Contrary to popular belief, bartending is not just about mixing drinks and having fun – there’s a lot of hard work involved, and the job can be especially challenging for women. Like any other career, there are obstacles that female bartenders have to get past on the job, including sexual harassment and negative stereotypes about bartenders.
All the same, women are shaking and stirring up the bartending industry worldwide, and in Malaysia as well. While the local bartending scene is still relatively male-dominated, there are several prominent female bartenders who have been making a name for themselves within the scene.
Among them is Angel Ng, co-founder of MY Bartender’s Handshake, a Malaysian bartenders’ community; Shirmy Chan, bar manager at Petaling Jaya bar 61 Monarchy; Praveena Ranjindran of HAUS Consultancy and Apparel; and Caden Chua, bartender at Coley Cocktail Bar.
Ng first got into the drinks business in 2002 when she worked as a service staff at a wine bar in Singapore. At the time, she didn’t really think of it as a potential career but just a part-time job where she could have a bit of fun.
“I came back to Malaysia in 2012 and joined a bar called Circus. I still wasn’t looking to become a bartender, I just thought it would be fun. But I never expected to be actually good at it!”
After Circus, she took a few other jobs before co-founding PS150 in 2016. She left the bar earlier this year, and is now working freelance consulting for events.
Chan’s first foray into bartending was in 2010 when she met award-winning Malaysian bartender Amanda Wan (who is based overseas now) while at Shangri-La Hotel’s Arthur’s Bar And Grill. “She needed another person behind the bar, so she taught me bartending, which got me interested in the industry. But I didn’t consider myself a real bartender until I joined (cocktail bar) Omakase + Appreciate in 2013,” says the 31-year-old.
Chua’s journey began with coffee – she was a part-time barista at a Bangsar cafe called Dr.Inc when prominent bartender CK Kho opened a pop-up bar called 44 Bar inside the cafe. “I was actually not that interested in coffee, so I decided to try out bartending instead. I approached CK, and he introduced me to bartending,” says the 26-year-old, who later joined Coley Cocktail Bar in 2015.
Praveena, who is the assistant head consultant at HAUS, first got into the industry as a service stuff at a club in Penang. “Even when I moved to KL in 2015, I never thought of becoming a bartender. Then a bar called Virgin and Throne opened in TTDI, but since they didn’t need anyone in the kitchen, I took a job as a bar back instead. That’s where I got interested,” says the former culinary student.
Obstacles and challenges
During an interview conducted at Bangsar bar Three X Co, the four bartenders highlighted a number of challenges that women faced when embarking on a career in bartending.
“Physical strength and stamina was a big challenge for me at first,” admits Chua. “When I started out at Coley it was just me and one other bartender, so I had to force myself to keep up with him.”
Ng recalls having to carry kegs of beer to the bar every day at one of her jobs. “I remember not being able to carry them at first, and someone said, ‘If she wants to be a bartender, she has to carry it herself’. That sparked something in me and I kept going and it took me two months to eventually do it,” she says.
However, Ng reckons that the biggest challenges most female bartenders face are not physical, but psychological – especially being judged by society and family members for a non-traditional career choice. “Society in general does not consider bartending a job for women. Sometimes, it does affect you mentally, as you keep questioning yourself all the time. And, it’s hard. It’s never about what you can do, but what others think of you. You need to have a lot of confidence to keep going,” says Ng.
For Chan, parental pressure was also one of the biggest issues she had to face when she started her career. “My parents didn’t expect their daughter to end up working in a ‘nightclub’, as they perceived bars to be,” she says. “Now they are more accepting, but they still try to convince me to try other jobs every now and then!”
Praveena thinks that it also comes down to a lack of understanding of how the bar industry works. “Some of them don’t understand that the bar industry has changed a lot in the last decade. It’s a whole different thing now,” she says.
Thanks to a global rise in cocktail culture, which has seen more and more sophisticated cocktail bars opening not just in Malaysia, but worldwide as well, bartending is being seen more and more as a viable career path.
Dealing with harassment
Another problem female bartenders have to contend with is harassment from customers. Men trying to put their hands around their shoulder or waist, unwanted touches, smacks on the bottom … inappropriate behaviour from male customers is something the four women have had to endure.
“Back when I was working a club, I was sexually harassed. A guy just ran past me and tapped me on the chest and ran away. I was so traumatised after that,” Praveena recalls.
“Learning how to handle drunk male customers is one skill that took me years to master. At the start of my career, I did not know how to handle the harassment and would just smile and walk away,” says Ng.
“Now, I put my foot down and tell the men that their behaviour is inappropriate. He may be buying the drinks, but if he says talks or bhaves inappropriately, to me or my staff, I’d ask him to leave. But it took years for me to get to this point.”
Adds Chua: “Many times, you’re just trying to be friendly, but people just take it wrongly. Sometimes I need colleagues to step in to stop a ‘situation’.”
Chan said that having the support of colleagues is important in such situations as everyone needs to know what their female colleagues go through. “You have to let your colleagues, especially the male ones, know what you go through so they can be more aware of what to look out for,” she says.
The quartet are not the only female bartenders in the local scene, of course. There are also others like Janice Lau of The Pawn Room, Lolita Goh of JungleBird, and many others who are proof that bartending can be a viable career option for women as well.
Despite the challenges they face, Ng, Chan, Chua and Praveena agree that there are more positives to being a bartender than negatives. They would love to see more women joining the industry.
“It would be good if colleges that run hospitality courses, could expose students to what it is like to work at a bar, rather than brushing it off as ‘just a part time job’. People should know that this can be a good career as well,” said Praveena.
“Every job has its pros and cons. No job is perfect. Unfortunately, for bartending, people tend to focus too much on the negatives,” said Ng. “But for me, bartending has more perks than cons. It’s a job that involves food science, anthropology, history, psychology, travelling… it’s an exciting job where you will never stop learning.”