistic elements. Where did that come from? Where did this artistic edge that you have, how did that get cultivated from a younger age?
Ash: Yeah, that’s interesting. I don’t know. My mom—I spent a lot of time—my dad was always busy, so I spent a lot of time with my mom. She was an artist who was in New York. Initially, she was drawing those Jay Peterman-like catalogs, those fashion catalogs where you buy clothing, but it was actually hand drawn, not photographed. She would always help me on my art projects. I think there was definitely a sense of—I remember building a Tiananmen Square diorama when I was a kid. I built a tank and my mom helped me make the little man holding the two plastic bags standing in front of the tank. There was always some kind of creative element, I guess.
Jay: That’s very cool. Let’s talk about your latest and greatest project. At some point, you decided to focus on the West Coast. How did you come up with this idea of The Container Yard, which is a very, very cool concept? It kind of reminds me of a space here in Hong Kong. You’ve probably seen it. It’s called the PMQ. It’s like the old Police Married Quarters where they have art and design. They have a lot of retail stuff there too. So, walk us through The Container Yard. How was that idea…?
Ash: Everything for us has been really organic. Honestly, The Container Yard, we bought because I was actually looking at buying real estate condos in the neighborhood. The condo that we were looking at, we stepped on the balcony, and there was a for sale sign across the street. It just happened to be The Container Yard or what we ended up calling The Container Yard. It was originally the Mikawaya Mochi Factory. It was a Japanese mochi company, one of the largest mochi companies in America. This was their original L.A. based factory.
It was really coincidental that I pitched the idea, “What if we were to buy this commercial space because this neighborhood is so hot, and we’re looking at residential stuff.” So, it was a shot in the dark and coincidental, or by some sort of stroke of luck I was able to really sell the deal. We ended up with this empty factory one day. We were like, “Oh, my gosh. We don’t know what to do with it.” We ended up calling it the Container Yard. It was the birth of social media. Five years ago, was really the time that Instagram really started getting strong. We started documenting just the transformation of the space.
We were in the Arts District. They had this ordinance which allowed artists to paint the exterior of buildings. This artist wandered in one day and asked if he could paint the outside of the building. We said, “Yeah, cool.” So, all these people started driving by seeing people painting these big graffiti pieces in broad daylight, and word got out. It was legally allowed. People started hitting us up, and that was the beginning of just this space that organically grew itself into a canvas for all these people that contributed their artistic talents. Yeah, it was awesome.
Jay: It’s a really interesting concept. I read online, when I was doing some research that the pieces are impermanent, as in they are constantly changing. Is that right?
Ash: Yeah. I mean, we only have so many walls. We started using more and more space that we didn’t think we were going to use. Eventually, we ran out of walls. Stuff just has to be impermanent if we’re going to be able to accommodate new art and more people and continue that spirit of the space. I think everybody’s been really supportive. We’re really fortunate to be able to continue doing that.
Jay: Yeah, that’s fantastic. In addition to just walk-in artists doing large-scale artwork on the walls, containers, and stuff there, what other plans do you have for that space?
Ash: We’ve gone through a lot of different initiatives. We’ve done four different development proposals, architectural schematic proposals. Ultimately, a lot of what we do here is dictated by whatever the current building code is. It’s actually changed a few times since the time that we purchased the building. We’re at the crossroads at this point, deciding what path we want to pursue in the development of the space. Like, do we want to pursue something completely large, or do we want to do something medium size and hold that on the property for 10 years, and then tackle something larger? We’re at that crossroad right now.
Jay: Is there any retail or dining that’s in the space, or is it purely just art?
Ash: One of the buildings of the four buildings we have recently converted into an art gallery retail space. We’re going to be doing a café coffee shop, but there’s no restaurant-alcohol permit yet. One of the obstacles with an alcohol permit is you really need to define your final layout and how you’re going to organize your space. Because we’re not at that point yet, it’s a little difficult to commit to a specific blueprint, which is prerequisite for getting the alcohol permit. So, we’re honing in on the final path that we want to follow, whether it’s large, medium, or small development. I think then the alcohol permit and all that stuff, the restaurant stuff will follow after that.
Jay: What is the process by which an artist can come to The Container Yard and work, so to speak, or how do you curate your artists?
Ash: Initially, it was a free-for-all. It was crazy. We just invited everybody. Then, as the walls started filling up, it was just a matter of whether or not we had the space, whether we had the time, and whether we had the manpower. A lot of times we’ll do all the prep for the walls. If somebody wanted to come paint a big wall, we’ll do all the prep for them, make sure that they have a lift. So, it was really two-fold. It was really to support the artist, whether we could financially endeavor something like that. But, we would try to couple that with some of the development growth that the art would help with some of the identity with the space in the Arts District and be this canvas to showcase the creative element of people rolling through L.A.
Jay: I think it’s very cool. Is there any possibility that this concept can be scaled nationally or even globally at this point? Obviously, Hong Kong would be difficult due to the exorbitant real estate process, but I feel like this concept is something that could proliferate.
Ash: I think, like I said in the very beginning, a lot of this stuff was experimental for the real estate angle or the real estate arm of the business. I think that a lot of this stuff is representative of a changing consumer and pop-up experiences. We’ve had all these different crazy—it started with the ice cream museum which was like a bunch of different Instagram rooms. Then, there was the Happy Place, and now there is 29 Rooms by refinery. It’s like all these crazy social media—it’s like replacing the museum. I think it’s really just that space is becoming a lot more, I think, flexible. I think rather than signing three-year, five-year, ten-year leases, there’s a lot of space that can really function really well by serving a multitude of different uses rather than being confined to any one particular use. I think that’s what a lot of this consumer behavior is starting to show, this temporary attention-span kind of stuff.
Jay: Yeah, it certainly seems to be the case, especially with social media and how—like you said, attention is so hard to get now. But, when you have something large scale like The Container Yard, I guess it tends to grasp people’s attention pretty well as they drive by.
Is there anything else that you are particularly working on or are you 100% focused on The Container Yard, or are there other side projects right now that you’re looking into next year and this sort of thing to roll out?
Ash: Yes. I think The Container Yard again was a really great stepping stone. It was an amazing experiment. It was a great grand creation of space and we want to continue building that. I think monetizing all of this and being financially viable is really the most important thing — to be able to keep doing these kinds of things and to be able to keep recreating space and experience. I think, for us, moving forward, what stopping us specifically at The Container Yard is we’re waiting for sprinklers. We don’t have fire sprinklers in here yet. They stopped issuing day permits to us until we get fire sprinklers. They’re across the county. That halted all possibility of doing any events.
We have another property which is less than a mile away. It’s not too far from the Art’s District, but we’re turning that into an events space, wedding venue, something that we might be able to use both for public and private use but also incorporate a lot of the creative talents of the artists that we’ve worked with and come across to apply in a more commercial way that can at least earn some kind of return to pay people’s bills.
Jay: Yeah, I think the financial monetization, that’s obviously one of the greatest challenges in any field. It’s good to always be mindful of that. It definitely affects every business decision that gets made along the way.
Ash, thanks so much for the time. The last couple of questions, I guess, if you had—based on your experiences as an entrepreneur, with doing restaurants, creative spaces, and this sort of thing, if there’s one piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs or maybe aspiring artists that you could give based on your ups and downs, what would it be?
Ash: Honestly, I say from everything that I’ve gone through and what I’m still learning, I think tact and timing. Watching what you say and how you say it. Like I said, with The Container Yard, it’s tough for us to accept everybody. We can’t accommodate everybody, but a lot of times it’s about the angle, the approach, and the pitch. Even for us, as an aspiring creative agency, so much of your valuation or your ticket price is based on your ability to present your product or your abilities with high value. I think we work with people that charge astronomical amounts of money and have no clue what they’re doing. We’re just beside ourselves. For us, we realize so much of it is about the tact and the approach and being able to capitalize on the opportunities that are really out there. It’s amazing. Sometimes we just kick ourselves because some people are getting paid these huge contracts and they have absolutely no clue of how to run the events that they do. It’s a learning lesson for us.
Jay: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s so cool. I’m really interested and I’m really following you guys to see how things build out there. I think it’s awesome what you’re doing. I wish you the best of luck, obviously. Where is the best place that our listeners can find you, follow you, connect with you, or maybe learn a little bit more about the work that you’re doing?
Ash: Mostly, it’s been Instagram up until now, @thecontaineryard. Our website, we’re really in transition because the creative space is amazing, but I think we’re trying to create a new platform that can support everybody financially, as well as creatively. Anyways, the website: www.TheContainerYard.com. Eventually, it will show something different. But, thank you. I appreciate you having me, really. It’s awesome to be able to talk about what we’ve been doing.
Jay: That’s awesome. Yeah, we’ll definitely get that linked up. Absolutely. We’ll get it all linked up in the notes and have listeners check you out on Instagram. Thanks so much, Ash. I really appreciate the time. I’m looking forward to seeing what you guys do in the future.
Ash: Right on, man. Thank you so much.
Jay: All right. Take care.
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