Grace Huang: A Heart of Gold
When Grace Huang was asked to speak at FuckUp Nights, she ended her talk with a quote by Marcel Proust. The best quotes are profound, poignant perhaps, and memorable. That’s one aspect. But to reference Proust, the French theorist and world famous novelist, takes it to a whole different level.
People brandish quotes that fundamentally encapsulate their ethos or simply, how they are feeling. Yet, for Grace, neither applies. In In Search of Lost Time, Proust disguises himself as a sensitive young man looking for the meaning and purpose of life, and he aptly postulates: “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” It was only until I met Grace did I realise how she had truly lived her life by that very quote.
“I moved to Hong Kong to try and pursue a singing career, but it didn’t work out. Subsequently, I went to Melbourne after a failed business and to also explore a relationship with a woman. Unfortunately, she ran off with someone else.” Grace recounts with a delicate forlornness as she hooks her benevolent eyes on me. “I was lost. . . so I joined a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu [BJJ] gym because I needed something new, and that was the beginning of everything.” Through BJJ, Grace has managed to discover a new outlook – one that allows her to understand and know herself more deeply.
Her confidence both inward and outward at the same time, shows in her thoughts. And believe it or not, this apple-cheeked magnet dreams of making the world of better place with a wholehearted quixotism that doesn’t seem manufactured. “Arlene [Lim] and I have very idealistic and moralistic views on what martial arts should be, and we felt there wasn’t a school in Singapore that embodied those values. We want our students to learn how to be better persons, aside from improving their skill levels.”
I wanted to tell Grace that having a strong sense of purpose makes life more fulfilling, but I guess she already knew – she was staring at me and the world with new eyes, wide open.
WY-LENE YAP: How many active founders are there?
GRACE HUANG: Two. Arlene [Lim] and I. Within each branch, we also have an additional partner.
WY-LENE: How did you meet Arlene?
GRACE: [laughs] This is a funny story. When I came back from Melbourne in 2012, I joined Evolve MMA, and Arlene was a major competitor there. I think she felt territorial by my presence. Every time I sparred with her during BJJ sessions, she was always ‘out to kill’ me. One time, she had smashed her eye at a competition, so she needed to go for surgery. Six weeks later, she returned for training and we were learning how to choke an opponent. When you choke someone from behind, you can’t really see the person. All this time while I was choking her, she refused to tap out. Eventually, Arlene passed out on my lap, and I felt extremely bad and awful about the whole situation. I was worried that she might plot her revenge the next time, but she brought me cupcakes instead.
GRACE: I thought she had poisoned me. But since I was hungry, I ate them up. Thank goodness, I did not die and we ended up becoming friends.
WY-LENE: How did the idea to start Trifecta Martial Arts come about?
GRACE: A couple of factors. First, we found out that a particular gym wasn’t treating their instructors and customers well. They’re so huge, and we were just a number to them. Second, Arlene and I used to have conversations about how BJJ had changed our lives. At one point, we were both lost – Arlene had gotten a divorce from a very abusive ex-husband. And for me, I moved countries after a failed business and relationship. When I was in Melbourne, I joined a BJJ gym because I needed something new, and that was the beginning of everything. There are very few things in life that allow you to understand and know yourself more deeply… and BJJ was one of them for me. Arlene and I have very idealistic and moralistic views on what martial arts should be, and we felt there wasn’t a school in Singapore that embodied those values. We want our students to learn how to be better persons, aside from improving their skill levels.
WY-LENE: That’s heart-warming.
GRACE: Having Trifecta gives me the opportunity to influence each individual in terms of how they feel about themselves, and their place in the world because that was what I had learnt from martial arts. I want my students to be more confident in themselves. For example, BJJ pushes you out of your comfort zone – someone could be sitting on you and invading your personal space. So you have to learn how to control yourself, and work your way out of situation. If a person is bigger than you, you don’t try to move them. You move yourself instead. Similarly, this can be applicable to life when you encounter an obstacle.
WY-LENE: How much capital did you put in?
GRACE: In total, half a million from all our partners.
WY-LENE: How’s business doing so far? Are you profitable?
GRACE: We are starting to make money. When we had one branch initially, we were new, and it was pretty hard. People were also cautious about signing up for a membership partially due to yoga schools closing down abruptly. Subsequently, when we opened up two more branches, business got better.
WY-LENE: What are the biggest challenges you face as an entrepreneur?
GRACE: Time management – finding a balance between running 3 branches, and maintaining my relationships with my family and girlfriend.
WY-LENE: Who do you see as your competitors?
GRACE: Quite honestly, I do not believe in competition. We do what we do, and we all do it differently. There is a gym for everyone, and there is a school for everyone too.
I want my students to know that we are with them every step of the way.
WY-LENE: What differentiates you from the rest? Some people might lump you into the same category as a MMA gym.
GRACE: Yeah… on the outside, I don’t care how people perceive us. No matter how hard you try to change people’s opinions, you just can’t please everyone. What matters more is what people see internally. I would like my staff to be happy working for me, and that they would be treated fairly. I want my students to know that we are with them every step of the way. We also try our best not to let the various branches run on their own, as it is important to know who the owners are. In addition, we do care about our students’ well-being and growth, and we try to build personal relationships with them too.
WY-LENE: What do you think of Evolve MMA?
GRACE: They have done a great job in promoting the sport, especially the fame and fortune aspect. They also have great facilities and locations. But we are in two different spaces. Everybody picks up martial arts for different reasons. If you want to lose 12kg in 6 months, some people might think that Evolve MMA is the way to go. We have had students before wanting to lose weight or even participate in a MMA fight, and we have helped them to achieve their goals. Whatever end point you have in mind, we will embark on the journey with you.
WY-LENE: Why did you choose to only provide three martial arts disciplines: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Taekwondo and Muay Thai?
GRACE: The River Valley branch teaches all three disciplines, while the Novena and Bukit Timah branches offer two. Novena was our first branch and the reason why we only have taekwondo and BJJ is because both of them are complementary – taekwondo is more structured and disciplined while BJJ is a constantly evolving, free-flowing sport. The Bukit Timah branch was converted into a Trifecta school after we had bought it over from the previous owner. It used to be a Muay Thai school. Initially, we weren’t sure if we wanted to teach Muay Thai, but we did not want to completely change the school at the same time. So we adopted the Muai Thai programme as a trial to see if it could fit into our overall brand, and it worked out well. We also offer BJJ classes at that branch.
WY-LENE: Are you thinking of expanding the repertoire?
GRACE: At this point, we are quite happy with three.
If you’re not confident, it is incredibly hard to find your place in this world because the world tries to tell you who you are.
WY-LENE: What is your long-term goal for Trifecta?
GRACE: I would like to make a positive difference in people’s lives through martial arts. It has been a fulfilling journey and I have met so many people. Every time I see all the members hang out together, I can’t help but think that they are such an eclectic bunch of people like doctors, engineers, college kids, etc… and they would not have been friends if not for Trifecta. When one of our members goes for a MMA fight, everyone is there to support him. A while back, I gave a teenage boy and his sister their first lesson, and they were the most gangly and uncoordinated teenagers. He was also very shy and refused to talk. Recently, he just won 2 gold medals at a Johor Bahru BJJ competition, and he has become such a confident person. I would like to think that we played a part in helping him grow by giving him the tools to succeed in life. His parents even said to me, “My boy had such a great time at your class today. Thank you.” If you’re not confident, it is incredibly hard to find your place in this world because the world tries to tell you who you are.
WY-LENE: How long did you train him for?
GRACE: A couple of months. After that, he joined the adult class and is currently being coached by our Brazilian black belt instructor.
WY-LENE: Are you planning to open more branches down the line?
GRACE: I am not sure what we were thinking when we decided to open 3 branches in two years! [laughs] The opportunities arose and we had to seize them. But at the moment, I don’t think we are planning to open more branches… perhaps in a year or two, we might.
WY-LENE: Who is the youngest student in your school?
GRACE: Ummm, it’s hard to say who is the youngest… we have kids who are three and a half years old.
WY-LENE: How about the oldest?
GRACE: There is a taekwondo student who is in his 60s.
WY-LENE: Do you have a higher percentage of male students than females?
WY-LENE: Why is that so?
GRACE: It varies with each discipline. For taekwondo, the margin is smaller as compared to BJJ. BJJ is a very close contact sport and most females don’t really like that. On the other hand, Muay Thai is very popular with females because they enjoy the cardio part, and it makes them feel like they are working out.
WY-LENE: Are athletes born or made?
GRACE: You mean professional athletes?
GRACE: Professional athletes are made. You can have all the natural talent in the world, but if you have no discipline to train, then it’s hard to be an athlete. Italo [Lins], my Brazilian instructor, is so disciplined with his food intake. On top of teaching, he competes a lot, and trains two times a day. Arlene also competes in BJJ tournaments, and sometimes she has to drop the weight – there are days when she doesn’t eat at all.
WY-LENE: Do you like to compete?
GRACE: I hate competing as it takes the joy out of the sport. I prefer teaching. I get really horrible when I am hungry too. [laughs] I would lose all my friends and my staff would hate me.
WY-LENE: Congrats on getting your purple belt in BJJ. Despite being trained in Chinese Wushu and Muay Thai, you mentioned that BJJ is your true love in your biodata. What makes it so special?
GRACE: When I was young, my parents signed me up for Wushu classes because I was bullied in secondary school. I was an awkward and strange kid who did not do well socially. Let me give you a background of my family: my mum’s family is from Hong Kong and my dad is Baba. I wasn’t raised in a very ‘Chinese’ environment, and I grew up speaking English and Cantonese. My mandarin was terrible. Wushu just wasn’t my cup of tea because the traditional Chinese values did not resonate with me. I took up Muay Thai after I had a bad argument with my ex-girlfriend who was a dancer and she even flung a bedside table at me. I felt really weak, and was determined to improve my core strength. I like Muay Thai but after a while, the set of moves can be quite monotonous like punch harder, kick faster… and you’re not learning anything new. On average for BJJ, it takes 10 years to get a black belt. There’s a lot to learn, and you can also create your own techniques – I get bored easily so that keeps things interesting.
WY-LENE: Do you only teach Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
WY-LENE: What kind of instructor are you?
GRACE: It depends. I am a little bit stricter when it comes to teenagers as they are graded formally by a black belt instructor. I am also particular about how they arrange their uniforms, tie their belts, and the practise of bowing before they enter the mat. Teaching the right techniques are important to me as well so that my students can understand the rationale behind blocking in a certain way, or why their hand should be placed at a specific body part.
WY-LENE: How often do you teach?
GRACE: Two or three times a week.
WY-LENE: How many students do you have?
GRACE: Our active student base is around 700.
WY-LENE: How much mental fortitude is required in martial arts?
GRACE: It depends on the type of martial arts and what you want to achieve. For example, BJJ requires a lot of mental fortitude: there are times when you will get beaten by a white belt even though you have a higher belt. There will also be times when you feel like you’re not progressing, and you have to learn how to push yourself constantly. BJJ is unlike taekwondo whereby there is a grading every 3 months. The instructor gives you stripes when they think you have improved, and it takes 2 years on average to earn a new belt. So it’s a long time not knowing where you are and having to deal with uncertainty.
You can’t run a business if you do not love it.
WY-LENE: I understand that you had 2 businesses previously: a design company and a company running seminars on eBay. What was your biggest takeaway from them?
GRACE: You can’t run a business if you do not love it. It’s pure torture. In addition, just because you are good at something doesn’t mean that you are suitable for it. Although I am good at design, I could also be good at other things. It is also important to choose the right business partner wisely – I learnt the hard way after being scammed.
WY-LENE: Do you still exercise your creative muscle?
GRACE: Mostly for Trifecta… artwork, posters, etc. I do not really take on any design jobs unless they are for my friends. At the moment, I am working on a website for a charity due to my involvement with 50 F0r 50 last year.
WY-LENE: Would you say you’re a risk-taker?
GRACE: Only after carefully deliberating for a significant period of time. I am the kind of person who likes to mull over things. For example, before I design something, a lot of time is spent in my head. Once I am ready, the end product comes out pretty quickly.
WY-LENE: What motivates you?
GRACE: My mum has been a very inspiring figure in my life. She made herself out of nothing, and has supported all my decisions throughout the years – my attempt at pursuing a singing career, setting up Trifecta, etc. My mum is also a realist who constantly tells me she is not going to be around forever. Ultimately, I want her to be proud of me and I hope that she can see my success.
WY-LENE: Who has influenced you the most in your life?
GRACE: Different people at various parts of my life have influenced me both positively and negatively. Many people have asked me before: how do you know what you wanted in life? And quite honestly, I didn’t know what I wanted. But over time, I knew what I did not want in life and I worked backwards from there.
WY-LENE: Some people might ignite a flame, but they leave quickly. Some stay for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same. What is your greatest accomplishment thus far?
GRACE: Trifecta Martial Arts. It has challenged me in many ways – I used to like working on my own, but now I have to manage people. When I first started Trifecta, I only wanted to do design work and teach a few classes. Dealing with finance or HR matters wasn’t on my mind. We used to have another business partner but he pulled out. By that time, Arlene was already running the Bukit Timah branch, so I had to step up and manage the Novena branch. I was very resentful about that for quite a long time… I had a lot of meltdowns; I was bad with numbers, I did not know how to work the customer management system, etc. Eventually, I grew and learned how to run a business.
WY-LENE: I am aware that you almost became a professional singer in HK. When did you last sing to yourself?
GRACE: I sing to myself every day in the car.
WY-LENE: Is there a particular song you listen to that psyches you up and makes you feel strong?
GRACE: I don’t have a specific song. I just listen to a Spotify playlist… it’s usually today’s top hits.
WY-LENE: If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
GRACE: That’s a really hard question... I would say a mind of a 30-year-old.
GRACE: My paternal grandmother had Alzheimer’s and it was sad for the people around her. She was in the nursing home and my parents would go and see her all the time. One time, my dad witnessed a conversation between my grandmother and another old lady. The old lady said, “You’re so lucky, your son comes to visit you every day. And my grandmother replied, “He’s not my son.” I think it’s heartbreaking to lose your memory. If my mother forgets who I am, I will be devastated.
WY-LENE: Finally, do you have any regrets?
GRACE: No. All the decisions that I have made (good or bad) have led me onto this path and I am happy how everything has turned out.