We walked past the magic garden of eclectic furniture on a rainy Friday evening and into SAUCE, the bar by the Esplanade run by the folks at The Butter Factory that serves $6 bottles of Asahi. Someone was cool enough to be having a business meeting at a bar and, as we found out, the expectant mother in the group was Tay Eu-Yen.
Yen, as the staff at SAUCE affectionately call her, is the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of The Butter Factory, producer of the controversial Ken Kwek film, Sex.Violence.FamilyValues and author of the book “Business Law for the Night Entertainment Entreprenuer”. Yen also has a past as a litigator at Drew & Napier LLC, and was an Assistant Professor of Law at Singapore Management University. In between all these projects, she finds the time to be happily married (her husband lovingly appears during the interview to ask for the car keys) and is even expecting a baby!
Being pregnant does not even come close to holding her back from running the successful business she does so well — she takes a twenty-minute break from the business meeting to speak to us.
Party in the UK
Yen studied for her LLB at University of Bristol and she tells us that studying in the UK made her a more independent learner as compared to her experience in the Singapore education system. She says that the UK was a completely different education experience for her: “Nobody’s disciplining you — if you’re late, you’re late; if you don’t show up, you don’t show up. But if you want to learn, [the tutors] are there to teach and discuss.” This is important in a legal education because, as Yen puts it, “you will never know everything in law” and the British system taught her how to learn about the law such that when it came to practice, she knew where to find the answers.
Perhaps it is also this independence that allows law students studying in the UK to “party all the time”. But don’t let this fool you — Yen picked up the Top Overseas Student Award in 1999 and also bagged the GTI Target Law Prize for best undergraduate dissertation, which motivated and encouraged her to pursue a Masters of Studies in Legal Research at Oxford University.
Despite her obvious interest in Entertainment Law and Business Law, which she says was formed by her foray into the entertainment and lifestyle business, her postgraduate thesis was on International Law — in particular, peace enforcement by the United Nations Security Council.
This interest in International Law stemmed from an elective that she took as a student in the Humanities Programme at Raffles Junior College, which pointed her in the direction of International Law and led her to take many more of such modules during her undergraduate studies and, eventually at Oxford as well.
Yen lets in that, as a student, she used to be very “fluffy and academic” and felt very strongly about issues such as Human Rights. However, she has mellowed since then. “I’ve realised that all these ideals were really just that — ideals. It was a harsh realisation because you have to accept that you can’t really change anything. You just have to play within the boundaries of the entire legal framework. In a sense, it grounds you and humbles you as well.”
Having roughed it out in the legal and business world, Yen understands the importance of being practical. Even legal practitioners may not be able to fully understand the practicality that is needed in the practice of law in business; it is “yet another step further in practicality”, she says. “As a legal practitioner stepping into the business world, I thought I was very practical. But then I realised that [from a business perspective] the law is applied in a completely different way. There are loopholes and gaps in the law because the people who write the law are not the people doing the business.”
Legal Practice and The Night Entertainment Entrepreneur
Coming home from her studies in the UK, Yen worked as a litigator with Drew & Napier LLC for 3 years. She says her time there was “very demanding and exacting”, but also “very gratifying”.
So how does one maintain a legal practice and, at the same time, set up such an establishment in the night entertainment scene like The Butter Factory? Yen self-deprecatingly tells us she is equally baffled, but suggests that passion is a crucial element. This is also her secret to running a successful business. “You’ve got to love it. In any business, it is very draining and it takes up all of your time.”
Perhaps her youth also contributed to her success. “I was young and excited, so I didn’t have to sleep much — I just survived on alcohol.” This writer is 22 years young and is (at times) excited but, despite many attempts, has yet to succeed in replacing sleep with alcohol. Maybe she really does have 36 hours in a day.
Yen confesses to be “big on organisation” and shares how she continually improves her knowledge on organisation by seeking out organisation software and courses.
She also credits her great partners and co-founders who took on the business full-time during the initial stages. This allowed her to play a non-executive role, devoting sufficient time and energy to her legal practice.
However, when the time was ripe for The Butter Factory to expand, there was a need for a Chairman that was executive. Between hiring a CEO and leaving her practice to take on an executive role, Yen chose the latter.
We asked Yen if that was a difficult decision to make. She said that while it does not seem like one now, it was a difficult decision for her at that point in time. “It’s like dating a guy for 10 years thinking you were going to marry him, but then you meet another guy and you fall in love with him — you’ve either got to take the safe option, or follow your heart.”
Yen chose to follow her heart and she has no regrets. When we asked whether she ever misses practice, she readily answers with a laugh that she does not.
However, turning her full attention to her business does not mean that she has stopped practicing the law. Evidence of her daily encounters with the law in her business is found in the book she recently authored — Business Law for the Night Entertainment Entrepreneur.
Yen started to write the book because she realised that through the course of her business, she had accumulated many folders of legal research on her hard drive. Before this, there was no book to guide night entertainment entrepreneurs and Yen had to plough through cases and statues to get the information she needed. The book serves as a handy “muggers” of sorts for entertainment entrepreneurs — and we all know how important muggers are.
It’s Always A Good Time
With the success of The Butter Factory, we asked Yen what was the most important in throwing a party — music, booze, beautiful people, or (because we’re talking about The Butter Factory) beautiful art. She says, “It’s a combination of everything. The vibe of a club’s owners determines and contributes to the vibe of the entire party; club owners cannot walk into a club looking like they would rather be some place else.” That explains the themed nights at The Butter Factory and, of course, the vibe of the famed Wednesday night fixture, BUTTER COOKIES.
Yen reflects that the nightlife scene in Singapore has come a long way. At a time when Zouk was the only name one would think of when it comes to a good night out, The Butter Factory joined in the fray with its refreshing brand of Hip Hop and R&B. Now, there are many other clubs that have popped up and are all very successful in their own right. “[The industry] has become very competitive, and very intensive in terms of reinvention.”
And The Butter Factory sure keeps things fresh. Noting the trend towards a greater variety of music and with a more discerning crowd of party people, Yen tells us that Fash in The Butter Factory is programmed for a niche audience who dig a more progressive sound that is not shy to indie and electronic music — sometimes a little trance even gets thrown into the mix. “Not everyone will be into this kind of music, but the people who are, they really love it,” she says.
On the other hand, Bump keeps to The Butter Factory’s successful Hip Hop and R&B brand, and Yen tells us that the programming deliberately shifts according to commercial trends of hip hop music which are moving towards a more electronic sound — “you no longer get sexy back, but more Gaga.”
We had to ask this tired question: What’s playing on Yen’s iPod? “I just switch on the radio; I’m old school like that,” she quips. And it is the trendy Lush 99.5FM that plays on Yen’s radio because it plays “a lot of indie music and supports a lot of local talent”.
Yen somehow also manages to find the time to produce the groundbreaking local film, Sex.Violence.FamilyValues. Writer and Director Ken Kwek is a long time friend of Yen’s and he came to her with an idea to shoot a movie consisting of 3 short stories, all filmed within The Butter Factory. The idea grew from wanting to use one space and make it look like 3 different spaces.
The Butter Factory was never meant to be just a club, and as an entertainment and lifestyle outfit, Yen says that it was a fantastic idea and since it had not been done in Singapore before and was not too taxing on the pocket, they decided to give it a go.
What was it like turning The Butter Factory into a porn studio and a strip club? Yen says that it was a “mad rush”, filming from Sundays to Wednesdays and then opening with BUTTER COOKIES in the evening. “It was interesting to see how the space is transformed on screen but being physically on set, you don’t really see anything different; its just very messy and tiring.”
The work didn’t end when production ended. The plug was pulled on Sex.Violence.FamilyValues only 3 days before the theatrical release. Yen shares with us that because of her legal background, she was very calm when she was told the news — “Having been in practice, I understand how things work and there’s no reason to lose your cool. You just have to figure out what the process is, go through the process, and do your best.”
Doing her best included appealing the decision of the Board of Film Censors and having to make oral submissions to the Media Development Authority’s Films Appeals Committee.
One would think that her advocacy skills as a litigator would come in handy. However, Yen shares that her experience as a litigator was more useful in drafting the written appeal. For the oral submissions, she says that her business experience gave her the edge. She took a more reconciliatory approach in seeking to come up with a workable solution, instead of advocating her position.
The ban on Sex.Violence.FamilyValues has since been lifted, and will be released in theatres with a R21 rating subject to edits, within the next few months.
Don’t Study Too Hard
We asked Yen if she had any advice for law students: “Don’t study too hard, just play. Come to Butter Factory more often!” Judging from the number of people at the library, many of us could use this advice. “Looking back, student life was one of the best times of my life. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re going to regret it because later on you won’t get the same opportunities — so you’ve got to do all these things now.”
Yen also tells us that it’s important to follow our hearts. “Most people know the saying but they don’t do it, because they don’t really know what it entails.” Yen assures us that a legal education is always going to be valuable and will not go to waste, even if you do end up doing something completely different. To those of us who feel that not going into a legal career would be a waste, Yen has this to say: “Isn’t it better to waste that than to waste the rest of your life?”
Certainly, it is obvious that a legal education has served Yen well in her business endeavours, but she owes her success to more than just that. It is her drive to succeed (even if it means surviving on alcohol), her insistence on putting out consistently competent work (even if you’re running a successful nightclub on the side), and above all, a willingness to follow the heart — even when it is an impossible choice between two passions.
But, as Yen finds out, leaving a law firm does not mean leaving the practice of law, and as we have seen, it still plays an important part in the running of her business. You can take the lawyer out of a law firm, but you cannot take the law out of a lawyer.
Justified x The Butter Factory Guest List
Show some big ass skinny love to the generous folks at The Butter Factory because they’re giving all NUS Law students free entry to Bump (which includes entry to Fash) before 12 midnight, every Wednesday from 1 Feb 2013 to 30 Sept 2013. Simply sign up for the guest list and present your ID and Matric Card for entry before 12 midnight.
Sign up here: http://tinyurl.com/justifiedbutter
Dateline for signups is 2 February 2013, 2359 hours.
Do note that the guest list is only open to NUS Law students. Entry is subject to club capacity and standard club rules apply.
Party responsibly guys!
Quare is a collaboration between Law Annual’s Justified and Singapore Law Review’s Juris Illuminae.
Text by Desmond Chng.
With contributions from Eugene Lee from Juris Illuminae, Singapore Law Review.