It was my first time meeting Sylvia, off the screen. Like many, I have known her as “Xiao Bitch” for the past few years, an online persona that embodied the spirit of my era. She doesn’t know it, but I have re-watched 17 Types of Ah Lian for over 10 times in the course of my life, simply for the fun of it.
The scenes, whilst overly dramatized, was the exact kind of comedy that spoke volumes about the Ah Lian scene in Singapore in the early 2010s. Her unabashed presentation of the character, along with the intended mispronunciation of Hermès (Hermes, as she had called it, instead of Er-Mez), made her relatable among the common man. Xiao Bitch was a character that existed at least in the minds of every female millennial, having gone through the phase of skirt-folding to taking selfies from the back camera of our phones. We all had a Xiao Bitch among us, or within us.
Meet Sylvia, the OG Xiao Bitch.
However, unlike Xiao Bitch, she is not in any way as unrefined and bimbotic as her on-screen persona. A jack of all trades, Sylvia is co-founder of Night Owl Cinematics (NOC), a digital content creator and friend-mager to her talents. Beyond these key roles, she delves into a series of marketing and PR-related issues for NOC, as well as acting and directing in a myriad of NOC videos. I know – this is all a mouthful to swallow, which then seriously begs the question: how?
Upon introduction, she handed one of the two Starbucks Green Tea Frappes that she had kindly bought to me. We had agreed to meet during her pedicure session, which I thought was ingenious; clearly, Sylvia was a pro at multi-tasking and time-management, given her schedule, and I took a mental note to learn from such practices.
She settled down on the massage chair, ready for the hour-long Q&A session that I had initiated two weeks ago. Whilst lethargic-looking, she sounded vibrant, though this is probably the nth time she has had someone ask the same few questions over again. I proceeded gently with the questions, and by the end of the interview, I can safely say that she is exactly how I thought she would be – authentic, brazen and uninhibited. I compiled the essence of our chat into a few key lessons, which I thought was in line with Sylvia's ethics - to inspire.
Lesson 1: Do things that spark joy.
Content creation, which Sylvia identified as the core of what she and NOC does, is something that she consistently spoke of with passion throughout the interview.
Unlike many of our local entrepreneurs, Sylvia doesn’t prioritize wealth-creation as much as she values her happiness. She is willing to spend time, energy and money on the content that she is interested in producing – even if it might not be lucrative to do so – simply because she enjoys the process of making them.
Along with her team and husband, they seek to produce and create whatever that makes them happy.
This includes the weekly Out Of The Box (OOTB) series conducted by Ryan and Dee Kosh. Though the series fails to “earn her any money”, she continues to film the series because she saw how delighted the duo was to share their buys online.
I also had the privilege of being led into a secret: together with Ryan, they had forsaken the networking opportunities presented for being nominated in 2016’s Forbes 30 under 30 in Asia, to continue shooting for a video. She protested against the need for such business-centric norms, and expressed heartily that she would not be able to make the cut for any entrepreneurial events because she was told that she “didn’t know how to run a business”.
“It’s so annoying, people tell you to conform… that as a good business person, you must go and network… But we don’t want! We just want to make our stupid videos.”
At 31, beyond video production, Sylvia continues to partake in a series of projects that benefits the community. She talked with great zest about the projects she had on hand, which ranges from a series of self-initiated talks in schools to the year-old NOC Charity Club (she plans to call this community club hereafter).
As Uncle Ben from Spiderman would have called it, “with great power comes great responsibilities”. In this vein, Sylvia finds her online influence significant in assisting the society, wherever she is able to contribute. According to her, these ideas can be very spontaneous, and can sometimes stem from something as random as their exasperation towards “entitled, lazy and privileged kids”.
In overcoming such feelings within herself and her team, Sylvia firsts acknowledge that like most adults, she feels that the younger generation can be too pampered and indifferent towards their privileges.
However, unlike many adults who will simply “complain and don’t do much” to change the situation, Sylvia and her team made it a point to reach out to several schools to hold talks and workshops. Along with both Ryan and Aiken, they go with the intent to inspire, even if they succeed in inspiring only one student among the entire cohort.
With such goals, their audience hence varies from primary school children to university students, who at different junctures may encounter diverse troubles and concerns.
Through sharing sessions and workshops aimed at teaching skills (videography, editing etc.), Sylvia finds herself akin to a motivational speaker, whose personal experiences can help empower the youths to take ownership of their lives.
While some speakers have the tendency to present themselves as “well-respected” seniors to look up to, Sylvia does not attempt to embellish her journey, and instead displays herself as an individual who has repeatedly failed and recovered. In portraying herself as a fellow counterpart, she has allowed many students to confront the truth of being human – that being human means being fallible.
Amidst the carefully curated life-stories of many, as displayed through social media, Sylvia and her team is easily seen as the Robin Hood of the local Internet sphere, especially with their commitment to do more workshops as they expand in size.
Lesson 2: Find what makes you happy, and make a job out of it.
“Work-life balance is a fallacy; I don’t have it, but I’m happier than ever.”
Says the YouTuber. As a reader, you’re probably ingrained with the perception that being a YouTuber is all fun and mostly undemanding – no supervisors to boss you around, no need for office politics, and most importantly, you get to plan your work and sleeping schedule however you want it. Truthfully, it sounds amazing in theory.
However, that is not the be-all-and-end-all. In engaging the role as a digital content creator and boss of her production company, Sylvia is also a “friend-mager” – a talent manager for her colleagues turned friends.
“I don’t see my talents as just talents – we hang out outside working hours, and we are real-life friends who understand each other because we are on the same boat.”
Sylvia makes it a point to recruit individuals whose outlook on life is similar to hers or NOC’s. From our conversation, I inferred from her two core values that she places strong emphasis on – namely kindness and sincerity. When chatting about what she values most in her team, she talks eagerly and positively about her members and their characteristics.
To bring up one of the many praises she has for her team, she told me about Aiken, whose comical on-screen personality completely overshadows his compassion for the community, as he volunteers in his church twice a week out of goodwill. To her, such authenticity matters more so than anything.
In working as a ‘friend-mager’, she makes it her priority to ensure job opportunities are allocated according to the interests and strengths of her friends. For instance, STYLED, a new series up on TEAM NOC, was originally initiated by Grace due to her passion for fashion and beauty. As the brainchild of the young NOC girl, Grace is given free rein to plan and host the show, revealing the confidence Sylvia has for her team.
This is also paralleled for the OOTB series, where videos are generated on the basis of Ryan’s and Dee Kosh’s individual interests in figurines, tech products and so forth.
When assigning jobs, she is attentive to the strengths of her talents, as she pushes these individuals to opportunities that will further their growth. Through and through, Sylvia’s intentions are well-founded.
Nonetheless, there exists challenges and “office politics” despite working together with friends. While it is true that you’re never not hanging out with your peers by working together, there have been cases where ambitions of individuals have deterred the cohesion of the company.
In cases as such, Sylvia tells us that she is unafraid to “weed them out quickly”, though it may be bad for the interests of her company. To her, the camaraderie of her team outweighs monetary concerns. Besides that, she comments that such toxicity can affect the morale of the remaining members, which is definitely a no-go when it comes to the likes of Sylvia.
An exhausting job in nature, Sylvia has also had days where she goes on little to no sleep. In fact, such occurrences are rather commonplace given the job requirements. Irregular sleeping schedules, long hours of editing and attending to impromptu events have become a norm for her. This mentality is encapsulated in Sylvia’s work motto – “As long as you don’t die.”
Work-life balance is hence a fallacy for this strong-minded individual, as she balances all her friendships and work-ties carefully, without compromising the happiness of herself and her team.
Lesson 3: Confront your fears, and do something about it.
“Find out what tears you down.”
And draw a mind-map about it. Yes, these are the exact words quoted from our favourite on-screen Ah Lian.
For Sylvia, it is important for her to confront her fears in a steadfast and rational manner, which is through the legendary “draw a mind-map” method. Having suffered from depression due to overwhelming academic stress in her JC years, Sylvia made the sensible decision to drop out of school, though it was probably the last resort for any 18-year-old Singaporean kid.
This decision, however, did not come by easy. Prior to that resolution, she listed out a series of words that in layman terms, scared the sh*t out of her. The most prominent term on that list was easily “school”. She associated fear, anxiety and stress with the word ‘school’, and she realized that attending school gave her all these emotions. That was when she decided to drop out of school, because it had become mentally unhealthy to stay on.
“I am happy to have depression – it gave me a legitimate excuse to confront who I was and what I wanted to do.”
Following a year-long break to nurse herself back to health, Sylvia decided to take on an Economics degree in a private university, though she claimed she “sucked at math”.
She posited, that though she was conscious of her poor mathematics skill, a key component of studying economics, she was happy doing the course because for the first time in her life, she felt true excitement in attending classes. She told us that she would wake up early, thrilled for her 11 am lecture in school though it meant long travels and doing average in exams.
Having experienced that, Sylvia began to realize that she was not afraid of school; she was simply afraid of doing things that didn’t bring her joy and was still forced to excel in them.
Realizing that then gave her confidence to pursue whatever she loved though she was not a pro at it. She registered that she could feel happy in doing the things she used to fear – simply because she confronted and interrogated her fears.
That in itself was a ‘win’ for Sylvia, though it meant lagging behind her peers of the same age group.
In dealing with mental health issues, Sylvia tells us that “it’s like having a fever” – where no one should be blamed for falling sick or for suffering from depression. She is against the stigmatization of illnesses pertaining to mental health, and demands for equal respect for all kinds of infirmity.
On another hand, she also took note of all the things that made her happy, or in the famous words of Marie Kondo – “Does this spark joy?”. Sylvia was consistent in scrawling down all the good things in life that made her happy, to essentially remind herself that life is not entirely terrible all the time.
“The older generation might say we don’t have the mental will… but don’t compare the past and the present. That was your way of life, not mine.”
At the end of the day, I asked Sylvia how she felt about being labelled as an influencer, especially one that didn’t fit the ‘pretty girl’ stereotype. With her exaggerated accents (from Malaysian to Mainland Chinese) and uncoordinated Instagram feed, she was different from the other local influencers.
Sylvia calmly replied that unlike many Instagram influencers, she has multiple platforms to showcase her personality and skills, and Instagram was definitely not her main domain of interest.
The brazen and unadulterated personality is hence a corollary of knowing that she will, in many ways, be accepted and loved by her followers because of her talents in other areas.
Myself included, her no-filter character and idiosyncrasies are what the audience love most about our next door Xiao Bitch. The days where Meitu Xiuxiu was not possible, and where there exists pride in being a bona fide Singaporean.
From Sylvia, I learnt that authenticity in this day and age is still possible, and that there is no shame in doing so, even if you represent the less sophisticated demographic. You do not have to adhere to social norms – for they are practices created to perpetuate the interests of some.
You do you, essentially.
All photos courtesy of Sylvia's instagram.