Inspiring & Being Inspired with Ruby from @hellohomebodies
We all want a house that feels like a home, a sanctuary decorated with our interests, hobbies, and tokens of personal significance.
We had the lovely Ruby from @hellohomebodies give us a tour of the breathtaking home she built with her husband, Kenny. Despite both our busy schedules, we thankfully managed to carve out some time to connect online. Though it was our first time speaking to each other, I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Ruby, exchanging our personal stories, motivations, and lessons.
I wanted to create a community of people who can actually appreciate what I’m doing, and that’s how @hellohomebodies started. - Ruby Chong
How were you as a teenager, growing up? Did you ever fear or doubt your capabilities?
Oh, all the time. Fear is something that never quite left me; it was about how I learned to manage it over time.
I think I had a very unhealthy obsession with my weight as a teen, which was a result of insecurity. Growing up, I saw these beautiful pictures online. Quite a cliche, but it did affect me as a young woman trying to grow, trying to accept my body, trying to accept the acne. It made me conscious about my looks, to the extent that I rejected social gatherings because I wasn’t having a great day with the pimples on my face.
That, and the constant feeling that I wasn't good enough. I'm usually not the brightest spark in the room, so I hesitated whenever I wanted to speak up. I second-guessed myself tons, and I didn’t know where to look for affirmation. I didn't get it from my parents, so I think that was a tough part of growing up.
How did you overcome that?
I think a lot of it came from the group of friends I surround myself with. It was not like a switch that came on overnight. It was through speaking to people and asking: "Do you feel this way? Why do you think I feel this way, and why do you think you feel that way?" Having someone that validated how I felt was important. It allowed me to be vulnerable and that support helped me walk out of my shell. I won’t say that I've overcome that completely; people still deal with insecurity. It’s about how I chose to acknowledge and rise above it.
Do you find that empowering?
Yes. There are good days when I feel, ‘Wow, I can do this.' Or I look back to say, ‘Oh, how did I live through that?’ But there are also days when I think, ‘Oh, I should have reacted better.’ Whenever I have such thoughts, I nip them in the bud. I need to not think about the what-ifs or that I could’ve done better because what’s done is done. I made the best decision that was the best for me then. Acknowledging that we can never make the best decision at every single moment of our lives is personal growth.
Who has been the biggest supporter in your growth to who you are today?
This will sound very tacky, but I say it’s my husband. (laughs) Simply because he has supported every decision I have made, even if they were terrible decisions. But we have a good laugh about it together. I doubt myself many times, but he has been there every step of the way to say: "You know, what’s the worst that could happen? You fail, and you learn from it."
It’s a simple concept, but for someone who has been taught since young that failures are bad, it took me a long time to accept that and step up to the challenge.
Kenny supported me even when we were just a year into the marriage. I had the opportunity to move to Belgium for work, and he said: “Go. You know I’ll support you.” It’s generally frowned upon by many people, right? Many people dissuaded me from taking that, but my husband has been a solid rock. This helped me to gain self-confidence, to be less fearful of things.
So, did you go to Belgium in the end?
Great. I guess perhaps Kenny had the notion that ‘if I empower the person that I love, that empowerment comes back into the relationship as well. When he builds you up, he gets to be with an even more lovable, beautiful, and wholesome person. It’s nice to meet a partner who wholeheartedly supports you. A partner is a person we can choose, unlike family. Choosing the right partner should be stressed because they can really champion your decisions and allow you to be unapologetic about yourself.
Many women have difficulty finding a partner that can let them be. So I’m glad that you have found someone to be with, where you can be completely yourself, and build upon a strong foundation.
One reason why he’s such a big role model for me - role model sounds like an odd word - but basically, he is 100% unapologetic about himself. In the beginning, I was like: “How can you act this way? Aren’t you worried about what people will think of you?” And he’s like: ‘Well, why bother? The people who can resonate with you will naturally gravitate towards you. Surround yourself with people who do not second guess your intentions, or whatever you’re doing or saying."
That was a big lesson that I learnt from him, and he actually doesn’t know this. I never expressed this to him, so when he reads this, he’s going to be like, ‘Oh!’ This might just be the next Valentine’s Day present for him. (laughs)
Yeah, that’s nice! So (apart from being a wife), what’s a big change you’ve gone through from your teenage years to adulthood?
I grew up fast in my early twenties when my mum was feeling poorly and my (older) sister was not around physically. As the youngest, I’m the baby of the family. But when my mum’s health deteriorated, I felt I had to step up. So this was a key event that changed how I behaved, how I carried myself, how I made decisions for the family rather than waiting for them to make decisions.
So you became more proactive, and this was a distinct flip from a teen to an adult.
Yeah. At that particular moment when we received the diagnosis from the doctor, it felt like a switch came on. My mum held her own; she wasn’t crying but very calm. I was ready to burst into tears, but I was like: ‘No, I cannot. Because I’m all my mother has now in that room - my dad is not in the room - I need to be stronger than she is.
Okay, so let's talk about the present. What are the challenges you face, maybe at work?
I’m currently working (remotely at home) in a healthcare MNC (multinational corporation) where I’m serving the Japanese market. Most of the people I have meetings with from 9 to 5 are usually middle-aged Japanese men who have a certain preconceived notion of young women in managerial roles. As much as we try to have inclusion and diversity conversations, sometimes biases are so deep-set in the culture that people can’t shake it off.
I’m constantly having challenging discussions where my opinions might be overlooked. Maybe because I look young, and I’m female. This has made my work tougher than when I worked in other markets. But at the same time, I try not to let that hold me back. My biggest challenge is getting heard and holding my own ground. It’s also a period of adjustment for the people on the receiving end, right? They’ve never had the experience of working with someone from a different culture, speaking a foreign language, and of the opposite sex. It’s about trying to find that right balance.
It's nice you have such empathy to put yourself in their shoes, even though your voice (and opinions) had previously been dismissed. How do you empower yourself then, and make yourself heard?
I think it’s something that we cultivated over months of working together. The keyword that you mentioned earlier: empathy. Seeking to understand each other is a critical part of the successes I managed to achieve at work. If I spend time to understand their perspective, they give me back the same respect I deserve, and they will sit down and listen to my perspective. Sometimes it’s about handing out that olive branch first. It doesn’t mean that I agree with whatever they’re saying. I'm just saying: “Tell me. Walk me through your thought process.” So far, that has worked well.
Of course, there are still challenging discussions. Sometimes it’s still about putting your foot down and saying: "I know this was your previous way of working, but do you think it’s the best way for this particular task?" When you throw a question back to them, it makes them reflect. Rather than just telling them what they should do.
Besides work, are there other challenges that you face? Perhaps challenges that other people face, that you want to talk about?
I’m not a mother myself, but I've observed from close friends that they’re constantly trying to juggle work and family time. Many of them feel responsible for finding that balance themselves. But from what I can see, when they don’t reach out for help, it’s not healthy for anyone. I feel women shouldn’t shy away from saying they need help. A lot of us want to appear strong. We don’t like to be seen as vulnerable, so we tend to do everything ourselves. But it’s okay to acknowledge that you can’t do it. Saying no to something, or asking for help, is not a sign of weakness. If anything, I think that’s courageous.
For me, for my first child, after my confinement, I started working and taking care of my child at the same time. For my second, after the third day since giving birth, I opened my laptop and started working. The confinement lady was like: "Eh, eh, cannot like this.” (laughs) But I told her: “I can’t not do my work. How am I going to pay you otherwise? Auntie, let me work, it’s okay.” (laughs)
It must be a lot harder for you since you’re a business owner. You can’t just say, ok, I’m going on maternity leave and forget about work completely.
Yeah, but what’s amazing is that my husband & I chose this path; we chose to be passionate about what we do and turn it into a business. So I think we’re genuinely happy about it. We don’t think what we’re doing is a sacrifice. I do hear friends who exclaim, ‘Oh my god, becoming a mum takes so much time. I don’t have me-time.’ But for us, it was a natural transition. Maybe because we’re not going-out people. With kids, you stay home all the time and that can make one feel crazy. It’s a different life, completely.
Talking about juggling kids with careers: one thing I’ve been through is constantly getting questions like: “When are you going to have a kid?” “Are you choosing your career over kids?” I don’t think a woman needs to choose. We can do both.
All women can do both. It irks me. It’s our seventh year of marriage, and a lot of people around us are like, ‘oh, you know, she’s probably putting her career first and that’s why they’re not having kids.’ But I think what people fail to remember is that you can’t get a kid like (snaps fingers) that, right? Everyone has different priorities. It’s a decision that my husband and I have made together, not a singular decision; to say that because I can only do one at a time, we've put kids on hold. I feel it is unnecessary social stress.
It’s a societal standard that people try to make you conform to.
So, during your not-so-good days, how do you deal with them?
I acknowledge that it hasn't been a good day, and that’s fine. I think that’s the first step: to accept that there are good days and bad days. Not everything is on you. I like to be hands-on, so on bad days, that’s when I become the most productive at handicrafts. I’m currently still painting a mural in my toilet. (laughs) I’m not the best artist, but it allows me to have an escape. It is time for me to create not just something I like that is beautiful, but it also gives me time and space to think about what I can do better the next time around. So that’s how I channel my energy whenever I have a bad day.
Did you make any new year’s resolutions, and are you keeping up with it?
No, I stopped making new year’s resolutions. (laughs) Okay, to be fair, they carry on forwards year after year. But one thing I’m happy to have done is to get @hellohomebodies going. When I say going, I don’t mean a huge reach, but about having a consistent outlet to channel my energy into. Because I was afraid of putting myself out there. I hesitated for a long time before I shared more private stuff, like my identity. It used to be an anonymous page. So one new year’s resolution back in 2019 was to put in more effort, to put me out there and be a little more courageous.
Why did you have a shift in mindset to put yourself out there?
Other than affirmations from Kenny, I had an interesting conversation. I was in Spain for a work trip and had a conversation with the driver. It was just the two of us in the car. He’s a trained architect, a young, good-looking Spanish guy just driving part-time to save up and pursue his dreams. So he asked: “Have you always wanted to work in a pharmaceutical company?” I thought, 'Are you crazy? No one at 5 years old is going to draw or write 'I want to be a corporate slave'' right? (laughs) So I said: “Not really. I envision myself doing something more creative, something in the interior design space. But I never got around to doing anything about it.” His next question really pierced my heart. Bear in mind this is someone who’s six, seven years younger. He asked: “So what are you doing about it today?”
It was a guilty moment, like ‘oh shit, I’m not doing anything, and here I am talking about my aspirations like it’s going to happen.' But this was what changed my mindset. If I don’t start, nothing’s gonna change. It’s been a decade in this career. I mean, the job is treating me well. I’m enjoying the culture, the colleagues. But it’s not the same because this is not what I set out to do with my life.
That leads us nicely to the next question: What makes you happy? What gives you purpose?
That’s a big question. (laughs) I don’t have a fancy answer for that. But knowing that I make a difference to my loved ones, that’s what gives me purpose. Of course, if I can build a community along the way and inspire more people, that would be a bonus. If I have to choose the one thing that really makes me happy, it’s the people around me that are glad to have me in their lives.
Do you have plans to start your own interior design company?
That would be my goal by the time I hit 40. It sounds like a long runway, but I do have plans that are put on hold right now because of Covid. I had planned to take up a few courses when I was supposed to work in Japan. I’m giving myself a few more years to get more exposure before setting up my company.
Are you planning to do that with Kenny, or by yourself?
I hope to bring him along. He’s actually the PR person between the two of us. (laughs) He’s worked in retail operations since he graduated, so he’s a people person. I need him to oversee that part of the business because I’m not good at facing clients. But that’s good because I can identify my weaknesses, and he can actually compliment me.
That’s very important, to complement each other, especially in a business.
Yeah, and acknowledging what our strengths and weaknesses are, right? If not we’ll just end up fighting over a singular decision all the time.
Right. And because it’s husband and wife, you have complete trust.
Of course, that’s the long-term vision. What I’m starting to do on the side - as a service for friends and family - are interior consultations for a small room in their homes. That helps give me the experience I think I need. And I’m glad that there are people who trust me enough to ask me to do it for them.
But I also feel like - you have done up such an amazing house - you don’t need to go through so much training, you know?
Just do, is it?
Just do! There’s never a good time to start a business, right? If you have planned out financially that you can, it’s nice to take a leap and do it. Because sometimes chances and opportunities don’t wait for you. And I feel like you already have a warm circle of family and friends who trust you, and a good Instagram going. You can just start lor, please! (laughs)
(laughs) End up, I’m actually getting inspired by you. I know this is meant for you to ask me, but can I ask you a question?
You own a creative agency, and Evercasa is an interest that you started in the past year or so. You’re the same age as me and a mother of two. When did you know, this is what I want to do, and I’m going to do it?
Okay, a bit of context: I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. There was always a “go do it” attitude, they gave me wings. I never feared trying. I was trained in graphic design locally and met my husband in Holland, where I did product design.
Upon graduating, my aunt hired us to help with her bakery. During the 3 years, we did roadshows, their branding, packaging, everything. That was when I realised my creativity and strategies could change a business. After 3 years, we saved enough money for a house, and when we were unpacking, I saw the creative projects I did in Holland. I was like, ‘Oh wow, I need to get back to that.'
That very night, we decided to start our own studio. So in 2017, we started our studio, and then by September, I found out I was pregnant. Within 6 months, I knew, ‘OMG, it’s crazy la!’ It’s a huge roller coaster ride. There are highs and lows. It’s a very humbling experience.
That energy you have when you’re talking about your journey, I’m- hats off to you. I am always inspired to hear about young entrepreneurs carving a niche for themselves. I can’t imagine what you were going through back in 2017. You resolved to start the studio and then got pregnant; you must’ve thought, ‘What are the next few months going to be like?’
Yeah. I was actually incredibly happy during my first pregnancy. Though we said we would eat carrots if need be, there were never those moments. We were passionate about pursuing this dream that we are still pursuing. Deep down, we’re very happy to do what we love. I think that gives us energy.
Thanks for sharing. If anything, this is another cab driver moment. You brought me back to that memory. For me, I kept giving myself time. I’m probably in denial of my age; I keep thinking I have time.
But I don’t want you to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m behind.’ Why we started a business was because I thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’ So I think, if you really want to try, try. But if cannot, then come back to the regular lor. Like, it’s okay. At least I tried.
Thanks, I’ll remember this. I know this was my interview, but I ended up interviewing you instead and getting inspired by you. I mean, that’s what the theme of today is about, right? I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to talk to you otherwise. International Women’s Day is not just a day where we celebrate achievements, but we also celebrate incredible role models and be inspired, so thank you for inspiring me tonight.
Not at all. Okay, moving on to the home. What was the biggest difference between your first and second home?
I think the biggest difference is just not chasing trends. It might sound a bit ironic because most things in my house still look trendy, but we were cautious to introduce fixed elements that will stand the test of time. When we were doing our first home, we were in our mid-twenties. The joy of being first-time homeowners; we wanted it to be as stylish as possible. It had to be trendy, and we filled it with a lot of things that weren’t representative of us. We didn’t think through our lifestyle and whether it fits our needs. We just filled it with things people said were good.
For example, we had a glass study. It was all the rage, right? But it was completely useless.
I didn’t like working in that room because the lighting was harsh, and I didn’t get the privacy I wanted. The only other room I had back then was my master bedroom. I had a super large bedroom because I knocked down a wall and combined two rooms into one - that was the trendy thing to do. But I didn’t think through what I doing with the extra space. So, I just had this large bedroom and no other space to have quiet moments. That’s particularly difficult as I like to have my space when I’m having a bad day, but there was nowhere to go in the house where it’s truly mine.
So when we renovated this home, we made it very deliberate in terms of the space planning, the colours, and the decision to just retain rooms. We acknowledged that we need our own space, a private room to just focus, or to be by ourselves. This house has those elements built into it.
How is that working out for you guys? Do you find it nourishing in terms of your mental health or state of being?
Yeah, it does. It gives us space, away from each other. We are extra thankful for that now because both of us are working from home. If I see his face from the moment I wake up to the moment I close my eyes, I think one of us will kill the other la. (laughs)
Why do you love decorating your home so much?
I think it calms me. I like beautiful things, I like when things are aesthetic.
I think that’s me as well. I’m also a visual person, and good looking things are important.
Yeah. When I look at beautiful things around the house - because they are chosen for either how they look or what they signify - it just reminds me that I’m thankful that I can live this life. We slough so hard, and for what? It might be a superficial thing to say, but this is my living space. This is where I spend 60% to 70% of my waking hours. Of course, I want it to be an extension of myself.
Also, I like to shift things around. I like to think, ‘What’s next? What can I do to change things up?’ Other than the Instagram account, [decorating is] also a way to release my creative energy. And my husband lets me do what I want.
Do you think what you and Kenny have been building on @hellohomebodies has been an outlet for your creativity?
Yeah. It really started out as an outlet for me to channel my creative energy. I didn’t know where else to do it; I mean, I was manifesting a lot of it in my head, or in different parts of my home. But I wanted to share it with people, I wanted to create a community of people who can actually appreciate what I’m doing, and that’s how @hellohomebodies started.
Let’s talk about the IKEA bookshelf project.
It’s actually 3 IKEA Billy bookshelves. It started because the room is oddly-shaped and we didn’t know what to do with it. We knew we wanted this room to be a study, but we also envisioned it to become a baby room in the future. We didn’t want to spend too much money, but we still wanted to make sure it looked nice. So I just googled, and I realised I bookmarked a lot of IKEA hacks. But it’s one of those things you put off because it’s not something Singaporeans do. It baffles especially the elderly people, because why would you go through all the trouble to do this?
I floated the idea to my husband, and his first reaction was: “Aiyoh, don’t crazy la. You know how to use power drill meh?” I said: “I don’t. But I will learn la. You can learn anything from YouTube.” I sent him many videos and made a list of all the materials and where we could source it from. I went to a carpenter as well to ask for a quotation. It was expensive, and it was actually my pitch to my husband, like “Look, this is ⅕ the cost of getting a carpenter to do it. Are you in or not?” (laughs) So my resilience won him over. It became a little couple's project for the two of us over 3 months. We took our time with it. We bought the things and made baby step progressions.
I think, if you ask Kenny if he would do it again, he might say no. But if you ask me, I will 100% do it again. In fact, I’m thinking of where else I can do it. Like my mum’s house, my friend's house… (laughs)
That’s the thing I wanted to ask: are there other home improvement projects currently?
We have one more common bedroom that we never posted online before because it’s currently doubling up as a storage space, but that’s the next room to tackle. I’ve been drafting up plans. We might get up to that in the next couple of months.
Okay. So you started @hellohomebodies in 2018, and it got going in 2020. How has that journey on IG been? How does it feel to be able to use IG to discover new relationships with other home decor enthusiasts?
I must say it’s been nothing but positive so far. I was pleasantly surprised by the supportive comments we get, and people sending DMs to say that they appreciate what we’re doing. That was really what kept us going. Sometimes I feel like I’m putting something very obvious out there, but I realised what appears self-explanatory and natural to me was a tip that helped another homeowner.
How do you plan to continue using your online presence?
To be honest, I don’t have a clear vision. But, I definitely want to keep the community close. I want to build more friendships - this is one example of it. I just hope it continues to inspire and be a space to exchange tips with others. I realise it’s a trend that’s catching on, where people document their home reno journeys, and many people DM us to ask “Do you mind sharing where you bought this?” My response is always: “Yeah, just take it.” I’m just sharing my experience, and I’m glad they like what I’m putting out there. I hope to continue to do that, rather than having people think I’m going to mind it. It may not make the best business sense, but I think you need to first build a supportive community where people actually trust what you’re saying. I think the business comes later for me, at this stage.
That’s great! I think I’ve come away from this interview knowing that you are a super proactive person, and that’s amazing to learn. Whatever it is, you take charge of your actions, which I have a lot of respect for. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks for sharing your journey as well!
Learn more about and from Ruby @hellohomebodies.