Woman On Fire: Amanda Wan

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Amanda Wan shattered gender stereotypes when she became the first female bartender to represent Malaysia at the Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year Global Finals in 2010.
Rosie On Fire chatted with her about how being a Starbucks Barista led to her becoming a leading female figure in the cocktail industry. Today, Amanda is part of the prestigious Tastings Group Limited as the Beverage Development Manager.

 


How did it all start?

At the art college, I wanted to pursue Illustrations, but it was a tough market as you had to be exceptionally good. I chose Graphic Design instead, but I wasn’t good with computers. I decided to take a break and do something else; I saw that Starbucks was hiring. I eventually became the store coffee specialist where I prepared different batches of coffee and planned on food pairings. After that, I went into wine retail. A friend asked me if I would be a bartender at a venue he was consulting for.

I walked into the bar and got hired.

I always drew this parallel between my art background with what I saw when I went behind the bar. You literally have every colour in the universe; it was like a whole new world for me.

I always drew this parallel between my art background with what I saw when I went behind the bar. You literally have every colour in the universe; it was like a whole new world for me.

I felt like I found a medium that I could use to express myself.

I met my late mentor, Frankie Anthony, who took me under his wing and taught me everything. At that time in 2006, bartending books were quite rare, especially in a professional context. I completed my degree in hotel management and graduated as a Class Valedictorian with First Class Honours. People who I grew up with never would have thought I was capable of that. After I graduated, I started working at Hilton Kuala Lumpur in the bar.

 

What’s a typical day for you?

I go to the office and look through emails, drinks publications and magazines for the latest news and events in the drink business. I’ll check in with all the bar managers and bartenders.  If we’re short on staff anywhere, I’d help out and bartend there. It keeps me in touch with the operations, so I understand what the bartenders are going through, what they want and what they need. I also prepare weekly training programs for them. It’s a very all-encompassing and fluid role.
 

What’s your biggest success?

I felt successful when I was able to provide for my family because a lot of people assume that bartending is just a part-time job. I would hear things like, “It doesn’t lead you anywhere” or “How many late nights can you do?” However, bartending doesn’t just end there. There are so many facets to the industry.

I was also the first female bartender to represent Malaysia in a global bartending competition. It was a high point in my life but also a very low point.  As a young woman, you are expected to fit into that ‘cutesy’ mould and always be smiling, happy and warm.

I was also the first female bartender to represent Malaysia in a global bartending competition. It was a high point in my life but also a very low point.  As a young woman, you are expected to fit into that ‘cutesy’ mould and always be smiling, happy and warm.

 

How did you overcome your challenges?

My struggle was that I didn’t know how to say no. I wasn’t paid for many events because people would tell me, “Oh, this will put your name out there. Exposure is great!” I was just doing everything and that messed up my personal life because I was trying to please everyone. It was a point where my career was taking off, but I was sacrificing time with family and personal relationships at that time; it became an unhealthy obsession. 

This took me on a very long journey. You first need to know yourself, the things you like and don’t like, and make decisions for yourself rather than letting others decide for you. Many young female bartenders don’t know that they have choices. They don’t need to enter every competition, work for every event or say yes to every high-level management person. This can be from things as professional as being job-related, to something very unprofessional, such as, “Do you want to visit my room?”

You have to be very cautious because the lines are all very grey and blurred. You need to be sober and focussed to distinguish the good and bad, and right and wrong.
 

Any advice for handling disrespectful men?

As long as you stand your ground and you’re firm, most of the time they will just back off. If they don’t, this is where you need a strong team around you who you can trust. If you’re in a sticky situation, sometimes you have to get your male colleagues to step in. We have had situations involving really well-known individuals, insisting that I drink with them and then things escalated to them yelling at me. If they still show disrespect, then the venue has the right to refuse their patronage.

You have to be very cautious because the lines are all very grey and blurred. You need to be sober and focussed to distinguish the good and bad, and right and wrong.

What’s amazing now is being able to work for bosses who do not believe in social drinking. One of our bosses doesn’t drink because he’s allergic to alcohol, but he’s one of the most acclaimed bartenders in Hong Kong.

 

How did you end up in Hong Kong?

I first met my boss Antonio at the London Cocktail Week in 2010, after I won my competition. When I walked into the exhibition hall, I saw him and another friend, and we were like the three musketeers, running around all week going to Master Classes, visiting bars, sitting in seminars and eating sandwiches in the park. We couldn’t afford to eat in restaurants because everything else was so expensive.

For years, Antonio and I would always bump into each other at other international events. At one time, I was working in Genting Highlands, Malaysia when he came to do a Master Class. He saw my training programs for the bartenders and he liked my ideas. He asked if I would be interested in relocating.

 

Any advice for aspiring professional bartenders?

First and foremost, try it out and see if it’s for you – even if it’s just a week behind a bar. Often, people think it’s a fun and creative job that helps you travel and gets you into magazines and newspapers. But you don’t see the other side, where you need to handle difficult customers. Plus, there’s a lot of cleaning and scrubbing the kitchen and toilet. So be prepared.

Be very grounded in who you are as a person. If this job is not for you, it’s not for you. I believe there are people who are born for hospitality. You also need to love people. If you don’t like people at all, please don’t be in this industry. It’s very difficult to speak to a grumpy bartender.

Be very grounded in who you are as a person. If this job is not for you, it’s not for you. I believe there are people who are born for hospitality. You also need to love people. If you don’t like people at all, please don’t be in this industry. It’s very difficult to speak to a grumpy bartender.

Finally, it ties back to knowing who you are. Knowing who you also means that you are disciplined and you know your worth; you can respect yourself and behave in a respectable manner in front of other people. It’s not a competition. Don’t compromise your standards and values.

It is a very long marathon, so you’ve got to be able to stand your ground and tell people you are in this for the long run.

You have to be here for larger reasons other than just fun and games, laughter and cheer. You really have to believe that this industry can change lives and it could change yours – just like how it changed mine.

Tell us about your kimonos!

There are two aspects of me; there’s the very headstrong side of me that people see at work and also a soft, romantic side. I chose Green Dolla Bills as it’s a nice contrast to a lot of the black I wear. The green is sharp enough, but not too bright to prevent me from wearing it regularly. Also, my fiance used to be the global brand ambassador for Tanqueray Gin, and they are very famous for their beautiful emerald green bottles, so that colour caught my eye.

Ophelia is very soft, romantic and fluffy, and that’s just who I am on the other side. You can’t judge a book by its cover. People are always a little surprised that I am a Sunday school teacher. They would ask, “How can you be a bartender and a Sunday school teacher?” Everyone has so many different nuances to who they truly are. That’s why it’s so great to meet so many different people in the industry; you just have to sit down and get to know them one by one. Stereotypes don’t apply anymore.

 

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