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Kan Huang
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in July 2023

Kan is a proud Chinese Australian, with his parents hailing from Fujian. He grew up in Villawood, in South West Sydney, and has over a decade of experience working in the hotel industry prior to establishing Social Wave in 2019, a content marketing agency based in Sydney.

As a part of Social Wave, Kan has also founded the Level: Asian podcast in April 2022. Level: Asian is a podcast that shares unique and unconventional success stories of Asian Australians. Within a little more than a year as of July 2023, the podcast has a dedicated following with around 60K followers on Instagram.

Besides his love for food, travel and design, he's passionate about helping the next generation of Asian Australians carve their own pathways no matter what they love doing.
You worked in the hotel industry for more than 10 years before starting your content marketing agency Social Wave in 2019, which are seemingly unrelated on paper. Could you tell us more about your founding journey?
So I actually fell into the hotel industry right after finishing high school. At university I studied a Bachelor of Business with a major in events management. During uni, I did shift work in hotels which involved either a morning, afternoon or overnight shift. I essentially picked up every casual shift I could do around my uni schedule to fund my travels, which I had an obsession for especially in my 20s.

I had this kind of lifestyle up until I was 29. When I quit my hotel career, I had basically done everything under the sun from food and beverage, to front desk, to operations to the point where I moved up into executive management. I quit at 29 because I was quite tired of the corporate bureaucracy, then took a one year gap year travelling the world. I was able to get 12 months of travel in, right before COVID-19 hit. Then, I found myself with my then-girlfriend, now-wife in our Airbnb in Bangkok, deciding if we were going to continue our travels to Norway and potentially get stuck there, or come back home. We decided to come back home, which is where I found myself in self-imposed quarantine in April 2020. I sat there in quarantine, thinking that I had two choices - to either go back to the hotel industry that was completely falling apart, or pivot into something else that could possibly work.

It sounds like a structured way of thinking about it, but honestly at the time I just needed to make an income immediately to support myself again. So, I went down the second path and started out pitching for clients. It started out on Upwork (freelancing platform) where I would pitch hundreds of different jobs, from which I was fortunate enough to pick up a couple of clients. At that time in 2020, every business suddenly realised that they had to go digital because of lockdowns.

One of my clients was Davie Mach, my good friend from high school, and his accounting firm, Box Advisory Services. I was doing his marketing and that involved SEO, branding, positioning and copywriting. I met Noel Myaing, my now-business partner through Davie, who was doing all of Davie’s filming for his videos. We ended up getting a huge amount of success with Davie’s marketing. People started inquiring with Davie about who did his marketing for him. And through that, I ended up deciding to create the marketing agency with Noel. That was 4 years ago now, and in that time frame we've gone from 2 co-founders to 10 staff in Australia and 25 in the Philippines, and we work with about 60 to 70 clients. We work from anyone as large as Coca Cola and Mercer Super down to your local tradie in terms of marketing. We grow iteratively, so we change our marketing strategy based on changes in the marketing landscape, which is very fluid.

So I don't come from a marketing background, but fundamentally marketing revolves around human behaviour. There’s an anthropology aspect to marketing where you've got to understand how humans actually interact with each other. The thing is, human behaviour has always been the same, it’s just that the platforms we use change. Before it was MySpace, then Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Tiktok… who knows what the next thing is, right? The fundamental way that humans behave, interact and make buying decisions, doesn't change. The trick is understanding how people use certain platforms. Personally, I've always been someone who just watches how people behave. I don't know if it's nature versus nurture, but in the hotel industry, I did the reps everyday when interacting with people, and have this very clear understanding about how people actually behave on a mass level.

When I moved into marketing, I found it very intuitive because I actually fundamentally understood how I behaved as a consumer. When I became a prosumer (someone who consumes and produces), I would reverse engineer how things worked, and apply it in a marketing context. You can only do that through doing - you have to market yourself, be in the trenches, create content, see how people respond, understand what works, and what doesn't work. The great thing about marketing is, the more marketing you do, the better you get - which is great when you’re setting up and running an agency.
As a part of Level: Asian, you’ve not only interviewed many incredible Asian Australian guests for the podcast but have organised large scale events for the Asian Australian community and fostered a strong network. What have been some of your favourite memories associated with Level: Asian so far?
I discussed this in Episode 48 where we reflected on one year of Level: Asian - one of my favourite moments was the first event we ran at the Carter. That was a very surreal moment for me. When you create content, you can tell that you’re building a community through followers and DMs etc, but having 350 people packed in an event space, crystallised the reality of the community, and how we were all there to celebrate the Asian Australian community.

But fundamentally, what I enjoy most out of Level: Asian is the connections that I get to build - from your Vinh Giangs, to Matt Purcell, to Dai Le and Sally Sitou for example who all have very limited time. So I feel very blessed and privileged that they're willing to not only give time for the podcast, but stay and help, build a connection and ask how else they can help. It’s important to build these relationships because you don't know where they’ll lead to. And ultimately, my goal is to be able to use those connections, to then help others as well.
What do you believe has led to the Level: Asian podcast’s high growth?
I think it’s that no one is doing it to the scale and the production quality that we are, which immediately sticks out and gets noticed. Secondly, creating content and marketing it out is essentially what we do with Social Wave. This is our bread and butter that we do for a living and for our clients. We know what works and doesn't. We know how to amplify the content on social media and reach new people.The third factor would be the quality of the guests we've brought on the podcast - we bring on an assembly of the best of the best Asian Australians. I think the fourth factor would be the quality of the conversations we have. From the chemistry on camera, to the way we manage the discussion with podcast guests as well, and being able to unearth the best of the best conversation from people.
What have you learnt about the Asian Australian community or experience since starting Level: Asian?
The first thing that comes to my mind is how we'd like to think that everyone is keen on being a part of this community we’re building. But the truth is, not everyone is, even if they’re Asian. In fact most people don’t care. A lot of people are just struggling in their own lives, and couldn’t care less about being part of a broader community because they’re just trying to keep a roof over their head and food on their table. And because of this, we’re very aware of the fact that we're here to serve and give back to the community that genuinely benefits them.

Another thing would be that our hypothesis of what people would be most interested in, when it comes to the podcast, was wrong. We thought that people would be most interested in the guests. As it turns out, listeners are also very keen to learn more about us, the hosts. I wasn’t expecting to put forward a personal brand and it’s a little uncomfortable because I'm quite a private person. But I realised over time that telling my own story, the things that I do and my perspectives actually does benefit people.
What is your overall goal for Level: Asian and what plans do you have for it in the future?
We’re pulling back from the podcast, from weekly to fortnightly releases. This is based on a capacity standpoint. My marketing agency Social Wave essentially funds Level: Asian, but we’ve got finite resources. Our focus right now is on monetisation -  we need funding and support to build an exclusive team for Level: Asian. This can either be through brand deals, sponsorships such as partnering up with other Asian Australians or businesses in creating things that result in revenue. I’m focussed on this issue right now because I've seen too many podcasts and initiatives like this fall off after two years.

In terms of actual projects that we’re doing, one of the major projects that we're looking into is moving into YouTube. We really believe that YouTube, besides podcasts, is the next best way to build a community. Even though Instagram and Tiktok are fantastic platforms, they don’t come close in forming deep parasocial relationships in the way that YouTube allows. We’re leaning into our strengths. We create long form content for our clients and are going to do the same for ourselves. Food content is a big one. That's the current area of focus because it's such an accessible form of content for people to consume. We’re also moving our tagline away from ‘unconventional Asian Australian stories’ to something more creator based e.g. showcasing cool stuff that Asians do. We’re moving away from that corporate flavour and more towards a community, which is what we’ve always wanted to do. This means that we're not pigeoned to a podcast format, or a certain type of style.

We’re also thinking about creating merch, which is such an easy way to represent the community. And if I put one more future plan, it’s that we're going to continue to do more events. There's something about events that galvanises a community. Again, we’re limited by the resources that we have to be able to do this, but we want to hold two or three events a year.
on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved especially after founding the Level: Asian podcast?
I’ve heard a lot of Asian Australians say that growing up, they were ashamed of being Asian or had a hard time feeling like they belonged as an Asian Australian. I personally didn't really experience that. Growing up in Villawood, in the South West, I was surrounded by every ethnicity you can think of. Diversity was very normalised where I grew up, and it helped that my parents were very proud to be Chinese. They instilled in me a lot of heritage and cultural values that I still maintain today. Things like respecting your seniors, and even small things like waiting for the oldest person to start eating at the dinner table before you start. My mum would always remind me to not forget where I came from, or my family roots, and to be proud as not just an Australian but as Chinese too.

I remember watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and feeling so acutely proud of being Chinese. It was one of the best opening ceremonies ever. The level of pride I had, was to a level that I had never experienced before.

And in high school, I attended Sefton High School where 90% of the grade was Asian. Again, I was in the majority. I never felt any issues around being Asian until when I went to university, where I attended the Kuring-gai UTS campus in the North Shore where it was 90% white. I couldn't connect with the community. I just didn’t understand their interest in certain topics, but I didn’t take it to heart, or relate it to me personally as an Asian Australian. I brushed it off more as a result of differences in culture.

In terms of how my relationship with my Asian Australian identity has grown since starting Level: Asian, it’s only galvanised it and my own pride in being Asian Australian. My entire life, I’ve known that Asian Australians are forging our own path and it's been brilliant showcasing that through Level: Asian. I do want to note that even though Asian Australians are doing amazing things, it shouldn't come at the expense of other groups. The world is big enough for all of us.  I think a problem that I see right now, is how there's an “us versus them” mentality happening, which you see with First Nations, white people and people of different backgrounds.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
A huge memory is when I went solo travelling for the first time to Shanghai. I’m not Shanghainese myself, my family is from Fujian and as a child I would regularly fly back to China with my parents. Landing in Shanghai, speaking the language, having terms of endearment with strangers who I would call aunties and uncles simply from our cultural norms and dialogue cemented how much I felt like I was at home and with my people. It felt so safe, being with people who had the same habits and cultural values as I did. That entire trip in itself was quite vivid and significant for me, and reinforced how proud I was to be Chinese. China is still my favourite country to go back to, especially from seeing the immense amount of progress that happens year by year.
What is your favourite food from your culture?
Okay I’m going to bundle it all into Chinese cuisine, rather than just by province. I think my death row meal would be salt and pepper pork ribs. This is because in Australia, Cantonese restaurants were the mainstay of Chinese restaurants, so I grew up eating this as a kid every time I went out for food with my parents. It's a very nostalgic dish.
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
Vinh Giang without a doubt. I followed Vinh before he had a massive following, around 4-5 years ago, because of the aura and confidence he had as a communicator. I followed him for years and met him in person for the first time at a workshop he held in Adelaide. One thing that stuck out to me was how generous he was in giving his time. From that, I developed a very strong respect for him. He conducted himself so well as a professional - as a performer and as a creator - but also as a person. For example, at the workshop, he actually personally wanted to say goodbye to every single person who came, and stayed until the very end, which is how I got to connect with Vinh and how he came to learn about Level: Asian.

Over the past 12 months of getting to know Vinh on a personal level, he’s turned out to be even more generous than I could imagine. He flew from Adelaide to Sydney for our first event at the Carter, and didn't charge us a cent. And at the Carter, all the attendees wanted to meet him after he finished his performance. There was about 3 to 4 hours left in the event. I remember about an hour in, I asked him if he needed a break, and told him that I didn’t want him to feel like it was an obligation. And he told me that he didn’t need a break, and that when he decides to give, he gives generously. So for the next 3 to 4 hours, he stayed out there and met everyone in line waiting to meet him. He gave everyone his time and heart, which is just so rare. For a guy who has as little time as he does, he was willing to do that.

I’ve also never shared this before but when my son was born, he sent me 20 different onesies for my son. He specifically sent me onesies that didn’t have buttons, but zippers because he knew from personal experience how horrible it was to be half asleep and to button up a screaming baby as you change their nappy. He’s just so thoughtful with everything that he does. He’s truly amazing, and has so much respect from me.