Cover Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong

The founder of Collective architectural firm reveals the tough decisions that shaped her success

Like many Hong Kong schoolchildren, Betty Ng was encouraged to follow the beaten path when it came to choosing her future career. A strong science student, Ng thought she would become a doctor until a chance visit to a schoolmate who was studying architecture sparked a new passion. “My mother told me architecture school wouldn’t be easy but I replied that life isn’t going to be easy,” says Ng.

It was at Cornell University’s prestigious architecture school where Ng realised she needed to break the mould: “As a Hong Kong student I was always trained to find the right answer. But architecture is about formulating a process, and initially it was hard for me to digest that there is no right or wrong answer.” Breaking free of the binary thinking that hamstrung so many of her compatriots was critical to Ng’s development, as were the seemingly endless late nights in the studio where she relished the camaraderie born of teamwork.

After gaining her degree from Cornell and a masters from Harvard, Ng landed jobs with Herzog & de Meuron and OMA, two of the world’s most sought-after firms. But, with architecture being known as a traditional male-dominated industry, there were more barriers that Ng felt she needed to overcome: “Being Asian and female is a double obstacle and I had to break that stereotype of being a subdued woman from Asia.”

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As a design director, working closely with OMA’s legendary founder Rem Koolhaas, Ng was responsible for some of the world’s most notable architectural projects, including Beijing’s iconic CCTV Headquarters and the master plan of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District. But despite the accolades, Ng made a life-changing decision to step away from the safety of an established firm and go it alone. "I was like a rebellious daughter. I was well-nurtured and well-brought-up but, with all respect to OMA and Rem, I wanted to try it on my own. We only live once and I was in my mid-thirties. I felt that if I didn’t try I would have missed my chance forever.”

In addition to leading her own firm, Ng teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she taps into her life experience to offer advice to students, many of whom are female: “Be fearless. Society is always trying to tell you there’s a right and wrong answer. Find your own answer. Don’t take the expected path. If you are fearless, there’s always a doorway out, no matter which path you’re on.”

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